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Why Won't The Bushies Give The Northern Alliance Its Due? - Unstated Objective

Why Won't The Bushies Give The Northern Alliance Its Due? - Unstated Objective

Author: Lawrence F. Kaplan
Publication: The New Republic - Issue date 11.26.01
Date: November 15, 2001
URL: http://www.tnr.com/112601/kaplan112601.html

A wonderful thing happened this week in Afghanistan. So why does everyone in the Bush administration--everyone, that is, except officials at the Pentagon--sound so glum? Because with the fall of Kabul, the United States achieved an impressive military victory and suffered an impressive diplomatic defeat. Having urged soldiers of the Northern Alliance to fight the ground war it would not, the United States then stipulated that they not enter the capital. Unsurprisingly, they did.

Foggy Bottom's special coordinator for Afghanistan, Richard Haass, privately warned Northern Alliance representatives two weeks ago to halt short of the city. Last Sunday, Colin Powell repeated the admonition in public, saying, "it would be better if they were to `invest' the city." And, at Powell's urging, President Bush announced that the Northern Alliance should advance "but not into the city of Kabul itself." It was left to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to remind the public why the United States supports the Northern Alliance in the first place. "[T]he goal is, as soon as humanly possible in the right way, to get the Al Qaeda and the Taliban the dickens out of Kabul," Rumsfeld insisted on CBS, even as Powell was urging restraint on NBC. "[The Alliance is] going to attack and take Kabul when they feel like it ... and when they think that they're capable of defeating the Taliban and getting them out of there." Which is exactly what they did.

The contradictory messages were but the latest example of an exceedingly strange feature of the war in Afghanistan: Publicly at least, the United States treats its proxy scarcely better than its foe. So low was the State Department's opinion of the Northern Alliance that last month it didn't want the bombing to begin at all, arguing that the United States should instead wait for the contours of a future Afghan government to emerge. Then Foggy Bottom insisted that the U.S. air campaign exempt Taliban forces arrayed against the Northern Alliance, so the rebels couldn't advance on Kabul. Finally, the Pentagon took over the war--with swift and astonishing results. But as the anti-Taliban offensive draws to a close, and war management slowly reverts to the diplomats, the pressure for calibration and political refinements has returned. As has America's shabby treatment of the soldiers who have been fighting and dying to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban.

Prior to the seizure of Kabul, Pentagon and Northern Alliance officials claim the Defense Department conveyed to the anti-Taliban rebels, both in Washington and on the ground in northern Afghanistan, precisely the message Rumsfeld repeated in public: Fight. Indeed, U.S. Special Forces even accompanied the Northern Alliance into the city. The episode illustrates an important truth about this war: Relations between the United States and its proxy have thus far been conducted nearly exclusively by the Pentagon. The State Department, by contrast, has had barely any contact with the Northern Alliance--a fact that accounts in large part for the muddled message Alliance officials claim to have received from the United States. And, with the fall of the capital, the message became even more confused than before. As the locus of the war moved south this week, administration officials debated two options: Either they could rely on local Pashtun uprisings against the Taliban, or they could encourage the overwhelmingly non-Pashtun Northern Alliance to continue its march. Fortunately, the anti-Taliban Pashtun seem to have taken Washington's cue. But, in the event they did not, Pentagon officials said they would have had no qualms about relying on the Northern Alliance instead. The State Department, however, had plenty.

"What you're seeing now is the same [State Department] hand-wringing that held up the bombing [of northern Taliban positions]," complained one senior administration official on the day Kabul fell. "The arguments never change." What were those arguments? First, State Department officials argue that the last time the Northern Alliance had a say in governing the country--prior to the Taliban's seizure of the capital in 1996--it made a hash of things, most notably Kabul, which it all but leveled. The second argument holds that were the minority-dominated Northern Alliance to march south of Kabul, the Pashtuns would recoil into the arms of the Taliban. And the third and final argument is that if Afghanistan falls into the hands of the Alliance, it could destabilize Pakistan.

None of these arguments entirely holds up--perhaps because all three originate from Pakistan, which loathes the Northern Alliance. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's insistence that "[i]f the Northern Alliance enters Kabul, we'll see the same kind of atrocities against the people there"--a claim U.S. officials have been regurgitating daily--is largely contrived. To begin with, the destruction of Kabul in the mid-1990s was to a great extent the work of Pakistan's own client, the Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who killed thousands of residents and shelled the city into dust after breaking with the Northern Alliance's Ahmed Shah Massoud. And since the capture of Kabul this week, we have seen little evidence of the widespread atrocities predicted by Pakistan. To be sure, there have been isolated cases of the Alliance meting out rough and violent justice to Arab and Pakistani cadres. But, for the moment at least, Kabul is a city celebrating its liberation with music, kite-flying, and discarded burqas.

