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Wider war could kill new Afghan government

By Peter Dale Scott Pacific News Service
Monday January 14, 2002

United Nations and American diplomacy have scored a major success by persuading the major Afghan factions to accept a provisional coalition central government, and by inducing neighboring states to accept it. But these initial achievements may soon be lost if there is not a swift and energetic initiative to give the new central government substance. A test will be whether the United States gives priority to the need to coordinate an aid program for the restoration of Afghanistan, or continues to search for a wider war. 

There are already signs that the new Afghan coalition will fall apart if left to itself. The worst sign came on Dec. 30, when Ismail Khan, the regional warlord of Herat in Northwestern Afghanistan, said that no international troops would be allowed into his territory. This followed quibbles in Kabul over how many British soldiers could be stationed there, and whether Northern Alliance troops would withdraw from Kabul as provided for by the U.N.-brokered agreement. 

And there are symptoms indicating that the foreign states around Afghanistan – all of which have legitimate stakes in that country’s future – have not yet ironed out their own differences as successfully as the Afghan tribal factions did at Bonn. 

Ismail Khan has for 20 years ignored Kabul and ruled Herat as an autonomous region, being backed in this by neighboring Iran. The Northern Alliance army of General Muhammad Fahim occupied Kabul in defiance of President Bush’s orders not to do so; this was clearly done with the backing of Russia, which immediately sent planes with supplies and humanitarian workers in support. China in response has expressed its support for Pakistan, which has made efforts to ensure that members of the Pashtun tribal group are not ignored in the new coalition, clearly dominated for now by the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance. 

The new coalition government is clearly more balanced and better established than the ill-fated Interim Government of February 1989, set up in Pakistan as the Soviet armies withdrew. The council of that coalition – created by Pakistani and Saudi intelligence – was composed almost entirely of pro-Pakistan Pashtuns and excluded the Shia Moslem parties altogether. The coalition lasted less than a year, and lapsed into internecine warfare. 

The fatal weakness of peacemaking in that period, in the eyes of many experts, was the failure to achieve a framework of multinational cooperation, to shut down aid to competing factions and create an international aid program for reconstruction. Observers have called for a similar international effort today, estimating that it will cost billions. 

The problem in 1989 was compounded by factionalism in Washington. It was divided then, as now, between those who favored diplomacy and a “political” approach, and those who pressed for a military victory. As the shrewd observer Ahmed Rashid wrote at the time in the London Independent, “The U.S. administration is deeply divided, with the CIA and right-wing congressmen still insisting on a military victory for the guerrillas.” The American scholar Barnett Rubin, also blaming the operations wing of the CIA, wrote that, “In practice, U.S. maintenance of the arms pipeline continued to strengthen the Afghan groups that U.S. policy allegedly had abandoned.” Soon after, the United States went on to fight the Gulf War, and Afghanistan in the end was forgotten. 

There are more grounds for hope today than in 1989. Above all the success of the anti-Taliban military campaign was due in large part to much better international collaboration, with help from Pakistan, Russia, and importantly from Iran. Shia Iran’s differences with the United States were less acute than with the Sunni Moslem Taliban, with whom Iran had been close to war since 1996. 

Confirmation of Iran’s help came from Vincent Cannistraro, the CIA’s former counterterrorism chief, who told the Boston Globe, “We got information from the Iranians. They did it very quietly.” But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, also warned against a retaliatory campaign that would lead to human suffering. 

Today, unfortunately, there are clear signs that international cooperation may break down with the defeat of the Taliban. Once again a major reason for that breakdown may be differences between the “political” faction in Washington, represented by Colin Powell at State, and the “military,” represented by Donald Rumsfeld at Defense. 

One symptom of this is the continuation of the bombing campaign for increasingly petty aims such as killing specific Taliban commanders, when more and more of Afghanistan’s new political leaders, along with Muslim statesmen abroad, have called for that campaign to cease. 

Even more important is the question of whether U.S. resources should now focus on a reconstruction budget for Afghanistan, or be used in possible new campaigns against other countries, such as Yemen or Somalia (where some U.S. troops are allegedly already active). We are hearing far less about reconstruction spending than on the possibility of new campaigns. 

The worst news for peace in Afghanistan would be U.S. government endorsement of the ideas of Rumsfeld’s top adviser Richard Perle, chairman of the administration’s Defense Policy Board. Perle has called publicly for action against three major Muslim nations: Syria, Iraq, and even our recent collaborator Iran. It is too early to tell if recent news leaks about “United States intelligence reports” of a bin Laden-Iran connection are signs of a move in this direction. 

What can be said at this stage is that the United States has the skill and resources to empower a peaceful post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan. 

Clearly it also has the resources to continue at war, as both President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld have indicated is likely. 

But in 2002 as in 1989, it may prove impossible to establish peace and fight a major war simultaneously. 

Peter Dale Scott is a UC Berkeley professor in the English Department, an author and former Canadian diplomat who writes frequently for Pacific News Service.