July 30, 2002 | Backgrounder on Middle East
The United States has scored a decisive military victory in Afghanistan against the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the radical Taliban regime and must now work to assure a stable peace. Although the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies1 were forced to flee into hiding, they remain a potentially destabilizing force in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. The paramount U.S. goal must be to hunt down the top leaders of these Islamic terrorist movements and bring them to justice. The direct threat that they pose to Americans also has given the United States a clear stake in the establishment of a stable Afghan government that can actively block their return to power.
In cooperation with the multinational International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), U.S. military forces should play a role as the ultimate guarantor of the interim government under President Hamid Karzai. Though the priority of U.S. policy must be to hunt down the terrorist leaders, for long-term political stability it will be crucial to secure international economic support and multilateral cooperation among Afghanistan's neighbors, particularly in a reformed Pakistan.2
In attempting to shore up the Afghan state, Washington must not succumb to the temptation of nation building, as some suggest. Afghanistan is a country, but not a nation. Its territory has long been divided by deep-seated geographic, ethnic, religious, and tribal cleavages, and it would be foolhardy to assume that these divisions can be overcome by foreign social engineering imposed from Washington or the United Nations. Afghan Communists, backed by the military might of the Soviet Union, were unable to impose their rule after a 1978 coup despite 14 years of war that claimed over a million Afghan lives. The extremist Taliban failed to impose its will in northern non-Pushtun areas after coming to power in 1996 despite the support of the Pakistani army, thousands of foreign Islamic militants, and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from Saudi-born Osama bin Laden and other Islamic extremists.
Twenty-three years of continuous warfare have created a complex constellation of regional, tribal, and ethnic leaders, including some denigrated as "warlords" in the Western media. These stubborn and hardy survivors of Afghanistan's kaleidoscopic politics will not meekly accede to foreign plans for nation building or bow down to a Kabul-based central government if they perceive that doing so threatens their personal power. To create a stable political environment favorable to regional peace as well as to U.S. interests, quarrelsome factional leaders in Afghanistan must be convinced that they have much to gain by cooperating with the U.S.-backed central government and much to lose by opposing it.
To this long-term end, the United States should make clear that its primary interest is to prevent international terrorists from using any part of the country as a base of operations in the future. It should revise its military strategy for fighting a low-intensity counter-guerrilla war and provide military resources for limited non-combat functions, as appropriate. The President should resist pressure to define victory in Afghanistan by arbitrary timetables instead of war aims. U.S. combat troops should not be committed to a U.N. peacekeeping or nation-building effort in Afghanistan, as some have suggested; nor should they be used to support the expansion of the mission of the international peacekeeping force beyond its current role.
The United States should provide expert help to train an Afghanistan army and build infrastructure as well as civil institutions. It should also consider limited technical advice and aid to Kabul to encourage judicial reforms that bolster economic opportunities for the Afghan people. And it should support a new political arrangement in Afghanistan that conforms to the political facts on the ground.
The United States won an overwhelming military victory in the first phase of the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. The military operations, begun less than a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, had successfully driven the Taliban out of power in Kabul by mid-November, even before the World Trade Center ruins in New York had stopped smoldering.
Today, the situation in Afghanistan is extremely favorable militarily for the United States and its allies. Approximately 7,000 U.S. soldiers have been deployed, along with 5,000 peacekeeping troops in the ISAF to maintain order in the capital. The al-Qaeda forces, after briefly trying to make a stand in their longtime mountain redoubt at Tora Bora and then vainly trying to regroup near Gardez, have been forced to disperse and go into hiding. Most of them are believed to have fled into Pakistan.3
In spite of the favorable military situation, however, the political situation in Afghanistan is increasingly troubling. Although U.S. troops have captured or killed roughly half of the top 30 leaders of the Taliban, they have not captured Mullah Mohammed Omar, its supreme leader, or many of his chief lieutenants. This is an indication that many Afghans, particularly the ethnic Pushtuns of southeastern Afghanistan, have refused to cooperate in hunting down these leaders. Some Pushtuns, particularly in the Taliban's former strongholds in southern Afghanistan, have helped them to avoid capture. Many Pushtuns, members of the largest ethnic group that historically has dominated Afghan politics, clearly resent the ascendancy of Tajik leaders from the northern part of the country in the interim government formed in June. The Tajiks, along with members of the Uzbek and Hazara ethnic groups, had formed the backbone of the Northern Alliance opposition to the Taliban regime.
