Afghanistan: The long view

WASHINGTON — Indications here that military action was imminent started to crop up toward the end of the week. “Sunday or Monday,” a senior intelligence source mumbled to himself at the end of a conversation Friday evening. Late Saturday afternoon, key midlevel Pentagon officials were suddenly called into work. And by Sunday morning, Washington time, the aerial bombardment of Afghanistan was under way.

At this point, it’s far too early to tell what difference the strike will make. However, according to a number of career military and intelligence officers interviewed Sunday afternoon and evening, the real thrust of the bombing has considerably less to do with physical demolition than it does with psychological and political warfare.

“Let’s be clear, there is no infrastructure over there,” says Mel Goodman, a professor at the National Defense University and former chief of the CIA’s Soviet/Third World analysis desk. “There’s so little to bomb. Their air defenses aren’t that formidable. Neither is their air force. You can break communications, but that’s temporary.”

A veteran officer of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO) with extensive South Asia experience concurs. “You can batter that ground to death and eliminate what few facilities there are for training terrorists,” the officer said, necessarily requesting anonymity. “And maybe you take out some ammo dumps and generators. But I don’t know that that’s really going to make much difference. So you knock out the electricity in Kabul and Kandahar. Big deal. Most of the country doesn’t have electricity anyway, and electricity was never key to mujahedeen victory.”

Switching sides

The real question, old spooks and soldiers say, is how the bombing will impact the notoriously fickle relationships between certain tribal factions who constantly shift allegiances between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. For spies and diplomats who worked Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s or the Taliban’s rise during the 1990s, a quiet mantra has been, “You don’t buy an Afghan, you rent him” — something then-Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel publicly noted in a December 1996 press conference, adding that this “is nothing new and certainly not exclusive to any faction.”

While the Taliban’s cadre are certainly battle-hardened, Goodman points out that in the entire decade the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, “they never brought anything to bear on the mujahedeen like what the U.S. unleashed today,” and suspects the bombardment will cause some tribal commanders to throw their lot in with the Alliance. (Whether or not those commanders will require something sweeter to maintain alignment with the Alliance — and whether or not the CIA has a mechanism in place to give them what they might want — remains to be seen.) According to the veteran DO officer, this is “exactly what we’re after. We want to get them to go do it themselves. We’re not screaming to send in the Army, because it’s an extremely difficult place to supply, and armor and artillery are almost useless.”

Just how much assistance the Alliance is likely to get from U.S. and British special operations troops isn’t clear, but some defense observers believe soldiers from U.S. Special Forces and Britain’s Special Air Service are already on the ground, at the very least training Northern Alliance soldiers in the use of laser targeting devices or perhaps conducting forward air control operations themselves. According to the DO officer, while several television stories have shown elements of U.S. Special Forces training and convey the notion that they’re ready for covert missions in Afghanistan, the officer believes their role should be minimal because, despite their superior training, “they’re going to get their clocks cleaned.”

Both Goodman and his anonymous former colleague are also concerned that too visibly close cooperation between the Northern Alliance and foreign troops could drive capricious freelance commanders into the arms of the Taliban, as the Afghans have been historically hostile to outside invaders above anyone else. That’s yet another reason Goodman says he “hopes to hell we don’t put any of our own on the ground,” except perhaps as forward air controllers to “help make a pilot a pretty good marksman.” These are all reasons, the veteran DO officer says, “to start the whole process (of the 1980s) over, only try to start it this time with somebody who subscribes to a different brand of Islam and who looks at running the country differently.”

But to many, this is a proposition fraught with peril.

Unstable ground

During its brief time in power from 1992 to 1996, the Northern Alliance hardly distinguished itself (except badly) in the peaceful governance and human rights departments. And while intense efforts are under way at forming a broad pan-Afghan political coalition of anti-Taliban parties, some veteran diplomats and intelligence officers are skeptical that such a confederation would survive after a victory over the Taliban.

And, they say — echoing myopic decisions of the past — that really shouldn’t be the U.S. concern, given what they see as an inevitable continuation of violence in Afghanistan, regardless of who’s in titular control. “The only time Afghanistan has had anything like a stable government was between the end of World War I and World War II, and that was only in the form of a king who was nothing more than a negotiator between warring groups,” says the veteran CIA officer. And during the 1980s, he noted: “We eventually discovered that the mujahedeen factions were caching a substantial amount of the weapons and supplies we were providing through ISI (Pakistani intelligence), in anticipation of fighting each other after they got rid of the Soviets. I mean, they had a longer view than we did. They didn’t want a stable government. They wanted to keep fighting. Like they have been forever.”

When asked about Afghanistan’s future last week, President Bush said, “We don’t do nation-building.” But after he committed $320 million in emergency food, medicine and shelter to Afghan civilians, he added that “for the longer term, I urge Congress to make funds available so that one day the United States can contribute, along with other friends of Afghanistan, to the reconstruction and development of that troubled nation.”

To some, it seems clear Bush is dangling the prospect of future aid in front of disparate anti-Taliban forces as an incentive to put rivalries aside and commit to a peaceful post-Taliban future. And by dispatching State Department Policy Planning Office chief Richard Haass to Rome to speed the establishment of a post-Taliban coalition with exiled King Zahir Shah at its center seems to indicate awareness of the past mistake of simply walking away.

For the long haul

However, if Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden has his way, the United States will be making a long-term aid commitment to Afghanistan’s future. Last week the Delaware Democrat proposed a $1 billion “down payment” in advance of a “multinational, multiyear, multibillion dollar” effort that would bolster women’s rights, open desperately needed medical facilities, help establish infrastructure projects and create schools for all children regardless of sex. “If we had not lost interest a decade ago, perhaps Afghanistan would not have turned into the swamp of terrorism and brutality that it has become,” said Biden.

“It is time to reverse more than a decade of neglect, not only for the sake of Afghanistan, but for our sake.”

Jason Vest is a regular contributor to the American Prospect, the Nation and In These Times.

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