Afghan War Will Remake Region

A bridge carrying rush hour traffic over interstate 35W in Minneapolis is shown after it collapsed, sending numerous vehicles into the Mississippi River early Wednesday evening, Aug. 1, 2007. A busy highway bridge that spans the Mississippi River just northeast of Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour Wednesday, sending dozens of cars, tons of concrete and twisted metal crashing into the water.
AP Photo/Jim Mone
The looming U.S. military attack against Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's Taliban regime may radically reshape the geopolitical balance in Central and South Asia. Instead of merely dealing with the threat of terrorism, the magnitude of the U.S. response could cause the region to unravel. The risks are huge, but so are the potential benefits. The outcome will depend more on Washington's political strategy than its firepower.
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The options are stark. In Pakistan, the military may end up de-coupling itself from support to Islamic fundamentalists and the growing culture of jihad or holy war undermining the country. Pakistan could rebuild ties with the West, improve relations with India, and ask for a major write-off of its $38 billion debt, which is crippling the economy. On the other hand, if the U.S. offensive is drawn out and lacks an overarching strategic vision for the region, Pakistan could become engulfed in turmoil. Islamic militants could take to the streets, there could be an economic meltdown and the army might become dangerously divided.

The Central Asian republics may finally get rid of their militant Islamic opposition movements based in Afghanistan and concentrate on improving economic and democratic reforms. Conversely they could resort to greater authoritarianism and repression.

In Afghanistan itself, a U.S.-led alliance could help reconstruct a new government, which could finally bring peace after 23 years of war. Or Afghanistan could descend into the warlordism that dominated the country in the 1990s (and cleared the way for Taliban rule), creating a flood of new Afghan refugees around the world, and more angry recruits for terrorist organizations.

The key to success or failure will be Washington's commitment to remain engaged in the region and particularly Afghanistan, once the shooting is over. As the threat of a U.S. attack mounts, bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, along with other Arab and Afghan hardliners around them, will stand increasingly isolated. The Taliban, dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group in southern and eastern Afghanistan, are deeply factionalized. Moderate Taliban leaders have already started to send their families out of harm's way to Pakistan and are making contact with anti-Taliban forces. Many of them will desert if they see a credible anti-Taliban Pashtun alternative backed by U.S. forces.

The strongest opposition group on the ground at present is the Northern Alliance (NA), also know as the United Front whose leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated just two days before the terrorist attacks on the United States. However, the NA is largely composed of Afghanistan's minority ethnic groups - Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen and Hazaras - and their support base is in northern Afghanistan, not the critical south. A prominent former NA commander, Ismail Khan, has recently reopened an anti-Talban battlefront in western Afghanistan and is attempting to capture Herat, but he is a Persian speaking Tajik, rather than a Pushto speaking Pashtun.

It is therefore critical that the U.S. led alliance back a Pashtun uprising against the Taliban. Commanders and supporters of former King Zahir Shah, who heads the Loya Jirga peace process, want to do just that - creating a national resistance that would unite the NA, other Afghan factions and representatives of Afghan civil society. Since November 1999, the 82-year-old King, who is in exile in Rome, has been calling for a Loya Jirga (LJ), or grand tribal council, to be held inside Afghanistan.

The LJ is the 250-year-old traditional Afghan parliament of tribal, religious and ethnic leaders, which is the only legitimate authority that could form a new government and attract broad support from the people and the anti-Taliban factions. Many Taliban have secretly supported the LJ process, but have been unwilling to confront hardliners within the movement led by leader Mullah Omar. With the present crisis and the imminent collapse of the Taliban regime, these Taliban dissidents are now directly approaching LJ representatives.

Zahir Shah has lived in Rome since 1973, when he was ousted in a coup by his cousin Mohammed Daud, who set up a Republic and made himself President. Zahir Shah ascended to the throne in 1933 after watching his father be assassinated by a student in Kabul. During Zahir Shah's reign, Afghanistan enjoyed peace and in the 1960s Kabul became a venue for Western hippies. Most Afghans look back to that period with enormous nostalgia. Zahir Shah has said he has no intentions to reconstitute the monarchy, rather his role would be unite all Afghan forces through the LJ process.

