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On Point

Afghanistan's Changing Battleground


by Austin Bay
October 7, 2009Eliminate commercial jet transports connecting continents, and the tangled tribal, economic, anarchic and ideological problems vexing Afghanistan become more localized torments afflicting Afghanis and their neighbors.

What? The jets aren't going away? Has Barack Obama failed to apologize for American Airlines, Southwest and United? What an uncomfortable  fact: swift jet transportation shrinking oceans to a matter of hours places your home within commuting distance of chaos, murder, mass terror and the kind of blighted men who use deadly anarchy and crime to build their version of earthly Paradise.

Of course the terrorists and tyrants, the blighted men, are the culprits here, not the jumbo jets, and it isn't Americans they slay first, but villagers and developmental assistance providers in range of their Kalashnikovs. Modern transportation technologies do put their sad corners of the planet near your New York and Washington, however. Sept. 11 demonstrated that, as airliners hijacked by tribal fanatics became manned missiles striking targets with global economic and security significance.

Using "peaceful" transport aircraft as weapons was the evil judo of men seeking 12th century goals exploiting 21st century technology.   "Witness the destruction that awaits you, America," al-Qaida's apocalyptic killers and their apologists sneered, "the global future lies not in your modernity but in our version of the past renewed."

That was fall 2001, when al-Qaida claimed divine providence and the Taliban was attempting to impose its "past renewed" on Afghanistan. The war for the terms of modernity had been going on in Afghanistan for years; via jumbo jets New York learned it, too, was on the battlefield.

In fall 2009 the wicked problem presented by Afghanistan differs from that of 2001, and President Barack Obama must understand those differences.

In fall 2001, U.S. and Northern Alliance forces demonstrated that al-Qaida and the Taliban did not have God on their side. Afghan elections in October 2004 were indicative of popular aspirations, when 8 million voted, despite terrorist violence. International observers reported that when the Taliban blew up a bridge near one polling place, the voters forded the stream and kept coming. At Polling Center 217, a poll watcher found a "veritable parade" of women in blue burkas waiting to vote -- OK, still in burkas, but women engaged in an act of political modernization anathema to tribal killers.

Five years later, the Taliban and al-Qaida remain political rejects. Afghanis recall the brutality of Taliban rule and al-Qaida's leaders are rich, snobby foreigners hiding in caves. Iraq's emergence as a new, democratic state in the Arab Muslim world threatens tribal warlords and religious fanatics with a modernizing alternative on their home turf. These are significant defeats for both organizations.

The Taliban, however, has changed, becoming more of a Pushtun-tribal drug army. Heroin money energizes its attacks, not Islam.   Corruption in Afghanistan's frail national government appalls Afghanis who hope for better -- real change is slow and must be nurtured.

Events in Pakistan directly shape today's Afghan battleground.   The November 2008 Mumbai attack by Islamist terrorists exposed Pakistan's smoldering civil war. After Mumbai, India gave Pakistani modernists a choice -- end the threat posed by your fanatics, or we will end it, on our terms.

The Pakistani government has taken the war to Taliban sanctuaries, placing the Taliban between two slow grindstones -- Pakistan's army to the south, NATO to the north. The Taliban surge of guerrilla and terrorist attacks in Afghanistan is an attempt by current Taliban leadership to escape the trap by breaking Afghan and international will to persevere. A surge of NATO forces would thwart this ploy both politically and militarily, particularly if Pakistan permits cross-border "hot pursuit" operations.

Terrorists exploit anarchic regions -- that is why defeating them means winning a global war. In certain locales, Somalia for example, a "contain and raid" approach may suffice. A seacoast where the U.S. can use its Navy makes counter-terror raiding a more attractive option. In landlocked Afghanistan, a robust counterinsurgency campaign supporting nation-building is the best strategic choice because a stable, self-policing Afghanistan promotes stability from India through Pakistan and deep into central Asia.

Achieving that difficult, time-, treasure- and blood-consuming goal requires a continued major international military presence. It also requires morale-sustaining leadership by a U.S. president who understands on planet linked by Internet and jumbo jets there is no place to retreat.
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