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U.S.: American Experts Differ On Approach To Afghanistan

  • Andrew Tully

To American officials, there is no argument that the Taliban militia is not the right group to be governing Afghanistan. But there is wide disagreement about what the U.S. can do to encourage a more moderate leadership. Some ideas were aired Thursday before a U.S. Congressional committee in Washington. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 21 July 2000 (RFE/RL) - American experts on Central Asia agree that the Taliban militia, which controls most of Afghanistan, is a "rogue" movement. But they disagree on how Washington should deal with the problem.

A State Department official told a committee of the U.S. Congress on Thursday that the administration of President Bill Clinton believes America should increase pressure on the Taliban while helping Afghan opposition groups.

But a former State Department official testified that the U.S. should engage Afghanistan more by maintaining a limited diplomatic presence in Kabul.

However, there was no disagreement at the hearing that the Taliban has imposed an extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism on the people of Afghanistan.

The hearing was convened by the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. Its chairman, Senator Sam Brownback (R- Kansas), and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), a member of the panel, normally agree on virtually nothing. But both were emphatic about their accord regarding the Taliban's harsh rule.

Brownback, Boxer and the witnesses also agreed that the Taliban supports international terrorism by harboring accused terrorist Osama bin Laden, that it promotes the drug trade, and that it violates human rights -- especially the rights of women.

In his introductory remarks, Brownback made it clear that the U.S. should not have full diplomatic relations with the Taliban.

"No, we should not be engaging in normalized relations with a country that's not just a country of concern, it's a rogue nation with a rogue set of policies."

The first witness was Karl Inderfurth, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. He said the Clinton administration has previously tried limited engagement with the Taliban, but without success.

Inderfurth said the administration's policy -- far from diplomatic engagement -- has two elements. The first is to bring pressure on the Taliban in the areas of drug trafficking, terrorism and human rights. The second element is to help Afghans in and outside their country determine for themselves how Afghanistan will be governed. He said Washington supports convening a "Loya Jirga" or "grand council" of Afghan leaders to do just that.

Inderfurth said that in order to implement this strategy, the U.S. must work with other nations -- particularly Afghanistan's neighbors.

"This is not and cannot be an attempt to impose some kind of outside power dictate on the proud people of Afghanistan, which history teaches would be futile. What we seek is not so much confrontation with the Taliban, as common cause with all the other players who wish to contain and ultimately overcome the threats that the Taliban present."

Inderfurth told the American senators that the Clinton strategy has a good chance of succeeding. He noted that the Taliban has not been able to extend its control to more than about 85% of Afghanistan, and that its influence over the people is beginning to wane.

The second witness at the hearing was Peter Tomsen, a former special envoy to the Afghan resistance and now a professor at the University of Nebraska. He agreed with Inderfurth that the Taliban is beginning to lose some of the control over Afghanistan. So far, Tomsen said -- echoing the words of Senator Brownback -- Washington seems to be doing nothing to weaken the Taliban further.

"The principal problem, Mr. Chairman, is that there is not, and has not been, and American policy towards Afghanistan since the '92 collapse of the communist regime in Kabul. It was only after the 1998 Osama bin Laden-instigated bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa that U.S. policy on Afghanistan began to stir."

Tomsen recommended that the U.S. try to bring influence on Afghans by setting up a limited diplomatic presence in Kabul. Among his other recommendations was to discourage neighboring Pakistan from encouraging Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, and to improve relations with Iran, which also encourages religious intolerance in Afghanistan.

Another witness was Hamed Karzai, an Afghan tribal leader now living in America. He said the U.S. and its allies could bring the same kind of pressure on the Taliban as it did on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein when his forces invaded Kuwait. Karzai did not specifically call for military intervention in his homeland. But he said the West could apply the same kind of resolve as it did in the case of Kuwait. Like Tomsen and Inderfurth, he cited Pakistan as being most at fault for promoting religious fundamentalism in his country.

"All Afghans sincerely believe that the international community -- but particularly the United States and Western Europe -- have the capability to intervene and put pressure on our neighbors -- especially on Pakistan. The United States and its allies did precisely that in Kuwait."

Short of that solution, Karzai said, at least the U.S. and its allies can take three steps that could hasten the demise of the Taliban: First, they could pressure the UN to work for a cease-fire among warring factions in Afghanistan. Second, they could support the "grand council" of non-Taliban Afghan leaders, as suggested by Inderfurth. Finally, he said, the Western allies can demonstrate its good will by donating food aid to Afghans now suffering from one of the worst droughts in recent Afghan history.

The hearing was set up to explore what the United States could do to deal with the continuing problem of the Taliban.