The current government is to rule for two years until elections are held to form a new one. Hamid Karzai, president of the interim government, is a Pushtun from southern Afghanistan who has sought to broaden his ruling coalition by including more Pushtun leaders. These efforts suffered a setback on July 6 when Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir, the second highest-ranking ethnic Pushtun in the government, was assassinated in Kabul. Qadir, a man who had many enemies, could have been the target of the Taliban, which he had fought for many years; al-Qaeda; or Afghan drug smugglers threatened by his efforts to eradicate the poppy crop, which the Taliban and al-Qaeda have relied on in part to help fund their operations.4 His unsolved assassination has ignited suspicions among Pushtuns that he fell victim to the Tajik-dominated intelligence and internal security services, which could drive a bigger wedge between Pushtuns and non-Pushtuns in the government.
Afghan domestic politics recently were roiled by a July 1 incident in the village of Kakarak 70 miles north of Kandahar. An American AC-130 gunship, providing fire support for a U.S. special forces team that had been fired upon, reportedly killed over 40 Afghans, including 25 at a wedding celebration. This special forces operation was part of the U.S. campaign to hunt down Mullah Omar and several of his lieutenants who reportedly are hiding nearby in their home province of Uruzgan.5
President George W. Bush called President Karzai to apologize for the incident, but the deaths prompted the first anti-American demonstration in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban. The incident also led the governor of the Kandahar province, Gul Agha Sherzai, to propose that U.S. military forces obtain the permission of provincial governors before launching military operations in their territories. Although the Karzai government and other provincial governors rejected that proposal, they are under intensifying public pressure to distance themselves from the U.S.-led war effort, which is becoming more unpopular among southern Pushtuns, the former power base of the Taliban.
Each tragic friendly-fire incident erodes the political standing of the United States and its relationship with the interim government in Kabul. Various Pushtun tribes could become more hostile to the U.S. military presence and to the Karzai government if they conclude that the efforts to capture Taliban leaders are part of a broader plan to assure the domination of non-Pushtun minority factions over the Pushtun tribal belt.
The window of opportunity in which many Afghans, even former Pushtun supporters of the Taliban, give the United States the benefit of the doubt may be closing. Afghanistan's bitter political rivalries are intensifying. The fragile Northern Alliance coalition is gradually dissolving amid tensions among the dominant Tajik Jamiat Islami faction, General Abdul Rashid Dostam's Uzbek faction, and the smaller Hazara factions. Warlords jealously guard their independence by playing one foreign power against another. For example, Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat province, has exploited Iranian aid to maintain an independent power base, while General Dostam receives heavy support from Uzbekistan and Russia.
The most dangerous trend is that the southern Pushtuns are becoming disenchanted with the interim government, which they believe does not adequately advance their interests. The recent assassination of Pushtun leader Haji Abdul Qadir and continued friction over the government's support for the U.S. hunt for Taliban leaders in their Pushtun strongholds are likely to exacerbate this trend. More friendly-fire incidents like the July 1 attack are likely to stoke anti-American sentiments in the Pushtun areas of southeastern Afghanistan, the focal point of the ongoing U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
These troubling trends have prompted calls on Capitol Hill for increased U.S. involvement in peacekeeping operations and efforts to assure Afghanistan's internal security. On July 7, three well-meaning U.S. Senators--Evan Bayh (D-IN), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Bob Graham (D-FL), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee--called for expansion of the U.S. military presence inside Afghanistan.6 Such an expansion of the U.S. military commitment, with its resulting mission creep, is ill-advised and could have dangerous consequences.
The successful military campaign in Afghanistan is a testament to America's warfighting abilities, especially when one considers that on September 10 no war plan was on the shelf for an Afghan invasion and that General Tommy Franks, Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command, had received the order to begin planning the action on September 20. The campaign began less than three weeks later. The success of the campaign thus far can be attributed to the fact that President Bush and his military planners followed a few simple rules about how and when to apply military force:7
Following the September 11 attacks, the United States could no longer ignore the threat of terrorism against the homeland. Although Americans and U.S. territory have been targeted by terrorists repeatedly in recent years (such as in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the August 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole), the magnitude of the September 11 attacks underscored America's vulnerabilities. Furthermore, the September 11 attacks confirmed that some terrorists will use any means to inflict as much damage as possible on the United States.8
Combined with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the threat to national security posed by this radical form of terrorism is unlike any the nation has ever faced. All elements of national power need to be harnessed to defeat it, including the use of military force.
