Today's friend may be tomorrow's foe

Lessons: The United States may find that an ally in the immediate fight against terrorism could become an enemy later if it fails to consider the implications of its actions.

October 07, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

A TIME-HONORED Middle Eastern proverb holds that: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Such expediency in the time of crisis can work. Consider the alliance of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union against Germany in World War II.

But if the United States blindly follows that principle in this current crisis as it goes after Osama bin Laden and his helpers, the result could set the stage for more such conflicts in the coming decades.

Just as World War I - the war to end all wars - ended up setting up the much more destructive World War II, so this war to end all terrorism could end up creating spawning grounds for the next generation of terrorists.

If you don't think alliances in Central Asia are dicey, consider that when the Soviet Union was America's enemy in that region, one of America's "friends" was none other than Osama bin Laden, one of the radical Arab Muslims brought in to help fight the Soviet invasion.

The U.S. history here is not impressive. America backed the Shah of Iran despite oppressive policies that led to the creation of the strongest of the radical Islamic states. America allied itself with Saddam Hussein when he was fighting Iran, escorting Iraqi oil tankers through the Persian Gulf and looking the other way when two Iraqi missiles hit the USS Stark, killing 37. Syria was America's enemy in the 1980s; its ally against Iraq in the Gulf War.

"We ought to have learned our lessons," says Tahir Shad of the history department at Washington College in Chestertown.

S. Frederick Starr, director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says the United States was right to bring in bin Laden and his cohorts to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. "The mistake was instead of roundtrip tickets, we gave them one-way," he says. "They stayed on, and we cut out."

So now that bin Laden is America's enemy, Washington is considering joining up with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan since both have a mutual enemy in the Taliban regime that governs most of that country and shelters bin Laden.

Starr is one of many who don't think that's such a good idea.

"These are not people we want to associate with," he says of the Northern Alliance. "We are fooling ourselves if we think they wear white hats. They are not an alliance, but basically a group of competing warlords with a common income stream, basically from Russia."

The Russian association aligns them with the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. After the Taliban took over in 1996, he says, the Russians backed the Northern Alliance to keep the area at "a low boil."

"They owe their existence to a country that killed a million people, and every Afghan knows that," Starr says.

Indeed, many in the Northern Alliance had power in Afghanistan in the early 1990s after the Soviets withdrew. They turned the country into a feudal battleground, reducing Kabul to ruins. Afterward, many Afghans initially welcomed the discipline and order brought by the Pakistani-backed Taliban.

"To jump into bed with the Northern Alliance would be a disaster," says Shad . "It has a horrendous human rights record and is responsible for chaos and conflict.

"And the majority of the population of Afghanistan is Pashtun- speaking and the Northern Alliance has no Pashtun element. I would be very wary of that."

Starr agrees that the lack of Pashtuns is a problem.

"If we align ourselves with them, we run the danger of eliciting a sense among the Pashtun majority that this is an anti-Pashtun, anti-Afghan campaign, not just to remove bin Laden and a few thousand Arabs," he says.

Starr says the Northern Alliance's human rights record "is horrible, comparable to that of the Taliban. They are corrupt and, beyond that, include in their number major drug lords. ... And they themselves have provided aid and comfort to terrorists."

Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says that the United States should align itself with a wide variety of Afghans opposed to Taliban rule.

"You have to remember that the Northern Alliance's opposition is only in the North," Gouttierre says. "There are a lot of pockets of opposition in other parts of the country. We should make sure we are in contact with them.

"This is not a situation where we want to be on the northern side as opposed to the southern side. There are a lot of Pashtuns opposed to the Taliban. We have got to make clear that our fight is not with the Pashtuns."

Temporarily expedient alliances in neighboring countries could also lead to difficulties down the line. This is especially true in Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan and is considered an essential staging area for any military action against the Taliban. This country is considered so important at the moment that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld included it on his coalition-building mission last week.

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