Wednesday, 05 December 2001

AFGHANISTAN: THE MAKING OF A QUAGMIRE?

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By Stephen Blank (12/5/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Of the making of international quagmires there seems to be no end.  Afghanistan is only the latest example where governments have failed or disintegrated due to their own belligerence, leaving the international community no choice but to reconstitute public order lest humanitarian disaster and war endlessly ravage it. As in many other previous cases, Afghanistan’s prognosis, despite the undoubted progress of the Bonn conference on establishing a future government, is guarded.

BACKGROUND: Of the making of international quagmires there seems to be no end.  Afghanistan is only the latest example where governments have failed or disintegrated due to their own belligerence, leaving the international community no choice but to reconstitute public order lest humanitarian disaster and war endlessly ravage it. As in many other previous cases, Afghanistan’s prognosis, despite the undoubted progress of the Bonn conference on establishing a future government, is guarded.  Not only must Afghanistan organize a functioning, legitimate, and viable government, it also confronts hunger, a huge refugee problem, the absence of virtually all the appurtenances of a modern economy, and comprises a people ravaged by twenty-three years of  war. Beyond those challenges, another round of international rivalry among its neighbors over Afghanistan’s future is already discernible.  While Washington supports Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction; its position on the country’s future politics remains unclear.  And it is still possible that the current war develop into another protracted war. By early December the Taliban was clearly defeated, and Al-Qaeda on the run. Yet peace is not secured. Afghanistan’s warring factions, despite positive commitments at the UN-led conference in Germany, are clearly jockeying for power.  The Northern Alliance has shown its inclination to act unilaterally, often against American wishes.  Many analysts suspect that its Iranian, Russian, and possibly Indian backers have encouraged this behavior in order to consolidate its primacy and its backers’ influence in any future government.  That situation only further alarms an already anxious Pakistan and fuels increasing murmuring there that Pakistan obtained no reward for supporting America and now faces a hostile and suspicious Afghanistan mainly influenced by a hostile Indo-Russo-Iranian coalition. Thus, superimposed upon Afghanistan’s abiding tribal and political factionalism, are its neighbors' continuing designs upon its political future. The political machinations, however, occur in a country whose economic infrastructure and government are nonexistent, where anarchy and armed marauders freely roam, where hunger  already exists and could soon worsen dramatically, and where an enormous refugee crisis is already visible.  Under these circumstances the warlords, aided by foreign and military coalitions could easily impede reconstruction if no political process for governing Afghanistan emerges.  This already happened in 1992-96 when the Northern Alliance’s previous incarnation squandered its victory over Afghan Communism and Soviet Russia through internecine violence and corruption, prompting the world to turn its back on Afghanistan.

IMPLICATIONS: Afghanistan could then easily become another Somalia or Yugoslavia where international forces, including U.S. forces, are either trapped there or must return to reestablish order.  If any of those possibilities or a situation resembling other failed African states ensues, the military operations required to stabilize Afghanistan will be even more protracted than the current civil war and Afghanistan’s future will be even more unpredictable and dangerous. Therefore, Washington needs to act politically and economically, if not militarily, to genuinely pacify Afghanistan and forestall further terrorism and war.  Without preferring any one group over any other, it should openly advocate a balanced and broad-based regime and include as many Afghan factions as is feasible.  Washington should mobilize foreign support behind this goal and behind a broad-ranging program of reconstruction, beyond the immediate objective of averting mass famine.   Washington must also be active politically regarding Afghanistan's neighbors. American diplomatic muscle should be brought to bear to prevent Russia and its Indian and Iranian allies from unilateral moves to dominate Afghanistan that would trigger renewed tensions with Pakistan.  Were those tensions to rise thanks to internal and foreign machinations around Afghanistan,  renewed violence that could also embrace Pakistan would not be unlikely.  Instead Washington should support an equilibrium of foreign interests in Afghanistan. This is especially true with regard to Russia. Moscow's willingness to adopt a cooperative security approach on all regional security issues (not only Afghanistan) should be a test and touchstone of its quest for genuine partnership with the West.   That equilibrium would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a pawn of the international rivalries involving India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Central Asian states, and China.  While these and other states have legitimate concerns that Afghan based violence threaten them no more, their rivalry should become an opportunity for Afghanistan to diversify its foreign policy, regarding both military-political issues and economic reconstruction, not a pretext for renewed strife.  Such strife would merely repeat the pattern of internal and irreconcilable Afghan  factions inviting foreign assistance to settle their rivalries, a proven road to disaster.  Only then will Afghanistan’s security and prospects for reconstruction become more certain.

CONCLUSIONS: Afghanistan's internal weaknesses have historically facilitated foreign efforts to exploit it in various great games or to subjugate it entirely.  While external conquest has rarely succeeded; the most recent rounds of fighting has devastated the country.  Afghanistan now can recover from that devastation with foreign help, but its new leaders must also overcome their own rivalries lest  foreign help turn into another round of traditional power politics.  In that case not only Afghans will suffer but so will those who, having played too often with fire, refused to learn that they inevitably will get burnt. 

AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst All rights reserved

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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