U.S. must help Afghans stave off more chaos

January 20, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

KABUL, Afghanistan - I've got more good news and bad news from Kabul. The good news is that sporting events have returned to the city, even before electricity or law and order have been fully restored.

The bad news is that the sport is cockfighting.

A match took place the week before last at Babur's Gardens, a once beautiful, now decayed botanical park. About 100 Afghan men gathered to watch two huge fighting roosters go four rounds against each other, before the match was finally called a draw.

Unfortunately, these aren't the only fighting roosters strutting around the Afghan ruins. There's also the human variety - the Afghan warlords, and the neighboring powers that support them, who've been fighting over Afghanistan for two decades. The reason the Afghan war went so smoothly for the United States was because the geopolitical roosters - Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Russia - either overtly or tacitly cooperated with us to destroy the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, which was in each of their interests. And the local roosters - the key Tajik, Pashtun, Hazara and Uzbek warlords - did the same.

But now that the war is largely finished, the struggle over Afghanistan is resuming, and America has a big decision in front of it: Will it show the same resolve in winning the peace here as it did winning the war? Will it support and join a multinational force to stay here and stabilize Afghanistan, and create some law and order, until the fledgling new government can get on its feet? This is the question of the day. If America hesitates, well, you can already see the roosters sharpening their claws.

I just met the new interior minister, Younus Qanooni, in his office. Above his desk, where a U.S. Cabinet secretary would have a picture of President Bush, he had a photograph of Shah Massoud, the charismatic leader of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, who was killed by the Taliban just before Sept. 11.

The foreign minister and defense minister, also Tajiks, also hang Shah Massoud's picture. The finance minister, an ethnic Pashtun, does not. I have a rule: When a minister has his favorite warlord's picture over his desk and not that of the new president (who is a Pashtun), that's not a good sign.

Meanwhile, Afghan Ministry of Education officials had their eyebrows raised by urgent approaches from Iran about acquiring land for Iranian-funded schools here. The Iranians have also been pumping money to their favorite Persian-speaking warlords, so their Afghan allies will be able to resist any orders of the central government that hard-liners in Iran don't like - such as Afghanistan becoming a close U.S. ally.

But here's what's also interesting: Every Afghan you stop tells you this country is so war-weary and starved for security that he would much rather have a multinational force police the whole place over any ethnic militia or local rooster. One Special Forces officer told me he was ordered to poll local leaders about whom they would like as peacekeepers: Germans, Canadians, Turks? And they all answered, "We want you."

Sure, some will take potshots at us, but even those warlords who might think of challenging a U.S.-led peacekeeping force admit that they were wowed by the incredible power America displayed here. For all the talk about the vaunted Afghan fighters, this was a war between the Jetsons and the Flintstones. The Jetsons won and the Flintstones know it.

(There are al-Qaida prisoners held near Bagram, guarded by U.S. Army MPs, some of whom are women. Imagine going overnight from a society where you never see a woman's face to being guarded by one with an M-16. One woman MP told me that at first some of them make faces, "but then they realize there's nothing they can do.")

The Taliban and bin Laden lost the war because they mistakenly thought the Americans were the Russians, and could be defeated as easily. The Americans could lose the peace by also mistakenly thinking that they're the Russians - just another superpower that will automatically be resisted if it stays behind, so it better not even try.

It is by no means certain that even if we stay for a limited period to provide security while the Afghans rebuild, they will make it. They may just be too divided after 22 years of civil war. But if we don't try, it is absolutely certain that this whole country will become just one big cockfight again.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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