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Afghanistan: America Distinguishes Military Options From Nation's Political Future

  • Charles Recknagel

As Washington has declared a global war on terrorism, U.S. officials are sounding two distinct themes. The first is that the U.S. is preparing for military action in Afghanistan if the ruling Taliban militia does not hand over terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden. The second is that Washington is not in the business of "nation-building" -- in other words, it does not necessarily see toppling the Taliban as part of the objective of apprehending bin Laden. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at what the two statements indicate about the emerging U.S. strategy regarding Afghanistan.

Prague, 28 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- During the past week, the U.S. has stepped up pressure on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia to turn over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, even as the Taliban has given little sign it will do so.

Washington has dispatched aircraft carrier groups to the region and begun calling up U.S. military reservists to provide American forces with the logistical support they need for a campaign overseas.

At the same time, U.S. President George W. Bush has maintained his ultimatum to the Taliban that they must "hand over the terrorists or share their fate."

But as the pressure on the Taliban has mounted, Washington has also sent a clear message that it does not view the goal of any operation in Afghanistan as creating a new government for the country.

Bush said the best way to bring the terrorists to justice is "to ask for the cooperation of citizens within Afghanistan who may be tired of having the Taliban in place." He added, "We are not into nation-building.... We're focused on justice."

RFE/RL asked regional experts to analyze what recent statements concerning U.S. military and political objectives reveal about Washington's strategy on Afghanistan.

Roy Allison, at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, says Washington is signaling that it is determined to pursue a two-track strategy in Afghanistan.

The first track is that the U.S. wants to punish bin Laden and his suspected terror organization, Al-Qaeda. The second is that it wants to build an international consensus over the shape of Afghanistan's future. And, Allison says, this week's messages underline that Washington wants to keep the one track from interfering with the other. Roy Allison:

"I think there are different issues here. One is the attempt to locate bin Laden and his infrastructure and Al-Qaeda and to act against that. The other is looking forward to what kind of governance would be best [for Afghanistan] and would also command international support. In practice, the latter is something that could be endlessly discussed because different countries have different views, and many of them would say they want [all issues] run through the United Nations. The U.N. should have a role, [nevertheless] I anticipate that there will be a [U.S.] military response to what is seen by America as an act of war."

Allison says that by seeking to keep military action separate in the public mind from Afghanistan's political future, the U.S. administration may also be seeking to reassure Afghans and people in neighboring states that any upcoming operations are not an attack upon the Afghan people. The Taliban has sought to convince Afghans that Washington wants to impose its own government on their country. Allison:

"[Washington's] concern is that if it was perceived that the political objective would be to install, in some way from outside, a government -- particularly if that was one which represented essentially the [Taliban opposition] Northern Alliance -- then not only would that be unacceptable to Pakistan, which has been supporting the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, but it would also be unsustainable within [Afghanistan] because it would not have the support of a significant part of the population, the Pashtun."

But even as Washington says it is not in the business of nation-building, many analysts say that the U.S. -- as well as many other countries -- believes some long-term solution to Afghanistan's political problems now finally must be reached. The country has been wracked by more than two decades of war since the 1979 Soviet invasion; it has no functioning legal economy; and it is the source of the world's largest population of refugees.

Fiona Hill, a regional specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, interprets this week's statements by Bush as signaling that he wants any "nation-building" for Afghanistan to be an international responsibility.

"This is [an instance] where the United States will be operating in a multi-lateral, multi-national fashion. I think it is very true that the United States does not want to be solely responsible for this. So, this will be a coalition and the United Nations' [Secretary-General] Kofi Annan has already expressed a desire to be actively engaged in this, in the future of Afghanistan, as well as in the fight against terrorism."

Hill says that U.S. officials recognize that nation-building in Afghanistan would be an extremely complicated process, one which could only succeed if it involved neighboring states as well as the people of Afghanistan themselves:

"We [would be] trying to do something quite similar to the case of East Timor after the violence there. And if you also look at the Balkans, at Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is a perfect example of just how difficult it is to nation-build and just what a long-term venture this is. Because certainly in the case of rebuilding Afghanistan, every single neighboring state has an interest, every single neighboring state has a serious concern, and obviously the people of Afghanistan themselves need to have some major say in their future. So this is a venture of the highest order, just as difficult as putting together an international coalition to tackle Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda."

The U.N. has a forum for seeking a regional solution to Afghanistan known as the "6+2 Group." The group, formed in 1997 under the leadership of the U.N. secretary-general, comprises the six states bordering Afghanistan, plus Russia and the United States.

But whatever efforts the international community makes, Allison says that ultimately it is the Afghan people who must decide their own future.

"Ultimately, Afghanistan will need to find its own political solutions because I don't think that a significant part of the Afghan population would support a government that they feel is not theirs. One option would be to convene a traditional tribal council [Loya Jirga] at some stage, which would then form an interim government. And then these two together could then set the ground rules for an election process to form a more permanent government."

For many observers, it remains an open question whether -- after the 11 September terrorist attacks -- the Taliban can still play a role in Afghanistan's political future. The militia, like other factions fighting in Afghanistan, depends on outside sources for its financial and military support. And whether or not it is toppled in strikes against bin Laden, that support can be cut off -- particularly from Pakistan, which is now a member of the antiterror coalition. That might happen if it is demonstrated that the Taliban has become inextricably linked with bin Laden's terrorist network. Allison:

"If it appears that in reality bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda organization and the Arab Islamists there and the Taliban government are so bound together, then it is very difficult to see how you can act against the source of this terrorist attack and eradicate the danger of similar occurrences in the future and keep the Taliban as such in power."

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has refused to surrender bin Laden and has told his people that anyone aiding the United States will face the wrath of the militia.