Avoid Dangerous Distractions in Afghanistan

July 10, 2002 • Commentary

The assassination of Afghan Vice President Abdul Qadir has produced a crescendo of calls for an intensified U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. Senators Bob Graham (D‐​Fla.), Chuck Hagel (R‐​Neb), and other influential members of Congress immediately called for a more robust and prolonged U.S.-led mission to stabilize the country. Even President Bush, who once scorned the nation‐​building ambitions of the Clinton administration, rushed to give assurances that the United States was committed to promoting long‐​term stability in Afghanistan.

Such calls are dangerously misguided. Even if the task of nation building in Afghanistan were feasible (and there are compelling reasons to believe that it is not), it would be a distraction from America’s overriding goal in that part of the world: destroying the Al‐​Qaeda and Taliban forces that were responsible for the terrorist attacks on September 11. Proponents of nation building sometimes act as though America’s principal mission is to rebuild Afghanistan, and that fighting Al‐​Qaeda and the Taliban is merely an annoying prerequisite. They need to keep their eye on the real prize.

The call for a more active U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is based on several fallacies. One is the notion that poverty and the existence of “failed states” breed terrorism. If that were true, sub‐​Saharan Africa would be the principal incubator of terrorism because that region is littered with chronically misgoverned failed states inhabited by desperately poor people. Yet sub‐​Saharan Africa is relatively quiescent, whereas the more prosperous states of the Persian Gulf region produce the greatest number of terrorists. Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were middle class Saudis, and one might have thought that such evidence would have destroyed the myth of the connection between poverty and terrorism.

A second fallacy is that only a prolonged U.S. military presence and Washington’s firm backing for a powerful central Afghan government can prevent Afghanistan from reverting to the chaos and extremism that marked the rule of the Taliban. But Afghanistan’s troubles began not when its neighbors left the country alone, but when they meddled and attempted to prop‐​up friendly governments. First the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s and then Pakistan in the 1990s sought to install and maintain pliant regimes. It cannot be emphasized often enough that, without the meddling of Pakistan, the Taliban would never have come to power in Afghanistan, and the country would not have become a haven for Al‐​Qaeda.

If outside powers simply leave Afghanistan alone, the country is likely to revert to its traditional form of governance. That was a highly decentralized system with a nominal national government but with most power held by tribal leaders and so‐​called regional warlords. It may not be either efficient or democratic by Western standards, but it served the Afghan people reasonably well for decades before the Soviet Union interfered.

One other aspect of Afghanistan’s history ought to give would‐​be nation builders pause. Although factions in the country’s complex ethnic mosaic often fight among themselves, they tend to unite against any outside power that is seen as interfering in the country’s internal affairs. The British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 1980s made that painful discovery. American forces were initially greeted as liberators as they ousted the unpopular Taliban regime. But the longer our forces linger, the more they are likely to be viewed as an occupying imperial power, and the more they will become entangled in the country’s ruthless political intrigues.

Finally, the call for nation building assumes that the primary terrorist threat is still located in Afghanistan. But that has not been true for months. The principal nest of Al‐​Qaeda and Taliban forces is now across the border in Pakistan. And Washington is neglecting that menace. Although a few U.S. troops have engaged enemy fighters (and more recently a handful of Pakistani forces has also joined the fray), a major offensive in Pakistan’s western tribal regions is required‐​and the sooner the better.

Increasing the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan to back the government of President Hamid Karzai against its opponents would be putting our troops in the wrong place against the wrong adversary. At best, a nation‐​building mission would be an endless, frustrating venture similar to those in the Balkans. At worst, American forces could become the targets of outraged Afghans. In either case, the real enemy will be smiling across the border in Pakistan.

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