The Bush Administration has been clear about what its objectives are and are not. The broad military objective of the war on terrorism is "to defeat those who use terrorism and those who house or support them."9 In Afghanistan, a training ground for global terrorism, the U.S. military goals are to "deprive the terrorists of a sanctuary...where they could safely plan, train, and organize--not only to capture and kill terrorists, but to drain the swamp in which they breed."10
Just as important is the clarity of the U.S. goals neither to occupy Afghanistan nor to dictate the final form of the post-Taliban government. Forging democratic institutions in Afghanistan is not a requisite of success. The United States can accept a non-democratic postwar Afghanistan as long as that country no longer serves as a base for anti-American terrorists. Until this goal is assured, U.S. armed forces must remain present and active. Once that goal has been achieved, the United States must re-evaluate its continuing military contribution.
One of the flaws in U.S. foreign and military policy during the 1990s was an over-commitment of U.S. military forces to missions that had little or nothing to do with America's important national security interests. The result was an overextended and underfunded force, which spent much of its time on missions it was not designed to conduct, such as those in the Balkans, Somalia, and Haiti.
In contrast, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was directly tied to the defense of vital U.S. interests: self-defense against Osama bin Laden's lethal global terrorist network. The threat posed by al-Qaeda, backed by the Taliban, was so severe that the United States had no choice but to take whatever action was necessary to defeat it. Now that the threats posed by terrorists in Afghanistan have subsided, the President will need to make decisions about future military resource allocation as new theaters in the war on terrorism emerge.
Public support of military efforts in Afghanistan has not waned. An April 2002 Gallup poll shows that up to 88 percent of Americans believe the United States should keep troops in Afghanistan.11 This is important because, without public and congressional support, prolonged military engagement will be extremely difficult to sustain. Public support will help keep troop morale high and give politicians the will to do what is right for the nation.
Unlike military operations of the recent past, President Bush gave America's military leaders the freedom to develop war plans for Afghanistan that were based on the best way to achieve the objectives, not the best way to appease opponents. With this freedom, General Franks was able to develop and execute a successful war plan on very short notice. He was allowed to use indigenous forces to the extent he deemed necessary, which in turn has allowed him to keep America's military footprint in Afghanistan relatively small.
By staying out of internal Afghan disagreements, the United States has been able to pursue relationships that best facilitate its military objectives. This is important in making sure that U.S. forces are not perceived as an occupying force. With this strategy, the United States has been able to advance its campaign rapidly with only around 7,000 troops, rather than the 100,000-200,000 many predicted would be needed.
Although the warfighting mission is far from over, the campaign to ensure that the "last remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban are flushed out and destroyed"12 must evolve into a reconstruction mission. Indeed, in some respects it already has. America has come under greater pressure to commit more of its military resources to this effort. Given the importance to national security of helping to build an Afghanistan that does not export terrorism, some U.S. military resources may be legitimately committed to a reconstitution effort. The critical point is to avoid committing U.S. military resources to activities that can be accomplished by other nations, organizations, or even other U.S. government agencies.
America's armed forces have done their jobs valiantly in Afghanistan. Organized and trained to fight the nation's wars, that is what they do best. Ultimately, however, the responsibility of guaranteeing a peaceful future belongs to the Afghan people, not to U.S. armed forces or policymakers. The United States should support the Afghan people in their efforts to rebuild their country, but the highest priority for the U.S. armed services should be to destroy the Islamic extremist groups that pose a continuing destabilizing threat to Afghanistan.
To that end, the United States should:
The United States decisively won the first phase of the war in Afghanistan, but now it must adjust its strategy and win the peace. Continued U.S. engagement is critical to putting Afghanistan on the right track. Washington's disengagement from Afghan affairs following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal had contributed to the ability of the ultra-radical Taliban to seize power and eventually to threaten U.S. interests. U.S. policymakers must remember that lesson.
The United States should remain engaged militarily for several years to root out the pockets of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that have burrowed into remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it should not commit military forces to an open-ended peacekeeping mission or a nation-building experiment. U.S. military troops are needed to eliminate the terrorists and crush rogue regimes that support them, not to undertake vague missions to "win hearts and minds." Such political goals are better pursued by other means, including diplomacy, economic aid, and technical assistance.
The United States owes many Afghans a debt of gratitude. They helped to block Soviet expansion at a critical time during the Cold War and helped to uproot Osama bin Laden's terrorists from sanctuaries in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. Washington should help the Afghans rebuild a stable political system and functioning economy, which would enable them to block the return to power of Islamic extremists.
