Why Afghan's agony is likely to worsen
By Jonathan Steele
LONDON: After the mayhem of Manhattan, the agony of Afghanistan is likely to worsen. Top of the world league for the largest number of citizens forced to take refuge abroad, close to the bottom of the poverty table, ravaged by two decades of war, with almost all its female population ordered to cover up or stay at home, this pathetic place of stunning scenery and medieval wretchedness is bracing for new horrors.
Whatever military operation the United States is planning against Osama bin Laden, the Saudi fundamentalist hiding in Afghanistan, the consequences will be miserable. The Clinton administration assembled a team of Pakistanis and Afghans in the city of Peshawar in Pakistan to attempt to capture him as long ago as 1997. But they aborted the operation when he heard of it and moved to Kandahar, where the Taliban regime has its headquarters. After attacks on American embassies in Africa in 1998, Clinton launched 70 cruise missiles on training camps run by Bin Laden: 14 foreign Muslims and 20 Afghans were killed, but Bin Laden was not among the dead.
The Bush administration's efforts are likely to be more severe. One option may be a bigger snatch squad, led by American special forces. Bush's father successfully captured Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989 this way. But in an urban environment, where the U.S. had troops in the Canal Zone nearby, the operation caused hundreds of civilian deaths. Capturing a well-defended man in the mountains of Afghanistan would be much harder.
Using local anti-Taliban forces as contras offers little prospect of success. An opposition alliance, armed by the Russians, has been fighting the Taliban, Bin Laden's hosts, for seven years. Control of the northern plains near Uzbekistan, as well as the region between Kabul and the Salang tunnel through the Hindu Kush, has fluctuated, but there has never been any sign that the ethnically- based anti-Taliban forces could move south and capture the Pashtun heartlands where Bin Laden lives.
That only leaves an outright invasion of Afghanistan with ground troops. The history of the country suggests that would be doomed. Ironically, the main road from the capital Kabul to Kandahar is still called the Eisenhower highway. This Cold war era gift from America's military-hero-turned-president was once a smooth asphalt strip running through the spectacular south- western deserts. But 10 years of Russian military convoys in the 80s turned it into a series of bone-shaking furrows, on which vehicles yaw and tumble like yachts in a gale.
This symbolizes a military dilemma which no would-be conqueror of Afghanistan has escaped. You can garrison the cities and deploy your troops in lowland bases. You can rumble up and down between them. But you can never occupy the mountain villages or find, among the hundreds of mutually antagonistic tribal groupings, local leaders to do your bidding for long. The British tried three times to subdue Afghanistan, the Russians once, and if American troops invaded they would no doubt meet the same fate.
Battles can be won. The British army general Lord Roberts of Kandahar, a senior commander in the Boer War in South Africa at the start of the 20th century, took his name from an earlier, youthful foray, when he marched at great speed through the desert for 23 days to defeat a local Afghan chief.
But Britain could never capture hearts and minds, or move far off the roads. A century later, Soviet forces had the same trouble. When Leonid Brezhnev sent troops to save a pro-Communist regime, they encountered initial success. The Russians were on the side of modernization and had the support of many urban people, particularly in Kabul. This is why their ally, Najibullah, survived three years after the Russians left.
But although the Russians gained ground militarily after the low point of 1980, and shored up control of the cities, they increased massively the numbers of their enemies in the rural areas where most Afghans live. Russian bombing and heavy-handed sweep and search operations tactics (repeated now in Chechnya) caused millions to flee.
Many joined the armed resistance, which became an Islamic jihad as well as a struggle against an outside invader. The Russians could not prevent ambushes of their convoys and hit-and- run attacks on their fixed positions. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he told Kabul to look for a political solution as the Russians would be leaving. About 15,000 Russians were killed.
Washington may hope to persuade the Taliban to extradite their "guest", without taking the military option. Clinton came close to this after the failure of his missile attacks. All that the Taliban asked was diplomatic recognition and the end of their pariah status. Although the Americans approved supplies from Pakistan to the Taliban when the movement first emerged, they balked at these final steps, because of Western media coverage of the Taliban's appalling human rights record. Disappointed, the Taliban have retreated further into fundamentalist isolationism. After Clinton persuaded the UN to impose sanctions on the country, they responded by blowing up the giant Buddhas of Bamyan.
When the Russians withdrew, they hoped the U.S. would see the benefit of modernization and encourage the least extreme of the mojahedin to share power with the-then ruler, Najibullah. But Washington was divided between "bleeders", who wanted to exploit Afghanistan to humiliate Moscow, and "dealers", who saw value in keeping the fundamentalists at bay. The bleeders won, paving the way for the Taliban's eventual triumph.
So Bin Laden's safe haven in Afghanistan was provided as the result of U.S. policy -- not in spite of it.
-- Guardian News Service