According to President Bush, the United States is at “war” against those who perpetrated the September 11 attack on the United States and those who harbor them. All evidence to date points to Osama Bin Laden’s network of assassins and murderers and to the Taliban, the Muslim fundamentalists who rule most of Afghanistan. In all probability, much confusion and unnecessary complication could have been avoided had the President requested, and the Senate insisted on, a formal declaration of war on Afghanistan. This would have kept the focus clear, both on the targets to be destroyed and on the way to end the conflict. Instead, by globalizing the conflict and declaring permanent war on terrorism, with its multiplicity of elusive proponents, and by insisting that governments must be either with us or against us, the President may have limited rather than expanded his options and end up fighting inconclusive skirmishes in order to keep the unwieldy coalition cobbled together in some semblance of unity. However, his planning and preparations are still in the initial stages of the campaign, and there will be time enough later to evaluate the administration’s overall strategy.
For the moment, as we move toward the inevitable military response to September 11 and numerous varieties of pseudo-pacifism and anti-warism increasingly appear in the media and on campuses, a few commonsense points need to be kept in mind. First, much is written about Afghanistan’s devastated condition and paucity of targets. True, the Soviet Union’s war in the 1980s against the Afghan “freedom-fighters,” followed by the civil war between Afghan factions vying for power in the 1990–1995 period, left a poor country and its 16 to 18 million people impoverished. From this, the conclusion is drawn that “revenge” against the Taliban would be inappropriate.
The logic of this line of argument is faulty. Afghanistan’s vulnerability includes many clearly defined, strategically coherent, military targets— bridges, tunnels, and power plants. The infrastructure, linked by superb all-weather roads, was built by the United States and the former Soviet Union in the heyday of competitive coexistence in the 1960s and 1970s. Degrading it will not make “collateral damage” out of civilians. However, it will separate the Taliban’s forces in a way that will weaken the government’s ability to wage limited war or reinforce the troops that come under attack. By weakening the infrastructure, U.S. airpower can weaken or cripple— and help eventually to defeat— the Taliban. Unlike Vietnam, where bridges could be quickly repaired or alternatives improvised because of the flat terrain, an Afghanistan bereft of bridges would be divided into quasi-isolated geographic units, thus making their logistical resupply or reinforcement nearly impossible. This would enable the United States to make Taliban deployments difficult or ripe for a sustained air attack. Moreover, after a quick sweep of Afghanistan’s tiny air force, perhaps 20 to 30 combat aircraft, the U.S Air Force would be in a position to command the skies above Afghanistan.
Afghanistan does not have the enormous reserves of missiles and ammunition that Iraq did in the Gulf War, nor can it depend on the resupply of major powers such as Vietnam did in the 1960s and 1970s when the Soviet Union and China funneled in weapons and supplies. Furthermore, thanks to the courage and farsighted policy of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Afghanistan is diplomatically isolated and without a single effective arms supplier. In this sense, it may not be an exaggeration to say that Pakistan’s partnership in Bush’s coalition is more important than all the Muslim countries of the Middle East put together, at least in military terms.
The key urban center to put under strong pressure is Kandahar, headquarters of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s dictator. Far to the west of Kabul, the capital of the country, Kandahar can be virtually cut off from the center, as suggested earlier. It should be the prime urban target, not Kabul. The war must be brought home to the Taliban early, unequivocally, and in sustained fashion. Indeed, once the United States engages militarily, the Taliban should be made to understand that it waited too long.
Another major target should be the blocking of the gigantic Salang Tunnel. Situated some 35 miles north of Kabul, it effectively divides the north from the south. During the civil war in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, the Tunnel was closed on several occasions for short periods of time. No matter that groups friendly to the United States and opposed to the Taliban now control it. The Tunnel’s blockage for the indefinite future (no big problem for the air force) would have two consequences for U.S. interests: first, in the short term, it should help the beleaguered Northern Alliance— the anti-Taliban coalition of the mainly Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkomens who lost out to the Taliban in 1995–1996 in the struggle for power— and help entrench them in the Panjshir Valley and make their reinforcement much easier; and second, in refashioning a post-Taliban Afghanistan, the non-Pathan ethnic groups in the northern part of the country might come to understand that a confederational arrangement for the country is far more realistic— and feasible — than their lingering hopes to emerge as the major ethnic coalition in the country where the Pathans/Pushtuns have long ruled.
A word of caution is needed, with respect to the Northern Alliance. It is not a coalition of democrats or reformers. It is they who were ruling in the early 1990s and who were responsible for the bombardment and destruction of Kabul and its surrounding area. In 1992, after President and communist party leader Najibullah was ousted, it was the partners in the Northern Alliance who could not agree on how to divide power and who showed an indifference to reform and the welfare of the common people; it was they who were instrumental in the sudden rise to power of the Taliban in 1995–1996.
Still, the basic approach is sound: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”— but only as long as the common enemy exists. After that? Much must be left to the Afghan people themselves. Based on its own dismal record of promoting nation-building during the past decade, the United States is in no position to advise others on how to build democratic, civil societies.