- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2002

PESHAWAR, Pakistan.—"Why are you letting them in?" screamed the Afghan refugee. Her burqa hid her age but not her anger: "The Americans are not good. They are hurting our people in Afghanistan."
Our small party quickly retreated. A crowd was gathering, and we had already been warned that another camp was unsafe for foreigners. Obviously, not all Afghans were grateful for being liberated.
The Bush administration has overthrown the Taliban and smashed the al Qaeda network, but it says U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan at least to midyear. Washington's allies are hoping to move peacekeeping forces into the Afghan countryside. Unfortunately, winning the war was easy compared to creating a liberal and stable government in Kabul.
Washington should temper its objectives: Afghanistan's political development doesn't matter so long as Afghans aren't helping Arabs kill Americans.
The United States had a vital interest in ending Afghanistan's support for a murderous terrorist network. Washington has fulfilled that objective brilliantly.
There is no similar stake in attempting to construct a new regime in Kabul. Although the United States could not abide another government that sheltered terrorists, that is quite unlikely to develop. Washington has demonstrated that while it will not enforce the right to, say, fly a kite, it will depose a government that allies with groups hostile to the United States. Ruling elites, like the Taliban, then will find themselves to be former ruling elites. Even the most xenophobic Afghan warlord is not likely to host an al Qaeda training camp in the future.
To try to create a nation-state in the West's image would be a fool's errand, however. David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy, acknowledges: "Ideal social engineering projects devised in the United Nations Security Council or in regional organizations cannot be imposed on populations."
That is certainly the case in Afghanistan, an artificial country. It is sharply divided among ethnic groups, which dress, talk and worship differently. They have stronger ties with ethnic brethren in surrounding states than with each other. There is little loyalty to the entity of Afghanistan.
Britain's Lord Curzon, who did much national map-redrawing in his career, called Afghanistan "a purely accidental geographic unit," an outgrowth of the so-called Great Game played by imperial Britain and czarist Russia.
The mind boggles at the thought of the United Nations trying to "nurture" democracy in Afghanistan. Local warlords have re-emerged out of the ashes of Taliban rule, controlling an estimated 80 percent of the population.
Foreign peacekeepers might deter them from battling for control of Kabul. Far more difficult will be dampening growing violence elsewhere: rival factions have, for instance, been fighting in the provincial capital of Gardez.
Simple banditry in outlying areas will be hard to suppress, even if Britain and other countries pour in more troops. And no occupation will generate allegiance to whatever set of political figures is recognized by the West as the national government. Still, Ivo Daadler of the Brookings Institution speaks of a peacekeeping operation "only for a limited time a matter of months." In fact, such a short-term, soft approach would likely leave little imprint.
Thus, any occupation inevitably would end up long-term. In 1995, President Clinton promised that Americans would leave the Balkans after one year. They are still there.
But a longer, tougher presence would generate local opposition that could easily turn violent. It's one thing to stick around to eradicate the remnants of al Qaeda. It's quite another to, as suggested by President Bush, try to bring stability to Afghanistan.
Of course, Washington's allies should be welcome to try to do so if they want. America's comparative advantage is fighting wars. The Europeans are better at garrisoning defeated lands. Does the West have a responsibility to try to recreate Afghanistan? Olivier Roy, of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, opines: "America is fighting now because it left too soon 13 years ago."
But the United States was never there. Washington aided Afghan rebels struggling against rule by the Soviet Union and its Afghan surrogates. Once Moscow withdrew, the Afghans were no more disposed to accept direction from America.
And the West's recent efforts at nation-building give little reason for confidence. Somalia and Haiti remain disasters. Bosnia is an artificial state that survives only through Western military occupation. In Kosovo, even NATO's military presence did not prevent the ethnic cleansing by Albanians of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and non-Albanian Muslims.
Such experiences should lead to humble expectations in Afghanistan, a land at war for two decades and riven with murder, hatred and treachery. The Taliban's ouster does not mean the onset of peace and democracy.
Washington can live with an Afghanistan in which a weak central regime governs Kabul while tribal warlords control the rest of the country. What the United States cannot accept is an Afghanistan that hosts terrorists who strike at America.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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