Forget hand-wringing and focus on winning

November 15, 2001|By Stephen Bryen

WASHINGTON -- The United States is backing the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban government in Afghanistan, but not without a lot of hand-wringing on the sidelines, some of it in the State Department and at American think tanks.

The hand-wringers say that if we support the Northern Alliance too much it will anger Pakistan and cut out the larger ethnic Pashtun group that has Pakistani support. Others complain that the Northern Alliance is not trustworthy, not democratic and really can't lead a future Afghan government.

Hand-wringers have been a problem for quite a while. In January 2000, I was a private election observer in Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan. The United States has just put a military base there to support the war in Afghanistan.

But in January 2000, America was not friendly toward Uzbekistan. It was U.S. policy to oppose Uzbek presidential elections because they were "not free enough." U.S. officials were instructed to stay away because Washington didn't think the opposition candidate was strong enough and didn't like the idea that some radical groups were not permitted to participate in the elections.

Of course, Uzbekistan -- a former Soviet republic that became an independent country in 1991 -- had no democratic tradition. It faced an internal radical Islamic insurgency linked to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

Its experimental move toward democracy was tentative and as risk-averse as possible. Had the hand-wringers understood this, they would have supported the Uzbek government and encouraged progress. Instead, they hid behind curtains and leaked curses to the press, which only served to encourage radicalism.

The hand-wringers are at it again, this time in the middle of a war. They have dragged their feet inside the administration on supporting the Northern Alliance, they whisper against our involvement in Afghanistan and they try to focus our attention on the Pashtun group, even though it is in disarray.

America's job is not to make the hand-wringers happier. Rather, it is to win the war, topple the Taliban and get rid of bin Laden and his al-Qaida network. To reach that goal we have to work with the Northern Alliance, with Uzbekistan and with others who share our objective. That means giving strong support at all levels -- military, economic and political. And it means keeping our commitment to them for the long haul in order to encourage the kind of balanced, secular government that -- in the long run -- will serve all of our interests.

In military terms, we must provide the equipment, resources, training and command and control needed to make the war against the Taliban succeed. This we are beginning to do, and it is working. In a few months, the Northern Alliance will have conquered more territory and destroyed more Taliban assets, which is precisely what is needed. Politically, we must make it clear to our allies that we are there for the long term.

One of the most important developments in the war against terrorism is that our ally and friend, Turkey, is committing its own forces to help in Afghanistan. Turkey's leadership marks an important stage in winning the war and provides a bridge for political development for Afghanistan.

We also need an economic plan for the area. The administration, burdened with the war effort, has not yet addressed this in depth, but will have to do so.

Provided we stay with the program, we should feel good that we will win the war and achieve our objectives.

By demonstrating leadership and providing a full range of support to those who are ready to join our effort, we will send the right message to our enemies and others will be willing to join us.

We really don't need the hand-wringers.

Stephen Bryen served as a senior Defense Department official in both Reagan administrations and was the staff director of the Near East Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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