Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Afghan Surprises

There has been so little good news on the world scene lately that I can't help feeling buoyed up by the unexpectedly great news from Afghanistan this week--the liberation of Kabul, the Taliban collapse throughout northern Afghanistan, and the possibility that they might start to fall apart in the south as well.

Even if the worst-case short-term military scenario should emerge, and the Northern Aliiance grinds to a halt south of Kabul for a while, this still means a dramatic change for the better in every way. At the very least, this will probably save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghans who might otherwise have starved to death this winter, since the way is now open for the relief agencies to get food into the northern half of the country, where I gather the famine has been most severe (and where the winter is definitely most severe). Also, women in Kabul can already start leaving the house again, and can even go to the doctor when they're sick. And the outcome could well be better than that, since a rout of this magnitude is bound to have some effect on the morale of fighters allied with the Taliban in the south. So, with luck, we might soon see the rapid collapse of one of the most repellent regimes on earth--which might even, who knows?, help to discredit their ideology in the Arab & Muslim worlds (as the decisive defeat of Iraq in 1991 massively discredited the fascist option in Arab politics, to the benefit of the Islamists).

This is a chastening reminder of Clausewitz's insistence on the fog of uncertainty and unpredictability within which wars are always conducted--especially wars like this one. Like a lot of other people, I was becoming pretty much convinced that the people running the American side of the war didn't know what they were doing. And, frankly, this may still turn out to be true--and there is every indication that the developments of past week surprised U.S. military and diplomatic officials just as much as me. But if so, then at least it turns out they were exceptionally lucky (which, as Napoleon used to comment, is a valuable quality in a military commander). This breakthrough came just in the nick of time, since winter will be arriving in full force pretty soon (which seems to be more important, from a military as well as humanitarian point of view, in the more mountainous north of Afghanistan than in the south); bin Laden seems to have been winning the propaganda war in the Arab world (probably still is); and the truly idiotic idea of suspending the war during Ramadan was being taken surprisingly seriously, not just in the Middle East and Pakistan (where one would expect this) but also in some European countries. A stalemated war that dragged on through the winter would have been a nightmare for everyone (not least for ordinary Afghans).

Also, IF the Taliban regime can be overthrown without the introduction of large numbers of U.S. ground forces, that would clearly be best all around; and it seems as though this might happen. (As everyone knows by now, Afghanistan has historically been a graveyard of foreign invaders, and it would be good to avoid a re-run of that story.)

All that having been said, it's important not to get carried away, of course. The Taliban might fall apart quickly--but then again, they might not, and the war might drag on for quite a while in some parts of the country. Furthermore, what happens afterwards is not at all clear, and the prospects are not very encouraging. It would be great if some kind of minimally stable, cohesive, and orderly post-Taliban regime somehow emerged in Afghanistan sometime soon; but I'm afraid that I haven't seen any signs pointing in that direction. And the worst-case scenario of a rapid descent into renewed chaos, civil war, and warlordism (aided and abetted by the various nearby countries backing different factions within Afghanistan) is also a strong possibility.

(So far, the Northern Alliance soldiers seem to be on relatively good behavior, at least in cities where western journalists are anywhere nearby. I say this despite some scattered reports of executions of Taliban prisoners and other reprisals. These could be true, and one should plausibly expect some gruesome incidents. But by the standards of Afghan conflicts, I'm afraid, what's happened so far sounds quite minimal. But we don't know how long this will last--especially since the Northern Alliance has so far been moving into cities where the population are sympathetic and delighted to see them, and things might be different in the south. Also, the different Northern Alliance factions haven't started fighting each other yet, as they did throughout the early 1990s But how long will this last?)

One factor that makes me feel pessimistic in this respect is the U.S. record in conflicts of this sort during the past decade or so, which has combined great military force (grudgingly and ineptly employed, except in the Gulf War) with political incompetence and failure of imagination. The Gulf War, which a number of the Bush people were involved in running, offers the classic example: the Americans assembled a massive coalition and won a decisive military victory, then made a complete mess of things politically ... with results that we're still living with. And one major reason for the catastrophic way that the political and diplomatic endgame of the Gulf War was played was the complicated constraints of dealing with the agendas of the various "partners" in the anti-Saddam "coalition." The same applies now--in spades.

(And, unfortunately, it's not the case that the agendas of these different partners" can simply be ignored, even when they're blatantly self-serving, cynical, hypocritical, or otherwise repellent. For example, it's easy to laugh at the ridiculous line that the Pakistani government has taken since the beginning of the conflict: please end the war quickly, but don't take any steps that might actually win the war ... and, by the way, don't offend the "moderate" Taliban. But Pakistan's support is genuinely critical; the Musharraf regime has taken a genuinely risky political gamble in backing the anti-Taliban campaign, in the face of major political tensions within Pakistani society; and it would certainly not be a good thing if Pakistan blew up politically any time soon. So it would be foolish not to pay some heed to the various stresses in Pakistani public opinion, and to the concerns of Pakistani political elites. Add in Russia, Iran, our alleged "allies" in Saudi Arabia, and so on ... and one rapidly starts to get depressed.)

And, even if everything should turn out miraculously well in Afghanistan in the short term, this just ONE step in the long-term problem of dealing with the threats posed by international terrorist networks ... not to mention the larger socio-political crisis of the Arab & Muslim worlds, which has turned out to be a problem for everyone, not just them ... as well as all the other looming crises that everyone was (appropriately) worried about before September 11, and which haven't gone away.

=> All that having been said, I think I still deserve to feel delighted about the unexpectedly great news from Afghanistan this week. Maybe there will even be some more good news, from there or elsewhere?

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub