The bombing part is easy. Not of course on the civilians, the “collateral damage” likely to be killed in unseemly large numbers, as they were during the Gulf War.
The problem after any such binge is what happens the morning after. The Taliban will retreat to its caves, ready to fight an endless war of attrition, and the fundamental questions facing the US-led coalition will be the same: Is it possible to install any Afghan government with a popular base and sufficient integrity to rule? Can this new leadership keep the battle-hardened Taliban in check militarily?
If not, is the US public prepared for the possibility of an endless and costly quagmire, along the lines of what the Soviets faced in the 1980s? By making an ally of the Taliban’s enemies in the Northern Alliance–which currently holds only about 10% of Afghanistan–we may be following the Soviet example of making a very bad situation even worse. Our surrogate Afghans are drawn from ethnic minorities unlikely to rally the Pushtuns, who make up the largest ethnic group and form the base of support for the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Aside from being unrepresentative of the country’s population, the member groups of the Northern Alliance are largely responsible for the violent chaos of the mid-’90s, which made the fanatical Islamic order imposed by the Taliban seem attractive in comparison.
We are, once again, in bed with a loathsome group of local allies, as we have been off and on for two decades even as we claimed to be interested in bringing peace and democracy to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban were once our surrogates in the war against the Soviets, trained and armed by our CIA. Our latest favorite “freedom fighters” may prove just as problematic down the road.
After all, these are the same folks who once killed 25,000 civilians in the capital of Kabul with random rocket fire. They have continued to receive the condemnation of Amnesty International and other human rights groups.
And when it comes to the basic rights of noncombatants–particularly women and children–both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance sport horrendous human rights records, having “engaged in rape, summary executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and ‘disappearances,'” according to the most recent Human Rights Watch report.
Also troubling is that the thugs and warlords of the Northern Alliance have been highly dependent upon Russia and Iran for hardware and direction. It is no small irony that Iranian ayatollahs, ex-Communist Party leaders and former KGB honchos will vastly increase their influence in the region.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies–strong supporters of the Taliban–are forced to betray it as part of that country’s suddenly vital but very suspect alliance with the United States. President Bush is relying heavily on a dictator-general who is in command of nuclear arms, and the incredibly dangerous Pakistan-India arms race now has our tacit approval.
Hopefully, by the time one reads this the despicable bin Laden and his cohorts will have been captured or killed by special forces from the United States and Britain operating on the ground under the protection of air cover or by agents of another government as they attempt to flee across the Afghan border.
But while such an outcome would be welcome, it would hardly be the end of this saga. Religious fanaticism thrives on martyrs and the frustration and outrage that follow in the wake of their deaths.
What is required for defeating terrorism is to dry up the vast pools of discontent in which fanaticism is bred, a task inevitably made more, not less, complicated by the devastation of massive bombing campaigns.
The only answer to the current crisis is the emergence of a strong, fearless and popular worldwide Muslim leadership that can fight its own battles against the extremists, who, most of all, threaten Islam’s ability to establish a satisfying way of life.
President Bush is right in declaring that Islam is not our enemy. But it is more important to find moderate Muslims, like the brave new king of Jordan, to provide true, independent leadership in the regions in which their religion holds sway.
We need them now, not pressed into service as window dressing but as true leaders whose wisdom we respect, leading us through this treacherous terrain.