The first phase of the US `war on terrorism will likely be the attempted overthrow of the Taliban regime, which currently rules 90% of Afghanistan. Washington is massing powerful strike forces around Afghanistan and has unleashed a fierce propaganda offensive against Taliban.
The Bush Administration says it will embark on `nation-building in Afghanistan. Translation: imposing a pro-US regime in Kabul that will battle Islamic militants and open the way for American oil and gas pipelines running south from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea. Washington clearly hopes to make the Northern Alliance, a motley collection of anti-Taliban insurgents, the new ruler of Afghanistan, perhaps under its 86-year old exiled king, Zahir Shah.
Before we examine this truly foolish plan, a quick review of Washingtons record of `nation-building in the Muslim world ie overthrowing unfriendly governments and replacing them by compliant ones:
Syria 1948 US overthrows the regime; Syria turns anti-US. Iran 1954 the US overthrows nationalist Mossadegh, puts the Shah in power. Result: Khomeinis 1979 Islamic revolution. Egypt 1955 the US tried to kill nationalist Gammal Abdel Nasser. He turns to the Soviets. Iraq 1958 US puts Col. Kassem in power. He turns into an anti-American lunatic.
Indonesia 1967 the US overthrows Sukarno, army and mobs kill 500,000 Sukarno supporters. Libya 1969 the US helps a young officer, Muammar Khadaffi, seize power in Libya, then tries to kill him in 1986. Iraq 1975 the US helps young Saddam Hussein seize power. In 1979 the US gets Saddam to invade Iran in an effort to crush Irans Islamic revolution 700,000 die in the war.
Lebanon 1983 US forces intervene in the civil war to prop up the Christian government, 240 US Marines die. Kuwait/Iraq 1991 US goes to war against former ally Saddam, but keeps him in power. Somalia 1992 - US intervenes in civil war, loses men, flees. Iraq 1996 US attempt to create a Kurd min-state collapses under Iraqi attack. CIA agents run for their lives.
Not a record to boast about. But undaunted by failure, the US has found its latest client, the Northern Alliance, and is moving with new-found ally, Russia, to quickly to implant them in Kabul. This is a historical irony of epic proportions: in the 1980s the US spent billions to oust the Russians from Afghanistan; now it is inviting them back in.
I write about the Tajik-dominated Alliance with unease. Its leader, Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani, is an old, respected friend of mine from the earliest days of the great Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. A classical Persian scholar and poet, Rabbani is held in great esteem by his fellow Tajiks, Afghanistans best educated, most sophisticated ethnic group.
Rabbanis military commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was killed by Arab suicide bombers two days before the mass attacks against the US. Massoud was adored by the western-media, and was being groomed by his foreign backers as the next leader of Afghanistan. Few outsiders knew that the dashing Massoud was regarded as a traitor by many Afghans for allying himself with the Soviets during the war and turning against his fellow mujihadin.
In recent years, Northern Alliance has been armed and financed by a very odd assortment of bedfellows: Russia, Iran, the US, India, and France. The Alliance controls a toehold in northeast Afghanistan next to Tajikistan, a Russian satellite state where Moscow has 25,000 troops.
The mainly Tajik Alliance has recently been lately joined by the Uzbek warriors of Gen. Rashid Dostam, a brutal communist warlord who collaborated for a decade with the Soviets and was responsible for mass killings and atrocities. America should have no dealings with such criminals. Without Russian helicopters, armor, and `advisors, the Alliance would have long ago collapsed.
In all my years as a foreign affairs writer, I have never seen a case where so many Washington `experts have all the answers to a country that only a handful of Americans know anything about. President George Bush, who before election could not name the president of Pakistan, now intends to redraw the political map of strategic Afghanistan, an act that will cause shock waves across South and Central Asia.
Anyone who knows anything about Afghans knows 1. they will never accept any regime imposed by outsiders; 2. an ethnic minority government can never rule Afghanistans ethnic majority, the Pashtun (or Pathan), roughly half the population. Taliban are mostly Pushtun. Tajiks account for 18-20% and Uzbeks for 6% of Afghans.
Washingtons plan for `nation-building in Afghanistan is a recipe for disaster that will produce an enlarged civil war that draws in outside powers.
Let Afghans decide their own traditional way, through a national tribal council, called a loya jirga, to create a new, post-Taliban government whose strings are not pulled from abroad. As for King Zahir Shah, he is discredited as a `foreigner in Afghanistan and too old to even be a figurehead. Prof Rabbani would make a good president, provided he was seen first an Afghan, and only secondly a Tajik.
Pakistan, which until lately backed Taliban, has only one interest: a stable, unchaotic Afghanistan. Islamabad will likely agree to a regime in neighboring Afghanistan that keeps order and is not the creature of its Russian, Iranian, or Indian enemies.
Washingtons `experts, would-be crusaders, and re-born Cold Warriors should look twice before they leap.