As the ground war is picking up pace in the mountains of Afghanistan, the U.S., its allies and the region as a whole is facing long-term challenges of political, military, economic, and humanitarian nature. Their proposed solutions are as contradictory and wrought with risks, as the regional politics in and around Afghanistan have been for centuries. But if sustainable solutions are not found - and quickly - the United States may bog down in the mountains of Afghanistan for months, if not years to come, while new terrorist challenges are likely to flare up at home and elsewhere in the Middle East. And Russia and China may find such a presence annoying, to say the least.
"Russia is facing two challenges," says a Washington policy maker with experience in the former Soviet Union. "The U.S. is staying in Central Asia indefinitely - or U.S. getting a bloody nose and pulling out of Central Asia, leaving Moscow to hold the bag. Both scenarios are untenable for Moscow."
However, while the harsh winter is quickly approaching, the U.S. has not presented any vision for a post-Taliban Afghanistan, much less a vision which would be acceptable for the ethnically diverse Afghans, and for the regional powers - Pakistan, Russia and Iran. Already two weeks into the war, politicians and military commanders in Washington and in the region are facing confusion and economic challenges almost as insurmountable as the towering peaks of the Hindu-Kush and the Pamir mountains.
For now, the principal challenge facing the U.S. is the military
situation on the ground. The U.S. has a tendency to prosecute war
unilaterally, relying on the coalition for political support, not
military action. And most coalition-building measures are focused
on the Arab Middle East and Pakistan, not the vital Central Asian
dimension. Decisionmakers in Russia, the Central Asian states, and
the Northern Alliance often complain that they are treated as "poor
relatives," who are not consulted on strategy or major operational
planning. And indeed the Northern Alliance's military potential is
poor and needs a major upgrade.
Since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the Northern Alliance promised military advances against the Taliban. However, its attempts to take the strategic town of Mazar-i-Sharif and gain full control of the Bagram air base near Kabul have so far failed due to the Alliance's weakness and because of political calculations in Washington and Islamabad. The lack of desire to see the northerners taking Kabul prevented the U.S. air force from pounding Taliban positions hard enough to allow the numerically weaker Alliance to conduct a major offensive against Taliban forces.
Northern commanders are reportedly split in their attitudes toward the 86-year old King Zahir Shah and to the U.S. military operation. This is hardly surprising as many of the commanders spent years in Tehran and are presumed to have good contacts with the Iranian government. Some commanders scoff at Zahir Shah's potential leadership role, while others fall prey to the Taliban propaganda to unite and fight the infidels. For example, according to the October 19 issue of the usually well-informed Moscow paper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Abdul Rasul Sayaf, a veteran of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan and leader of a religious group, Ittihad e-Islam, has defected to the Taliban, and was bombarded by the U.S. air force on October 10-11.
Unless the U.S. becomes willing to train, supply, and support the Northern Alliance, the occupation of important parts of Afghanistan by anti-Taliban forces, and significant local support for the U.S. special forces will remain impossible. Such a position will tend to impede and frustrate Washington's primary war aims in Afghanistan: the destruction of Al-Qaeda and capture or killing of Osama bin Laden. But the predicament of the U.S. military planners is also understandable: the Pushtun plurality in Afghanistan will not accept the Northern Alliance capturing Kabul and taking the country by force. Moreover, the Alliance appears not to have the power to achieve a decisive victory in the battlefield. The Central Asian states and Russia are watching the international political maneuvering around Afghanistan with apprehension. Russia is of two minds. It wants to support its client, the Northern Alliance, but Moscow's top leadership also realizes that the coalition needs to accommodate the Pushtuns as well.
Russia would be willing to settle for a neutral Afghanistan, provided the Taliban's export of its witch's brew of militant Islam and drugs is stopped. The Taliban currently supports radical and violent organizations in Central Asia, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has pledged to depose President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, an ex-communist and a secular, authoritarian leader who recently has improved his relations with Moscow. The U.S.-Pakistani talk about integrating "moderate" Taliban into the post-war Afghanistan's political structure makes Moscow see red. The United Nations is not helping either. Its envoys, remembering the organization's resounding failures in Somalia and the Balkans, have already made the UN's lack of interest in mediating and policing an Afghani peace settlement quite clear. One possible solution, declaring the deposed king Zahir Shah, an ethnic Pushtun living in exile in Rome a constitutional monarch, and having him assemble Loya Jirga (a grand tribal conclave) is still under discussion. However, U.S. diplomats seem pessimistic about the chances of having such a congress before the Taliban leadership is eliminated.
The United States must focus immediate and high level attention on two aspects of the war, one military and one diplomatic. The first is cobbling together a military force that can defeat the Taliban; and the second the creation of a political arrangement which can police the country after the war. On the diplomatic front, the U.S. needs to assemble a regional coalition which is capable of actively supporting Afghanistan's future federal government. In such an arrangement, Pakistan needs to give up its ambitions to export its own sphere of influence North. In addition, it's time to start thinking about sustainable economic, humanitarian and drug control aspects of the post-war arrangement in Afghanistan. This task, too, is not for the faint-hearted.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Appeared originally in The Analyst