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Friday, Oct. 12, 2007


Forcing defeat from the jaws of victory

LONDON — This week is the sixth anniversary of the start of U.S. airstrikes against al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. It was a very clever political-military operation, and by December of 2001 all of Afghanistan was under the control of the United States and its local allies for a total cost of 12 American dead. Then it fell apart, and now the war is lost.

In the days after 9/11, George Tenet, the Central Intelligence Agency's chief, came up with a bold proposal. Why invade Afghanistan with a large American army, deploying massive firepower that kills large numbers of locals and alienates the population? Why give Osama bin Laden the long anti-American guerrilla war that he was undoubtedly counting on?

Instead, Tenet proposed sending teams of CIA agents and special forces into the country to win the support of the various militias, loosely linked as the Northern Alliance, that still dominated the northern regions of the country. Although the Taliban had controlled most of the country since 1996, they had never decisively won the civil war. So why not intervene in that war, shower their opponents with money and weapons and tip the balance against the Taliban?

It worked like a charm. Pakistan, whose intelligence services had originally created the Taliban, withdrew its support, the Taliban regime fled Kabul and most of the Taliban troops melted back into their villages. The government of a country of 27 million people was taken down for a death toll that probably did not exceed 4,000 on all sides.

By mid-December 2001 the U.S. effectively controlled Afghanistan through its local allies, all drawn from the northern minority groups: Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara. There had not been the mass killing of innocent bystanders that would inevitably have accompanied a conventional U.S. invasion, so there was no guerrilla war.

The traditional ruling group and biggest minority, the Pashtun, who had put their money on the Taliban and lost, would have to be brought back into the game somehow, but the usual Afghan deal-making would suffice.

Washington had the wit to make Mahmoud Karzai, a Pashtun from a clan that never had much to do with the Taliban, its puppet president in Kabul. But it froze out all the prominent Pashtun political and religious leaders who had had dealings with the Taliban — which was, of course, almost all of them.

The Taliban had been the government of Afghanistan for almost five years, and were at the time the political vehicle of the Pashtun ascendancy in the country. If you were a traditional Pashtun leader, how could you not have had dealings with them? An amnesty that turned a blind eye to the past, plus pressure by the U.S. on its recent allies to grant the Pashtuns a fair share of the national pie, would have created a regime in Kabul to which Pashtuns could give their loyalty, even if they were less dominant at the center than usual. But that never happened.

Afghanistan has usually been run by regional and tribal warlords with little central control: nothing new there. But now it is also a country where the biggest minority has been largely excluded from power by foreign invaders who sided with the smaller minorities, and then blocked the process of accommodation by which the various Afghan ethnic groups normally make power-sharing deals.

The current fighting in the south, the Pashtun heartland, which is causing a steady dribble of American, British and Canadian casualties, will continue until the Western countries pull out. (Most other NATO members sent their troops to various parts of northern Afghanistan, where non-Pashtun warlords rule non-Pashtun populations and nobody dares attack the foreigners.) After the foreigners are gone, the Afghans will make the traditional inter-ethnic deals and something like peace will return.

Will Karzai still be president after that? Yes, if he can convince the Pashtuns that he is open to a deal once the foreigners leave.

Will the Taliban come back to power? Only to a share of power, and only to the extent that they can still command the loyalty of the Pashtuns once it is no longer a question of resistance to foreigners.

Will Osama bin Laden return and re-create a "nest of terrorists" in Afghanistan. Very unlikely. The Afghans paid too high a price for their hospitality the first time round.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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