- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

Though pockets of Taliban fighters continue to resist and al Qaeda operatives still huddle deep Himalayan caves, the Taliban's fractious military collapse suggests the "Afghanistan combat operations phase" of America's Millennial War is approaching a conclusion.

The Pentagon and the State Department must be prepared to answer the question "So what comes after the caves?"

For Osama Bin Laden, the "post-Afghan cave" world is either afterworld or bitter aftertaste. He may escape Afghanistan, if he's particularly adept and very lucky, but America has made the point there are no more havens and safe-harbors.

For America, however, there may be no escape from Afghanistan, or at least no quick, clean break.

Given the chaos and confusion afflicting Afghanistan, the Pentagon buzzword for ending combat operations, "conflict termination," is much too humdrum.

In fact, a well-informed cynic might argue that chaos and confusion always afflicts Afghanistan, with peace in that tough region being the odd and precious moment when international warfare, violent tribal clashes, and big-time banditry briefly lapse.

Thus "conflict termination" in a region characterized by insistent small-scale armed struggles is both (1) an impossible task and (2) a necessary chore, as are most assignments Washington dumps on the Pentagon and State.

The United States wants to end the fighting in Afghanistan with the Taliban toppled and al Qaeda's Afghan network eradicated. It wants the object lesson "you don't attack the United States" fully emphasized. To maximize the object lesson, Washington doesn't want Afghanistan left with too many fraying political wires, several million starving refugees and a new crop of vicious bums in control.

Trust the military to have another dry but applicable phrase, "post-conflict operations." In "post-conflict ops," a military presence remains, but political and economic programs begin to supercede the bayonets.

"Post-conflict ops" intend to further U.S. war aims and "lock in" the battlefield victory. Consider the end of World War II. In the case of Japan, the United States decided to let the Japanese keep their emperor. Debate still rages over Hirohito's degree of involvement in Japan's aggression, but the U.S. decision produced immediate political stability. In Germany, the Allies decided they weren't going to make the mistake they made after World War I and simply leave a defeated Germany to chaos and radicalism. The Allied occupation, a de facto partition, led to a political division that lasted more than four decades.

World War II also illustrated that even a decisive victory doesn't necessarily produce a robust peace. World War II simply reshuffled the deck. Defeat Germany, and Russia fills the power vacuum. Defeat Japan, Russia and China fill the power void.

In Afghanistan, despite the presence of a former king, there is no emperor. Don't paint the Northern Alliance in pastels, nor anti-Taliban Pashtuns these guys are battle-hardened warlords whose personal and tribal goals briefly overlapped our own. The deck's being reshuffled.

However, the United States has learned, tragically, that anarchy in even the world's most remote corners attracts anti-American terror cliques like al Qaeda. Afghanis deserve the opportunity to try to escape their own debilitating history of fractious infighting, rebuild and reach new political accommodations.

A U.S. and coalition abandonment of Afghanistan is in no one's best interest. In the reignited civil war, Taliban factions would reassert themselves. A humanitarian disaster would follow, with millions starving and Washington taking the blame.

But taking on Afghanistan as an American "nation-building" project has little appeal and little likelihood of success. The United States wants to focus on the next major combat phase, be that Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan or elsewhere.

U.N. bureaucrats say they have a role, but the U.N. has a dismal track record for providing stability when armed factions remain in place.

This argues that the United States needs to remain in Afghanistan as "the lead nation," at least politically and economically. This means it needs to keep rapid-reaction forces, if not in Afghanistan, at least within regional striking distance. The military and political burdens, however, must be shared. Several Muslim nations, Turkey among them, have offered peacekeeping forces. The Turks have the added attraction of being NATO troops.

Washington needs to encourage maximum effort and participation by nongovernmental relief organizations.

Ultimately, fostering stability in Afghanistan means promoting regional stabilization. Afghanistan's immediate neighbors Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan must actively and positively support the Afghanis' new political accommodations. Like it or not, that's another tough mission the State Department and Pentagon must accept.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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