The Magazine

How to Win the Peace in Afghanistan

America needs to stay the course.

Jul 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 41 • By ELIE D. KRAKOWSKI
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After initial successes due far more to the Afghans' exhaustion from war and thirst for peace than to any military prowess of the Taliban, that radical movement proved unable to achieve military victory. The ensuing stalemate led to a gradual takeover of the Taliban by a combination of Wahhabi Muslims from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Pakistani Islamists, and an assortment of extremists from many countries (Uzbeks, Chechens, Chinese Uighurs, and others). Among all of these, it was Osama bin Laden, who arrived in Afghanistan in 1996, and his al Qaeda organization that dominated and soon came to be the key decision-makers in what passed as Taliban edicts in the outside world.

Many of the Taliban's notorious deeds--the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the scorched earth policy followed in some northern provinces, numerous massacres--were actually attributable to bin Laden and his Arabs. Afghanistan had become a global terrorism headquarters, training people from around the world in its over 30 terrorist camps. The objective shared by this rainbow coalition of extremists was the spread of the Wahhabi brand of radical Islam. Pakistani Islamists openly proclaimed their desire to replace the Pakistani government with one in the image of the Taliban. With regard to China, the aim was to create an independent Islamist state in the western Chinese border province of Xinjiang. The ultimate ambition was an Islamist empire extending from Pakistan in the south through Afghanistan and including the states of Central Asia.

That these goals were publicly and repeatedly declared did not mean that Washington so much as noticed them. The United States, almost until the end, continued to view events in Afghanistan through the Pakistani lens. Even Afghanistan's neighbors at first paid little attention, although the newly independent states of Central Asia, aware of their own fragility, were the first to sense the danger. From 1998 onward, as evidence mounted of the terrorist networks' extensive penetration, the regional governments became increasingly anxious. By 2000, high officials and other influential personalities in all the surrounding states including Iran saw not the Taliban but bin Laden and his Arab cohorts as the problem. In an extensive series of interviews in the region in 2000 and 2001, they told me that they did not know what to do, and that only the United States could break the logjam.

THE SITUATION in the summer of 2002 remains very serious and the risks high. Continuing sweeps by U.S. and British Special Forces have managed to keep the terrorist groups off-balance. But the inability to actually find al Qaeda or Taliban forces does not mean they are absent, only that the war has entered a hit-and-run phase. There is growing evidence that the terrorist forces have moved into Pakistan, which may be well on the way to becoming their new haven.

While they are apparently concentrated in the largely ungoverned North-West Frontier Province, there are also reports of al Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistani cities. Add the tens of thousands of armed Pakistani Islamists and their allies within the Pakistani government and armed forces, and the explosive nature of the mix becomes even clearer. Heightened violence including suicide bombers within Pakistan is likely, as are similar attacks in Afghanistan.

In addition, Afghanistan's neighbors appear to have resumed their old pattern of divisive intervention in anticipation of U.S. disengagement. While not yet fully certain this will occur, they are preparing for it by making sure they don't leave the field to others, and attempting to maximize their individual positions within the country.

They have been arming their favorite factions and otherwise encouraging ethnic and tribal confrontation. The Iranians, who once restricted their backing to Afghan Shiite groups, for several years have backed the Northern Alliance forces that continue to dominate the interim Afghan government. The Russians and Uzbeks have also backed the Northern Alliance. Elements within the Pakistani government continue to support their traditional favorites, the majority Pashtuns. Very active at the regional and local level, these neighbors remain somewhat cautious at the national level. They have shown some flexibility, while making sure of the continued dominance of the Northern Alliance forces in the new interim government.

Of these neighbors, Iran is the one whose behavior is the most disturbing. It has not limited its actions to interference within Afghanistan, but is actively (and with regard to Middle Eastern terrorist groups, openly) supporting and training terrorist groups in Central Asia, notably the Uzbek IMU.