What to Watch for in Afghanistan

by Zoltan Grossman

The fall of Kabul and other Afghan cities has led many Americans to believe that the war is swiftly drawing to a close. The U.S. media is creating the impression that the takeover has brought 23 years of war, instability and oppression to an end. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Paraphrasing Yogi Berra, the war ain’t over ’till it’s over.

First, in a country that traditionally has lacked centralized authority, the takeover of the capital city does not yet mean the conquest of all of Afghanistan. Taliban forces are regrouping in and around their de facto capital of Kandahar, where some factions plan to wage a guerrilla war. Afghans did not beat the British and Russian invaders by holding the cities, but by waging ferocious resistance from mountain strongholds. If Taliban or other Pashtun fighters launch a Chechen-style hit-and-run defense, the war could drag on for years. The result of a new guerrilla war would be the complete ethnic partition of Afghanistan into a Pashtun south and non-Pashtun north. The media has highlighted the renewed food aid shipments into Afghanistan, but without noting that food has been used by all sides as a weapon, with militias seizing aid shipments for their supporters, and blocking food from their enemy’s territory.

Second, the Northern Alliance rebels’ seizure of Kabul merely resets the clock back to 1992, when as the mujahadin they took the city from Najibullah’s Communists. Not only did the non-Pashtun mujahadin execute Pashtuns, and legislate the first limits on women’s rights, but they quickly turned on each other. Their four years of in-fighting left 50,000 dead, and led Afghans and the West to welcome the Taliban as stabilizing “liberators” in 1996. Since then, Northern Alliance rebels have had a reputation as corrupt “looters and rapists,” according to a recent statement by the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), and have taken control of up to 80 percent of Afghanistan’s opium trade. The returning Northern Alliance rebels are again executing Pashtuns in the city, much as returning Albanians attacked Serbs in Kosovo two years ago. But the Northern Alliance seizure of Kabul gives it a central role in any new Afghan “coalition” government, because possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Third, even if the U.S. or U.N. manages to form a shaky “coalition” government, the conflict may only restart, as it did in 1992 and in 1996. All Afghan ethnic and political factions will assume their claim to power will be recognized by the U.S. powerbrokers. When they realize that Washington intends to split the difference, some of them may quickly turn on their former allies. Washington attempted to build a multiethnic coalition under the aging King Zahir Shah in 1992, and failed miserably. It tried to build a similar coalition that same year in Somalia. One of the fundamental errors made by the U.S. in Somalia was an assumption that its unifying intentions would magically satisfy all militia factions. The other mistake it made was to only recognize militia warlords as legitimate political players, and ignore civil society and clan elders. An Afghan regime that only patches together the guys with the guns, and leaves out the vast majority of Afghan women and men, will merely reward the past two decades of violence, and set up another U.N. “peacekeeping” force for failure.

The West supported the mujahadin takeover of Kabul in 1992, the Taliban takeover in 1996, and now the Northern Alliance takeover in 2001. Its aims were usually to “liberate” Afghanistan from the last regime it supported. Washington’s initial support for militant Islamist groups in Afghanistan (like Israel’s support of Hamas, and Egypt’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood) ultimately blew up in its face. Yet because the militant Islamists are today virtually the force exploiting public opposition to poverty, corruption, and foreign occupation in the Muslim world, repressing them only legitimizes their growing popularity. Instead of backing or repressing far-right Islamic populist groups, the West and its client governments could be posing popular alternatives to draw frustrated citizens away from them. Instead, the U.S. is merely repeating old mistakes by crushing the Taliban, while hailing new Islamist militant groups such as the Northern Alliance.

But there is a method to this madness, more to U.S. aims in the region than is readily apparent. Afghanistan has historically been in an extremely strategic location straddling South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Will the U.S. attempt to use the current crisis to establish a permanent presence in the region? Each recent large U.S. intervention has left behind a string of new military bases in a region where they had never before had a foothold The Gulf War left behind large U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and three other Gulf states–the main Bin Laden grievance that fueled the September 11 attacks. Military interventions in former Yugoslavia resulted in U.S. bases in four countries, including the sprawling Camp Bondsteel complex in Kosovo. Were the military bases merely built to aid the interventions, or did the interventions occur partly in order to station the bases?

The U.S. military is inserting itself into strategic areas of the world, and anchoring U.S. geopolitical influence in these areas, at a very critical time in history. With the rise of a new European economic superpower, and increased economic competition from East Asia, U.S. economic power is perhaps on the wane. But in military affairs, the U.S. is still the unquestioned superpower. Why not project that military dominance into new strategic regions as a future counterweight to its competitors? French President Jacques Chirac correctly viewed the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf as securing control over oil sources for Europe and Japan. Afghanistan lies along a proposed Unocal pipeline route from new Caspian Sea oil fields to the Indian Ocean. Allied checkpoints are now being set up along the Afghan highways that would serve as potential routes for the pipeline.

Major tests for U.S. policy lie in the days and weeks ahead. Will special forces switch to fighting against guerrillas in Afghani or Pakistani mountains? Will Bush flatten Kandahar like Putin flattened the Chechen capital of Grozny last year? Will the Northern Alliance be allowed to dominate Kabul (like the Kosovo Liberation Army became the UN “police force” in Kosovo)? Will a new “coalition” government stay together, or only give a seat at the table to anyone carrying a Kalashnikov or RPG launcher?

Will Bin Laden really be captured, or (like Saddam) be allowed to live in order to justify a permanent stationing of U.S. troops? Will anthrax be used as a new excuse to bomb and invade Iraq? Finally, will the new U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan become permanent outposts guarding a new oil infrastructure? A failure of the U.S. to pull out of the region after the war, to leave behind a government that truly represents Afghani civilians, or to lure Muslims away from militant groups, will only give impetus to new Bin Ladens, and to future September 11s.

Zoltan Grossman is a doctoral candidate in Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a member of the South-West Asia Information Group.

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