On September 20 Zahir Shah issued an appeal "for the liberation of our homeland and people." His supporters in Pakistan and the Arab Gulf states say they are ready to act. "Hundreds of Taliban are ready to defect the moment the King gives an order for a national uprising," says a leading member of the LJ based in Pakistan. "We believe that the ground will soon be ready to hold a LJ inside Afghanistan with the help of international powers, the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference," he adds.

Such Afghan forces must play a significant role as the U.S. plans its military strategy. U.S. forces will face major military difficulties in Afghanistan, where the terrain of high mountains and deserts is extreme, and Taliban-Arab forces are likely to break up into small, highly mobile guerrilla groups. There are few obvious targets and overexposure of U.S. forces could led to a wider backlash by the fiercely nationalistic Afghans, who in the last two centuries have defeated British and Soviet invaders.

It would be unwise for Washington to deploy ground troops to invade or occupy even a small part of Afghan territory for any period of time. U.S. special forces could occupy an airbase inside Afghanistan to facilitate operations, but bombing cities or even trying to occupy them would be hazardous and useless.

Instead it would be prudent for the United States to provide air cover and other military aid to the anti-Taliban forces inside the country. Such action could encourage defections among Taliban forces. The Taliban need to know that there are Afghan forces on the ground to which they can defect - not the Americans. As the anti-Taliban forces take territory and cities, U.S. forces will need to provide massive humanitarian aid so that the population is protected by U.S. air cover and fed in the liberated areas. Local Taliban commanders still holding out would come under their people's pressure to surrender and thereby receive food.

By supporting the LJ process, and encouraging all anti-Taliban Afghan factions to join it, the United States could set in motion a political process, which could result in the establishment of a stable post-Taliban political order, garnering support from all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups. But such a political process would need a long-term U.S. commitment, a U.S.-led consensus from the international community and intense dialogue with all of Afghanistan's neighbors, including Iran.

The U.S. would also have to deal with its new ally Pakistan, which has supported the Taliban and which may try once again to foster a client regime in Kabul. Pakistan has to be convinced that any new government in Kabul will not pose a threat to Pakistan, and will still be heavily dependent on Pakistan for food, aid and trade.

Thus, the United States has to construct a global alliance not just for the war, but also for the peace. Washington cannot do this alone. It needs the support of the United Nations and in particular the office of U.N. Secretary General's Special Representative to Afghanistan, whose successive chiefs have for the past 12 years been trying to bring peace to Afghanistan. The present UN Special Representative Fransesc Vendrell has said that this is a moment of acute crisis for the Afghan people, but also a moment of hope. UN efforts in the past have been stymied by the opposition of the Afghan factions and by Afghanistan's neighbors, particularly Pakistan. A major cause for past UN failure has been the lack of support from the international community.

Since bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan and joined up wih the Taliban, Washington has had a single-minded objective of apprehending bin Laden. In January, the new Bush administration promised a policy review of Afghanistan, which would be more focused on the issue of peace making and helping create a government that would oust all terrorists from Afghan soil. But that policy review slipped off the radar screen at the White House, even though mid-level U.S. officials had pointed out repeatedly that Afghanistan poses a real threat to U.S. security and national interests.

No military or political strategy can be successful until the United States galvanizes the international community to pledge a fund for the reconstruction of a post-Taliban Afghanistan. This needs to be done now, before any attack starts rather than an afterthought once the shooting is over. The pledge of at least $U.S. 1 billion for reconstruction is essential if the U.S. led alliance is to bolster anti-Taliban forces, create more defections amongst the Taliban and give hope to a brave and valiant people who face the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. A reconstruction fund could be managed by international agencies designated by the U.S.-led alliance and would hold out on its disbursement until all the anti-Taliban factions agreed to form a government of national unity and comply with UN resolutions which call for the immediate surrender of all terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

Many Americans know little about the complex world outside their borders, and they are surprised at the enormous wave of anti-Americanism that is sweeping the Muslim world at present. The American people need to insist that their government remains engaged in the region to build a real peace in Afghanistan, which could put the U.S. on the same side as the countries and peoples of the region.

EurasiaNet is a Web site affiliated with the Open Society Institute, which is funded by George Soros. It provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Afghanistan, Russia and Turkey. The site presents a variety of perspectives on contemporary developments, using a network of correspondents based both in the West and in the region.

Material Courtesy Of Eurasianet; written by correspondent Ahmed Rashid