by Austin Bay
Though pockets of Taliban fighters continue to resist and Al
Qaeda operatives still huddle deep in 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
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
"Post-conflict ops" intend to further U.S. war aims and "lock
in" the battlefield victory. Consider the end of WWII. 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 WWI
and simply leave a defeated Germany to chaos and radicalism. The allied
occupation, a de facto partition, led to a political division that lasted
over four decades.
WWII also illustrates that even a decisive victory doesn't
necessarily produce a robust peace. WWII 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
Pushtuns -- 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
Washington needs to encourage maximum effort and participation
by non-governmental 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.