Bin Laden defeat not nearly enough

For peace and stability to last, U.S. must persuade its allies as well as its enemies to change their ways

October 21, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Within hours of the attacks of Sept. 11, top officials from the president on down were telling Americans the war on terrorism was going to be long and arduous. After two weeks of bombing Afghanistan, it is clear what they are talking about.

The end of this war will have only begun with defeating the Taliban government and rooting out Osama bin Laden and associates. Next it will be necessary to broker an accord among dozens of factions who have been fighting each other for decades, leading to a new government that might return Afghanistan to the community of nations.

And that nearly impossible task is the easy part because the terrorists who attacked on Sept. 11 are not from Afghanistan, but mainly from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Getting them out of those countries is going to be the real challenge.

Still, a new government for Afghanistan is going to be tough enough.

No one thinks that the United States should simply turn the country over to the most powerful opponents of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance - an alliance of convenience that spent much of the early '90s destroying Afghanistan as its constituents fought among themselves.

Many experts are pleased with the rhetoric of the United States in this area, cautious in support for the Northern Alliance and calling for a more broad-based coalition. The exiled king, 87-year-old Mohammad Zahir Shah, who was deposed in a 1973 coup, has been put forward as a potential symbol of unity, but has not been forced on anyone.

"Quite honestly, it is hard to be hopeful," says Devin Hegerty, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It is hard to consider Afghanistan a country in any meaningful sense. There are so many factions, cross-cultural and external, it is kind of like a permanent battlefield at this point.

"It is hard to imagine this changing because after a couple of decades of fighting, it becomes tit for tat, a desire for revenge for what happened to your side the last time around," he says. "Clearly, the Northern Alliance is anxious to get back at the Taliban for their defeat in '96."

Larry Goodson, an associate professor of international studies at Bentley College in Massachusetts, also sees a dicey time ahead.

"Whatever the preferred endgame for Afghanistan, it is certainly not going to play out that way," says Goodson, author of the recently published Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics and the Rise of the Taliban.

"It's a messy place. It's a country that never really had a strong central state," he says. "There was a fiction of an Afghan state, based in Kabul, but the moment you walked out of the ministry office, down the street, there was no longer an Afghan state."

Goodson's best solution is a loose federation of ethnically-defined states that, with proper international aid and development, may grow into a country.

"There's a lot of blood under the bridge, a lot of debts to be paid. And this is a place where they will not forgive these things. They will wait and kill your grandson 20 years later," he says. "In the short term, the best thing may be to keep these groups apart."

Frederick Starr of Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies says the crucial element is that no outside country should interfere, leaving it to the Afghans to create a new government that meets certain criteria including representation of all ethnic groups, a minimal standard of human rights and an end to terrorism and the drug trade.

"If they meet those standards, we shouldn't care if they call themselves the Taliban or the Northern Alliance or have a king or whatever," Starr says.

Hegerty also says it would be best for the United States to stay out of the formation of a new government. "The problem is, how do we ensure that everyone else does that, too?" he says, pointing out that all the neighbors - Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan - will probably be sticking their fingers in the pie.

"It's really going to be an uphill battle," he says. "Almost like creating a government from scratch. And we have to walk a fine line, trying to be helpful without appearing to be installing a group of favorites."

Even if the best-case scenario materializes - the king provides the figurehead around which a new government forms, the United Nations brokers the deal, keeping it clean of the fingerprints of any other nations, support pours in to redevelop the devastated country - that takes care only of the current haven of the terrorists. It does nothing about their breeding grounds, which - at least for this group - are mainly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

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