December 13, 2001 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security
Hold on. Before we rush off to the next phase in our
anti-terrorism campaign, we have to be sure the first phase is
truly wrapped up. And, like it or not, the war in Afghanistan isn't
In fact, the endgame there may be much tougher than most
Americans envision if the foreign members of the Taliban decide to
fight to the death or if the Taliban reverts to guerrilla warfare
in the rugged Afghan mountains, as some Taliban leaders have
Another complication: the intensifying power struggle already
under way between members of the opposition coalition, the
returning exiles, the Pushtun tribal militias and their respective
foreign backers. We can't simply leave town and assume that
whatever government sets up shop in Kabul will be an improvement
over the Taliban.
Our challenge is to turn a rout into a decisive military victory
and make sure that the post-war political structure that emerges
prevents Islamic extremists such as the Taliban and bin Laden from
returning to roost in Afghanistan. There are several steps we can
take to make sure this happens.
The first may seem obvious, until you remember how the Gulf War
played out: Apply relentless military pressure until the very end.
This is no time to ease up on the beleaguered Taliban forces --
now's the time to deal them a mortal blow. They must be defeated
soundly before they can burrow into the mountains and mount a
sustained guerrilla war. We should not accept any face-saving deal
that Taliban leader Mullah Omar negotiates with anti-Taliban
Some observers, believing our opponents to be beaten already,
may consider this unnecessary. But Taliban diehards may hope to
fight a "hit-and-run" guerrilla war similar to one the mujahideen
(holy warriors) waged successfully against the Soviets in the
1980s. Yes, many of the Afghan Taliban have melted away, but they
could regroup if the prevailing political winds change in
Afganistan or Pakistan. U.S. forces and friendly Afghans must
capture or kill the Taliban and al Qaeda before they can escape or
settle in for guerrilla warfare.
After the leaders are brought to justice, American forces should
be redeployed to other fronts in the war on terrorism, not tied
down in an open-ended "peacekeeping" mission in Afghanistan. If
introduced on a large scale, American troops could be denounced as
an occupying force. This would allow surviving Taliban leaders or a
successor movement to tap into Afghan xenophobia and Islamic
We also should ensure that the Afghans become active
stakeholders in the post-war reconstruction of their country,
rather than passive clients of U.N. bureaucrats. Let's not repeat
in Afghanistan the disastrous attempt by the United Nations to
engineer the modernization of the clan-based politics of Somalia.
Afghans fiercely guard their independence and could react violently
if they think they've been reduced to a U.N. colonial
The last step is critical to building a long-lasting peace:
Restore Afghanistan's historic role as a neutral buffer state and
keep its neighbors from meddling in its internal affairs. If
possible, the United States should negotiate a treaty with
Afghanistan, its neighbors and Russia that would guarantee Afghan
territory won't be used as a base to threaten any other
The notion of a stable Afghanistan may sound quaint to modern
ears, but we should remember that it enjoyed nearly 50 years of
stability, from 1930 through 1978, before external meddling
disrupted its internal politics.
First, the Soviet-supported Afghan communists sought to impose
totalitarian rule on a fiercely independent traditional society by
force. Then the Pakistani-supported Taliban sought to impose its
harsh Islamic extremism by force. Freed of outside meddling,
there's a good chance that the Afghans could reach a consensus on
how to share power, especially if they're rewarded with generous
international aid for rebuilding their shattered nation.
And make no mistake: The Afghans must be the ones who do it. True nation-building can't be imposed from the outside. Others can help, but Afghans must be free to chart their own course for the future. Ultimately, only they can provide effective peacekeeping forces and keep their country from being re-infected with the virus of Islamic extremism.
James Phillips is a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
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