- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2001

United States military action inside Afghanistan appears imminent. We should use our enormous military power wisely, in a way that achieves our strategic political objectives: ending the hemorrhaging of international terrorism from Afghanistan, drug trafficking, gender and human-rights violations, restoring peace and stability at the center of the Eurasian landmass, reopening the historic east-west, north-south silk route trade corridors connecting Europe and Northeast Asia, the Newly Independent States, including Russia, and South Asia.

By doing it right, America will succeed in Afghanistan and also enhance its moral authority around the globe, including within the Muslim world. The president will emerge from this shattering crisis as a strong and effective world leader.

How to get there? Our approach must bear in mind certain facts about Afghanistan, which is not a functioning nation-state. There is no government in Kabul. The capital is in ruins. The semiliterate Taliban mullahs have no administrative machinery beyond military and security assets that fold into the Osama bin Laden international extremist network now rooted in Afghanistan.

Devastated by nine years of violent communist totalitarianism forced on Afghanistan from the Soviet Union, Afghanistan has since suffered under a variant of Muslim extremist totalitarianism forced on it from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. To the great majority of Afghans, each is equally alien to Afghanistan and equally pernicious.

The principal threats to the Muslim extremist coalition rooted in Afghanistan are other Muslims, not the United States or the West. The assassination of the leading anti-Taliban Afghan commander Ahmed Shah Masood by two Arabs from the coalition two days before the coalition's attacks in the United States were launched from this same source.

Taliban popularity has been on the downswing in Afghanistan since early 2000. The heavy influx of radical Arabs and Pakistanis has accelerated the trend of Taliban decline.

Most Afghans resent these foreign teachers, "fighters," and "advisers" who have taken over whole neighborhoods in Kandahar and Kabul. Conversely, Pro-American sentiment runs high in Afghanistan because of U.S. assistance to the Mujahideen against the Soviets and a positive outlook on the United States that existed for decades before the Soviet invasion.

The traditional tribal and clan structure that ruled Afghanistan for 300 years prior to the Soviet invasion (the stuff of James Michener's "Caravans") has thrown up centers of military opposition to the Taliban in northern, western, and eastern Afghanistan. The anti-Taliban resistance forces communicate with each other but operate independently in their own localities against the Taliban. They have liberated six districts since April.

The anti-Taliban forces are natural allies of the U.S. Our assistance to them should be conditioned. Before any arms, funds, or tactical air support are provided, we must insist that these separate resistance centers organize a national military and political alternative to the Taliban inside the country.

Supporting one Afghan leader or faction to capture Kabul will only lead to another bloody inning of foreign intervention, civil war and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan after the Taliban are gone.

Large-scale U.S. moral and material assistance to a national political-military alternative to the Taliban will hasten the expulsion of the Muslim extremist coalition from Afghanistan. Just as important, it will restore a legitimate Afghan governmental framework to fill the political vacuum in the post-Taliban period.

Most Afghans support the return of the exiled Afghan King, Zahir Shah, currently living in Rome. Afghans now look back nostalgically on the king's period of rule, including two democratically elected parliaments and advances toward a civil society.

If called for by the resistance forces, the majority of Afghans would support the convening of a traditional large gathering (Loya Jirga) of tribal, military and religious leaders. This gathering, possibly presided over by the king, could select a legitimate, temporary government for Afghanistan the first one since 1973. Public U.S. government and congressional statements have supported the Loya Jirga process. It is critical, however, that these political moves clearly be Afghan initiatives. The U.S. should play only a supporting role. (In 1848, a British army attempted to reinstate an Afghan monarch, Shah Shuja, with disastrous results.)

The United States should begin now to coordinate a long-term multinational assistance package to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. The large aid package could be positioned for implementation if the Afghans succeed in creating an effective national political-military alternative to the Taliban and reclaim their country.

Militarily, the United States must be wary of excessive utilization of American military power. Repeating our air war in Kosovo, for example, would only strengthen the Muslim extremist appeal inside Afghanistan and in other Muslim countries.

As on the political front, the anti-Taliban Afghan Muslim forces and not American troops should carry on the military struggle against Osama bin Laden and the foreign-Afghan extremist coalition in Afghanistan. The United States can provide substantial and overt military assistance to the anti-Taliban Afghan commanders (we supported nearly all of them during the Soviet invasion) as well as precisely targeted tactical air support for their offensives.

In sum, the United States faces great challenges as we go after bin Laden and the extremist Muslim coalition in Afghanistan. But we also have substantial assets in the pro-American and anti-Taliban sentiments of the great majority of Afghans. We should employ those assets in the context of implementing a sound, long-term policy to achieve our broad strategic goals in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

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