The corollary to this argument--that rapid Northern Alliance gains would prompt wide-scale ethnic conflict--boasts a curious history as well. For years Pakistani leaders have promoted real and imagined Pashtun grievances, seeking to wield Pashtun nationalism as a club against the Northern Alliance while at the same time deflecting it away from their own territory. But Powell's concern that the Northern Alliance not advance too far because Afghanistan's factions "are of different tribal loyalties"--echoing as it does his contention that the war in Bosnia had "deep ethnic and religious roots that go back a thousand years"--is misplaced. Afghanistan's divisions largely derive from political differences and, to a lesser extent, religious ones. As Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin has observed, inter-Afghan conflict "is almost entirely about power and security. While the groups are ethnically distinct, none of them has an ethnic ideology, and inter-ethnic hostility remains quite low in Afghanistan." Indeed, the ethnic structure of Afghanistan's 20-year-long war has shifted as routinely as its battle lines. And, as the rejoicing in the streets of largely Pashtun Kabul suggests, it's already shifting once more.

The most serious argument for restraining the Northern Alliance has always been that a Northern Alliancedominated government could destabilize Pakistan. For years the State Department has deferred to Pakistan's wishes concerning Afghanistan--including its early sponsorship of the Taliban. True to form, Foggy Bottom officials argued that, were Kabul or Kandahar to fall to the Northern Alliance, enraged Islamist extremists in the Pakistani officer corps might try to overthrow President Musharraf. But other administration officials find the argument unpersuasive. "[Musharraf] has that country wired," says one. "If he feels so threatened, what's he doing in New York?" According to officials managing the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, Musharraf wields an iron grip on the army and shows no sign of being besieged by his country's comparatively weak religious parties. "[Musharraf] is worried about India, not about himself, and certainly not about our interests," says a senior Bush adviser. Indeed, the argument about Pakistani stability, like the others the State Department has been peddling (including the desirability of "moderate Taliban" representatives in any new government), originates with the Pakistanis themselves.

If the State Department exaggerated the danger of working closely with the Northern Alliance, it minimized the danger of doing the reverse. Foggy Bottom's arguments against the Alliance always presupposed the existence of an alternative force that could govern Afghanistan. But so far there isn't one. Despite having had two months to do so, the State Department has failed to assemble an Afghan governing coalition or to persuade UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to organize a peacekeeping force. (In a sign of the administration's impatience, earlier this month much of Haass's Afghanistan portfolio was handed to a new envoy, diplomatic troubleshooter James Dobbins.) Nor have the CIA's efforts, which culminated in the disastrous capture and execution of opposition leader Abdul Haq, proved any more impressive in this regard. Hence, the Northern Alliance claim that its forces are policing Kabul in the absence of any alternative has an indisputable basis in fact--a fact, moreover, for which the United States bears no small measure of culpability.

But even more important than the absence of a viable governing alternative to the Northern Alliance has been the absence of a viable fighting alternative. Indeed, to have restrained the Northern Alliance at the gates of Kabul would have served no purpose other than to embolden the Taliban south of the city. Fortunately, the Pentagon continued to prod the Alliance forward. The State Department may not be working closely with Alliance forces, but the U.S. military's coordination with them improves daily. And, explicitly recalling Powell's disastrous Gulf war advice that a sizable chunk of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard be allowed to retreat from Kuwait unscathed, Pentagon officials claim that had Pashtuns not acted in the South, they would have backed a Northern Alliance advance there as well. Far from being preoccupied with the tumult that such a move may have provoked, Defense Department officials argued that the more chaos in southern Afghanistan the better, as pressure from the Northern Alliance would have flushed Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives out into the open. As it happens, anti-Taliban Pashtuns may already be doing that themselves.

So the ground campaign continues as it began. From the first days of this war, Foggy Bottom has denigrated the Northern Alliance in its pursuit of a secondary political aim--the stability of postwar Afghanistan--at the expense of the war's essential aim, the destruction of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But whoever could best achieve the latter aim always deserved our support. After all, who's doing whom the bigger favor here? The Northern Alliance has bled for us and toppled the Taliban. In return, President Bush says that the Northern Alliance will receive no preferential treatment from the United States, and a State Department official claims it will be entitled only to a "very subordinate role" in a postwar government. The administration would do well to remember that it's only because of the Northern Alliance's "very subordinate role" in the war that Afghanistan has a postwar government at all.

(Lawrence F. Kaplan) is a senior editor at TNR.

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