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U.S.: Analysts Ponder Post-September Changes To Foreign Policy

  • Jeffrey Donovan

For weeks, Americans have been repeating the mantra that "everything has changed" since the 11 September terrorist attacks on Washington and New York. But with the international community likely to face a massive post-war effort to rebuild Afghanistan, the verdict is still out on whether everything has changed in the foreign policy of the administration of President George W. Bush.

Washington, 24 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the United States-led military campaign gathers speed in Afghanistan, global leaders are scrambling to prevent a dangerous power vacuum from enveloping the chaotic country once its ruling Taliban militia is ousted.

U.S. and British warplanes have recently started to attack the Taliban's front-line positions in a bid to help the opposition Northern Alliance advance toward key cities, including the capital Kabul.

But as the Taliban's fall appears increasingly imminent, according to analysts, the question of what to do once it's gone is becoming all the more urgent.

The analysts say that by all accounts, "winning the peace" in the Central Asian nation will be a long and expensive task -- precisely the kind of "messy commitment" that the Republican administration of President George W. Bush sought to disengage the U.S. from upon taking office in January 2001.

Back then, the Bush team spoke openly about the need to pull U.S. peacekeeping troops out of the Balkans and avoid engaging in costly "humanitarian interventions."

But if it's true that "everything has changed" since 11 September, analysts say it is far from clear to what extent the Bush team will change its own policy stance with regard to "nation-building" and foreign assistance in the wake of the terrorist attacks that cost more than 5,000 lives.

Sarah Mendelson, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, says the attacks proved that big foreign assistance commitments must be considered vital means for protecting against future terrorism. Mendelson made this observation: "The point is that fundamental to U.S. national-security interests has to be the developments inside other countries. You know, poverty is ultimately a security issue."

Charles H. Fairbanks, a Central Asia expert with Johns Hopkins University in Washington, agrees. The recent terrorist attacks, Fairbanks says, were partly the result of the U.S. having ignored Afghanistan over the past decade: "I think that, probably, the World Trade Center would still be standing if we had not made that mistake in the early 90s -- that we allowed a power vacuum and chaos in Afghanistan, and the Taliban emerged to fill that power vacuum; and they, in turn, were receptive to our most extreme enemies and acted as hosts for them. That could have been prevented."

Most analysts, to be sure, say the Bush administration will strongly back the effort to rebuild Afghanistan, especially with economic assistance -- perhaps in return for an ethnically broad-based government that shuns any ties to terrorism and is acceptable to neighboring nations.

For its part, the administration has not said much on the matter. But at a news conference in Washington in early October, President Bush underscored the role the United Nations should eventually play in Afghanistan: "One of the things we've got to make sure of is that all parties, all interested parties, have an opportunity to be a part of a new [Afghan] government, that we shouldn't play favorites between one group or another within Afghanistan. Secondly, we've got to work for a stable Afghanistan so that her neighbors don't fear terrorist activity again coming out of that country. Third, it'd be helpful, of course, to eradicate narco-trafficking out of Afghanistan as well. I believe that the United Nations could provide the framework necessary to help meet those conditions."

Despite Bush's comments, however, analysts say some in his administration still argue that the U.S. should keep out of any such entanglement. Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, another Washington think-tank, espouses that view. He made this observation: "The goal of the United States ought to be fairly limited -- that is to say, we want a situation in place in Afghanistan where terrorists do not have safe harbor and do not have assistance from an Afghan government. Whether a post-Taliban government is democratic, tolerant, pro-Western, or anything else would be a nice bonus. But it is not really an important goal, or should not be an important goal, of the United States."

In recent days, Western and Eurasian countries as well as the UN have made a push to build a global consensus on rebuilding Afghanistan. Their efforts have focused on encouraging the creation of a transitional government led by exiled King Zahir Shah. Like the Taliban, Zahir hails from the Pashtun ethnic majority, and analysts say he could enjoy strong backing among them. Yet he also appears to have support from the mostly Uzbek and Tajik Northern Alliance.

While Bush would like to see the former king succeed in forming a broad-based, democratic government, Mendelson says a long-term commitment to stamping out terrorism would require his administration to fundamentally alter its foreign policy approach: "Hopefully a part, a large part, of the counterterrorist strategy is going to be to completely rethink how we assist other countries in political, social, and economic growth and transition."

And if Bush ends up embracing such a view -- rather than resorting to his original unilateralism -- everything indeed will have changed after 11 September.

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