LONDON — Four out of five: Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Kabul and Jalalabad. All but one of Afghanistan’s major cities have been lost by the Taliban and captured by the Northern Alliance in less than a week, and the last, Kandahar, is likely to fall at any time. Neither Washington nor anyone else expected so sudden a collapse. So the burning question at the Pentagon, in the National Security Council, in all the decision-making centers of the United States and the other members of its antiterrorist coalition, is what to do next. The answer is to stop.
Stop the bombing, above all. It has achieved a lot by breaking up the Taliban’s fixed defenses and demoralizing their troops, but it can do little more now that the Taliban forces are pulling back into the hills and reverting to guerrilla warfare. There is far more to be gained in goodwill by stopping the bombing during Ramadan, both in Afghanistan and in the rest of the Muslim world, than there is militarily by continuing to bomb.
Yes, we know that bombing pauses have a dreadful reputation among the U.S. military after the way they were used in Vietnam, but that really was different. There, the U.S. was facing an entire people in arms, and trying to persuade them to abandon the military victory they were gradually winning on the ground by punishing them from the air. Every once in a while Washington would stop to see if they were hurting enough yet. Ridiculous.
In Afghanistan, by starkest contrast, the U.S. has won on the ground — or at least its local allies have — and the Afghan people are not America’s enemies. Even among the Pashtun, who are the Taliban’s ethnic base, most people will be ready to abandon them as losers now, provided that Washington doesn’t plaster every hilltop in their territory with bombs and convince them that it is yet another foreign invader that must be resisted.
Washington should ask itself: Does it really intend to send American and other foreign troops up and down every hill in the Pashtun-populated parts of Afghanistan, taking casualties every step of the way, in a vast campaign to “pacify” the south, wipe out the Taliban, and hunt down Osama bin Laden? Of course not.
Does Washington think that the Northern Alliance troops, with scarcely a Pashtun among them, are going to volunteer to do that job, or that they could do it without turning every Pashtun in the country against the U.S.? Of course not.
Well, then, what is the point in just bombing the rural areas of southern Afghanistan? Doing so will only kill lots of innocent civilians and drive the rest back into the embrace of the Taliban without accomplishing a single useful thing. Surely the objective now must be to create a competent and broadly-based Afghan government as fast as possible, and let it do the final work of tracking down the Taliban die-hards and “foreign guests” who linger in the hills.
Creating that government is admittedly going to be trickier now, given the sheer scale of the victory that the Northern Alliance has won with Washington’s help. They are bound to want the lion’s share in the new government, even though the various minority ethnic groups they represent probably only account for half of Afghanistan’s population. To stop them from achieving that aim, the U.S. needs to get lots of its troops into Afghanistan’s cities. Now.
This should be done under the pretext of delivering aid — and deluge the country with aid: God knows it needs it. But Washington should make sure American troops go in as formed units, with impressive amounts of military equipment. They don’t have to fight the Taliban, but they do need to overawe Northern Alliance commanders who are tempted to set up little local empires in the good old Afghan style.
America won’t have to fight its way in now. Provided U.S. forces move in the next few days before Northern Alliance control hardens into some form of local administration in the captured cities, they won’t meet overt resistance. Washington should make sure to include lots of non-U.S. coalition troops, not just from the usual suspects like Britain, France, Canada and Germany, but also from as many Muslim countries as possible. (The Turks are probably ready to move right now, and are thoroughly professional soldiers.)
And remember that the point of the operation is not to mop up the Taliban. It is to create a competent, ethnically balanced and potentially popular Afghan government, give it enough financial resources to win that popular support and start building a real Afghan Army — and then leave it to the new Afghan government to finish off the Taliban and hunt down bin Laden.
If the U.S. gets some intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts in the meantime, by all means it should send its special forces after him, but it shouldn’t count on it. Its main problem now is to stop him from slipping across that mostly uninhabited 1,400-km border into Pakistan. But if bin Laden stays in Afghanistan, he’ll be easy enough for the new government to find once the flow of defections from the Taliban begins to grow. And it will grow, especially if the new army pays three or four times as well as the existing tribal militias.
As for the U.S. and other Western troops, they should stay just long enough to stabilize the situation and persuade the Northern Alliance that it must share power with other groups. Then they should be replaced with a robust, U.N.-backed force made up entirely of Muslim troops that stays until the new government is securely on its feet — and make sure that none of those troops come from Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, all of which have been backing rival sides in the civil war for the past decade.
If the U.S. does this, it might walk away from Afghanistan with a success on its hands. But Washington should remember that it has been very, very lucky, and not get overconfident. And above all, Washington should avoid attacking Iraq.