Post-Taliban Afghanistan

Post-Taliban Afghanistan

The collapse of the Taliban means the focus there must shift to relief of its citizens.


With the rapid collapse of the Taliban, the world's focus must now shift to the creation of a viable government and relief of the sufferings of the Afghan people. Military victory is worthless unless the urgent humanitarian needs of the populace are quickly addressed and a transitional government–supported by an international security force–is put in place. At this point, the nightmare scenario is that Afghanistan will slide into anarchy, a venue of free-ranging terrorists, clashing warlords and a shadow economy based on drug and contraband smuggling. The precipitate move by the Northern Alliance troops into Kabul, and the re-emergence on the scene of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the alliance's president, raised the specter of endless power struggles, especially as various warlords and ethnic factions seemed poised to carve up the country among themselves. Assurances by representatives of the United Front (as it is now known) to US and UN representatives that they would participate in talks at a neutral place and their opposition to an international military force in Kabul were contradictory signals.

What sort of transitional government will eventually emerge must be left to the Afghans, but it should measure up to the description by the "Six Plus Two" countries of "a broad-based, multiethnic, politically balanced, freely chosen Afghan administration representative of [Afghan] aspirations and at peace with its neighbors." We would add that representatives of Afghan women, excluded from preliminary talks in Rome, must be allowed to participate fully in the conference and in any governing entity that results. And this entity should also incorporate human rights into its charter, exclude perpetrators of war crimes from government posts and police forces and grant no amnesties to those convicted of such crimes.

Beyond these fundamentals we cannot expect democracy to bloom immediately in that ravaged land. UN representative for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi is said to be hoping for at best a representative transitional government that can govern for a two-year period. This entity should provide internal stability while the United Nations helps the Afghans get back on their feet.

Right now everyone agrees that the world must not abandon Afghanistan as it did after the Soviets departed. The UN is committed to national reconstruction for the long haul, but it cannot succeed without US, European and world support. Both Brahimi and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan fear that the West, particularly the United States, will set up the UN for failure by assigning it the herculean task of nation-building without providing it the resources to do the job.

Hunger and suffering pose a collateral threat to internal stability. As many as 5 million people face dire food shortages, and 130,000 refugees live in makeshift camps in Pakistan. Washington and the UN must secure cooperation from relief agencies in Uzbekistan and other food-transit nations as well as insure rapid and safe distribution of food, shelter, warm clothing and medicine inside Afghanistan.

As for the war on terrorism, the United States should clarify its objectives for the next phase. There are already calls by Washington warriors for the United States to take out other groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah, and to make a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein. But the Administration must avoid entering into a campaign against an open-ended list of enemies. Unless there is a demonstrable threat to US security from a specific group, Washington must not get into the business of choosing between terrorists and national liberation groups. Instead, we should be working with other nations and the UN toward an expeditious settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute (we wish Secretary of State Powell had shown more urgency in his November 19 remarks calling for Israel to halt settlements and recognize Palestinian grievances) and toward an end to the sanctions on Iraq.

For the longer term, there must be a new deal for Arab and Islamic peoples, who have been shortchanged by the global economy. The rise of bin Ladenism reflects the failure of reactionary Arab states to provide for their citizens' basic needs; it also reflects the suppression of the democratic dissent that would generate reform. These failures have handed credibility to extremist groups, which provide social services and religious schools while preaching hatred of America for its support of corrupt regimes and the suppression of Palestinians.

Evoking the post-World War II Marshall Plan, British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown recently called for an additional $50 billion a year in financial aid to the world's poorest countries. Former President Jimmy Carter termed the gap between the rich and poor "by far the most important single problem in the world." It's time for a new Marshall Plan–a multibillion-dollar World Bank-UN Development Program initiative, funded in part by the West and in part by the wealthy oil-exporting countries in the Islamic world, aimed at bringing economic development, education and subsidized healthcare to the Arab and Islamic world. This is not utopianism–it is hardheaded realism.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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