U.S. policymakers should not succumb to the temptation of using thinly stretched U.S. military forces in an overly ambitious nation-building role. U.S. military forces are simply not designed for that mission, and it detracts from their effectiveness. Moreover, as Samuel Huntington, Director of the Harvard Institute for Strategic Studies, has noted, "to intrude from outside is either imperialism or colonialism, each of which violates American values."21
America can help create an environment in Afghanistan for the establishment of a stable government, and it can help the Afghans rebuild important state institutions, including a national army and a police force. But only the Afghans themselves can build a nation.
James A. Phillipsis Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies, Jack Spenceris Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security, and John C. Hulsman, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in European Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
1. For an analysis of the relationship between bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and the Taliban, see James Phillips, "Defusing Terrorism at Ground Zero: Why a New U.S. Policy Is Needed for Afghanistan," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1383, July 12, 2000.
2. See James Phillips, "Keys to the Endgame in Afghanistan," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1507, December 6, 2001.
3. Many al-Qaeda members also crossed Pakistan to go into Kashmir after the defeat of the Taliban. Western diplomats estimate that about 300 members of al-Qaeda currently operate in that troubled region. See Thom Shanker and Celia Dugger, "Rumsfeld Sees Indications of Qaeda's Operating in Kashmir," The New York Times, June 13, 2002, p. A14.
4. Qadir, who oversaw the Western-financed campaign to halt the growing of poppy plants for the production of opium and heroin, recently had complained that some of the farmers who were slated to be paid $500 per acre to uproot their poppy crops had not received the payments he had promised them. Qadir, who was suspected of past involvement in the drug trade, also may have made enemies by favoring one drug mafia over another one. See Dexter Filkins, "Afghan Killing May Be Linked to Drug Trade," The New York Times, July 8, 2002, p. A6.
5. Pentagon officials noted that U.S. forces were fired on three times in the month before the incident by Afghans who later claimed that they were merely "celebrating." See Michael Elliott, "Are We Losing the Peace?" Time, July 15, 2002, at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/printout/0,8816,300648,00.html.
6. "Senators Push for Active Afghan Role," Associated Press, July 7, 2002.
7. These rules are based on the Weinberger Doctrine that laid the groundwork for the Powell Doctrine, which was used by former Heritage analyst John Hillen to develop guidelines for U.S. military intervention. See John Hillen, "American Military Intervention: A User's Guide," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1079, May 2, 1996. The Weinberger Doctrine stated that U.S. troops should be committed to combat abroad only if it is deemed vital to U.S. national interests or those of U.S. allies; if it is made wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning; if the political and military objectives and the ways to meet them are clearly defined; if, as conditions change, the commitment remains in the national interest; if, before a commitment is made, there is some reasonable assurance of popular and congressional support; and if the commitment to arms is a last resort. See also editorial, "The Weinberger Doctrine," The Washington Post, November 30, 1984. The Powell Doctrine added to these rules that the United States should use overwhelming force to defeat an enemy.
8. Many commissions and reports had warned that the terrorist threat was growing in magnitude. "Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism," the 1998 report of the National Commission on Terrorism (Bremer Commission) is one of the most comprehensive.
9. As described at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Oct2001/t10072001_t1007sd.html (July 22, 2002).
10. Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense, statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "Developments in Afghanistan," June 26, 2002.
11. PollingReport.com, "War on Terrorism," April 1-2, 2002, available at www.pollingreport.com/terror3.htm.
12. Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "Developments in Afghanistan," June 26, 2002.
13. Thomas Ricks, "War Shifts from Combat Sweeps to Small Units Probing Shadows," The Washington Post, July 7, 2002, p. A1.
14. John Lancaster, "Many in Pakistan Mourn Slain Al-Qaeda Militants," The Washington Post, July 7, 2002, p. A12.
15. Musharraf fired the head of ISI last fall after he was confronted with intelligence that ISI continued to send military aid to the Taliban three weeks after the September 11 attacks. See Peter Tomsen, "Post-Taliban Afghanistan and Regional Cooperation in Central Asia," Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs, Vol. VII, No. 1 (March-May 2002), p. 34.
16. This recommendation is based on one by General David Grange, described in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 26, 2002.
17. Office of the Spokesman for the Secretary-General, Daily Press Briefing, December 21, 2001.
18. See James Phillips, "Somalia and Al-Qaeda: Implications for the War Against Terrorism," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1526, April 5, 2002.
19. See Marina Ottaway and Anatol Lieven, "Rebuilding Afghanistan: Fantasy versus Reality," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Policy Brief No. 12, January 2002, pp. 1-2.
20. Bill Emmott, "Building Countries, Feeling Generous," The Economist, June 29, 2002, p. 17.
21. Samuel Huntington, "American Ideals versus American
Interests," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 1 (Spring
1982), p. 20.