Meet Our New Best Friends: The Afghans

“Aye we have found him, the fair young face
Turned to the pitiless Afghan skies
The frost bound earth for a resting place
Dead–with the horror of death in his eyes.”

Those lines were written in 1879 by an Englishman then serving in Kabul. Like a thousand other similar quotations, it expresses more eloquently than mere historical narrative the fate of the foreigners–Russian, British, Persian–who have tried to invade Afghanistan. The very name given to the mountains of Afghanistan–the Hindu Kush–means “killer of the Hindus.” Nor do we have to stretch our memories back very far to remember one of the more spectacular failed invasions of that country. The Soviet troops pulling out of Afghanistan in 1989, a mere 12 years ago, heralded the collapse of one of the world’s superpowers, as it then was. Afghanistan wasn’t just the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, it was the Soviet Union’s coup de grâce.

But Afghanistan is not difficult to invade merely because it is remote. Afghanistan is difficult to invade because its geography makes it almost impossible to control, even using modern methods of warfare. The high mountains and narrow river valleys are laced with underground tunnels, which partisans of various kinds have been using for generations. Satellite photographs, heat-seeking missiles are all useless in this sort of terrain. So, for that matter, are tanks. Bombing cities to terrorize the population wouldn’t do much good either: The cities, such as they are, hardly have any infrastructure to destroy, and the population is numbed to terror. The only kind of anti-terrorist operation that would have any chance of success in Afghanistan is a commando operation, led by the people who know the terrain best: the Afghans themselves.

As no one much noticed in recent years, there is an opposition to the Taliban. It is called the Northern Alliance and, not coincidentally, its leader was murdered a few days ago. On the eve of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, another, far less spectacular suicide bomb–placed by two Arabs posing as journalists–killed Ahmed Shah Masud, a popular leader and a moderate Muslim, who has led the Alliance ever since his famous victories over the Red Army during the 1980s. Masud had visited Europe last spring, in the company of his foreign minister. Both of them impressed journalists (myself included) and politicians alike. They were modest in their demands, asking for humanitarian aid, not military backing.

They also made it clear that they would very much like the United States to shift its attitude in the region, from one of complete neutrality to at least mild favoritism of the anti-Taliban forces. Bush was apparently considering this but hadn’t gotten around to it. Despite the attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, Clinton, for eight years, never considered it at all. This may someday be remembered as the single greatest foreign policy failure of his administration, which preferred to turn over the whole region to the Pakistanis, who have backed the Taliban all along. Now Masud is dead, probably murdered in anticipation of the terrorist attack: Bin Laden understood better than the Americans that Masud would have been America’s best weapon, having operated in precisely the region that Bin Laden’s terrorists now occupy.

There are, however, other leaders. Most notable among them is Ismael Khan, the mujahideen general who ruled Herat for a couple of years after the Soviet withdrawal. While he was in power, 45,000 children actually went to school in the city–half of them girls. When the Taliban later recaptured Herat, they shut down the schools and forbade girls from studying, even at home. Since then, Ismael Khan has been variously in Taliban jails (he escaped) and in Iranian exile, but he is now said to be back in the northern part of the country, leading the resistance. Farther to the south is Haji Kadir, the former governor of Jellalabad, who made the mistake of trying to enforce peace and disarmed the local mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal: He was then taken by surprise when the Taliban attacked. He is a Pashtun, an ethnicity he shares with many of the Taliban leaders, and is currently leading the anti-Taliban resistance in Pashtun territory.

But while picking one or two Afghans to befriend may help us win one or two battles, even that won’t win the war. It is no less imperative that we in the West strengthen our relationships with moderate Muslims all over the world: In Egypt and Turkey, in Morocco and Indonesia, among the Iraqi opposition, among Iranian students. Our response to last week’s attacks must not begin and end with the destruction of Osama Bin Laden’s camps, if we can even find them. This is also an ideological and cultural war, one which may take years, if not generations, to win. We may destroy Bin Laden–but what about his sons and grandsons?  

No permanent solution can be created by finding a few of “our bastards” to set against “their bastards” either. Pro-Western Muslims, or rather Muslims who are interested in creating liberal, tolerant, Islamic societies, are our only legitimate allies in this struggle. Not only are they just as deeply opposed to fundamentalism as we are, they are much better equipped to compete against it, as they can offer a counterexample: a way to live a good Islamic life in the modern world. Both the military and the political means we use to fight against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism must be subtler than ever before, certainly subtler than they were during the Clinton administration. A few cruise missiles hitting a few dubious targets isn’t going to fix anything for long.

Readinglist: Anyone who really wants to know more about the origins of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance should read Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban, published by I.B. Tauris in 2000.