History Warns Against Simply Arming Afghan Insurgents

The Bush administration says it will use covert forces to oust Afghanistan's Taliban government. But history -- especially the last two decades -- tells us that such efforts from abroad are doomed and counterproductive.

Now that President Bush has approved a secret plan to support guerrillas, Washington pundits are calling on the CIA to work with the Afghan Northern Alliance -- a coalition backed by Russia, India, and Iran. The group, which controls about 10 percent of the country, is composed mainly of minorities such as Tajiks and Uzbeks, who are found on both sides of the northern border with the former Soviet Union. Already, the alliance is a preferred conduit for food aid, because the U.S. is the biggest contributor to international organizations that give such aid.

The alliance's surviving leaders, including its nominal president, Burhanuddin Rabani, and its military chief, Rashid Dostum, are remembered with hatred in Aghanistan for their role in provoking the murderous civil conflict of 1992 in which 50,000 civilians were reportedly killed. Alliance leaders' disregard for civilian life was shown again when it shelled Kabul two weeks ago.

There are also calls for the U.S. to work with potential dissidents from the southern, dominant, Pashtun group (representing 40 to 45 percent of the population), traditionally backed by Pakistan. After years of subsidies from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the CIA, most of these leaders are now sympathetic to and often financed by Islamic fundamentalism. It will be hard to exclude the associates of the dominant Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who are themselves often sympathetic to bin Laden.

According to the recent book "Reaping the Whirlwind," by Michael Griffin, Hekmatyar -- like bin Laden -- is widely reported to have links with both the narcotics trade and international Islamist terrorist movements. Griffin, a widely traveled freelance journalist, has worked as information consultant for UNICEF in Afghanistan.

It is possible that these coalitions could succeed with outside help in ousting the Taliban. But it will be hard to avoid a return to the collapse of central authority, which in 1994 made most Afghans welcome the Taliban's restoration of order.

This is why some White House officials favor turning away from these factions to a fresh start -- by convening an emergency loya jirgah (great council) to establish a constitution and government under the guidance of the 86-year-old former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

Such an initiative will remain academic and irrelevant unless it can attract support from moderate elements inside the Taliban itself. That would require diplomacy, an approach not given much favor by the White House until recently.

Pakistan is the logical country to explore diplomatic initiatives with the Taliban. The ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, has the best contacts with the Taliban leadership it helped to install.

But Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar has rebuked President Bush's appeal for help from Afghans inside the country in ousting the Taliban. Sattar has warned that any foreign meddling in Afghan politics would again, as in the past, lead to great suffering.

In the past few days, it has become clear that U.S. meddling could have an unsettling effect inside Pakistan as well. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf came to power there through a coup led by the army, where support for the Taliban remains strong.

The last great hope for peace in the region emerged a decade ago, when the U.S. and Soviet Union entered into a dialogue aimed at achieving a mutual withdrawal. This would have led to an interim government, sponsored by the secretary-general of the United Nations, and reinforced by the hegemonic influence of both powers over other states in the region. All nations would have been forced to agree that they would end their support for their various factions inside Afghanistan. Money would have gone instead into reconstructing the battered nation.

The plan failed chiefly because of the break-up of the Soviet Union. The CIA in particular has been accused of continuing support in 1990 to Hekmatyar, against official U.S. policy and with a view to preempting the U.S.-Soviet dialogue.

Today, Russian President Alexander Putin is willing to support a U.S.-led campaign against terrorism partly because he expects that campaign to endorse Russian efforts against the allies of al-Qaeda in Chechnya. But the aid he has promised is to the Northern Alliance --his best hope for containing radical Islamic movements in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which are based south of the Afghan border.

Meanwhile, the clamors from ex-CIA officers for allowing the CIA to recruit criminals suggests that they favor resuming contacts with their drug-financed proteges of the past (some of whom already had heroin refineries when the CIA started aiding them in 1979).

In other words, both great powers appear to be turning their backs on their diplomatic approach of 1990 -- the only plan, some experts say, which ever had a chance of success.

Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat, has authored numerous books and articles on U.S. foreign affairs (pdscott@socrates.berkeley.edu).


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