|This article was written prior to the attacks. I thought that after the
Soviet withdrawal there was an agreement that neither the US nor the Soviets
would send arms to Afghanistan. I guess I thought wrong. Ironically the
Russians are now arming some who were their opponents earlier. Well why not
when the US is bombing its former allies.
Cheers, Ken Hanly
The Guardian (UK)
6 October 2001
Our Afghan warlords: Arming the Taliban's opponents will only deepen the
agony of a ruined nation
BY JONATHAN STEELE (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ironic, says the TV reporter, as his footage shows sacks of American flour
being unloaded for the tide of desperate Afghans fleeing their homes in fear
of American attacks. The word is low-key, mildly critical, not daring to
stick its neck out. Ironic? Come off it. The policy is crazy. Can
decision-makers seriously recommend military action which drives people in
terror out of their homes to trek with their families across mountains and
deserts and huddle before the closed gates of Pakistan and Iran, and then
we will feed you out of the kindness of our hearts because "our struggle is
not with you but with your rulers"?
Before a single cruise missile has been launched, hundreds of thousands of
Afghans are already on the move. Imagine the even greater panic and
dislocation when the first wave of Tomahawks rolls in and the policy of
"bombs and butter" takes off in earnest.
But two weeks of TV coverage of the human misery which is Afghanistan have
not been entirely ineffective. They have provided a pause for thought and
allowed the desire for revenge to cool. They have also given millions of
people a crash course on the reality of this wretched country. A new
generation of politicians, who barely knew where the place was a month ago,
busily mugs up on the differences between Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazara and
Some are starting to understand that this is a place of constantly shifting
ethnic, tribal and regional alliances where central government has always
Time has also shown how hard it is going to be to prove Osama bin Laden's
hand behind the terror attacks, at least for the Muslim world to be
convinced. The hijackers' identities are relatively clear. Where they lived
and trained over the past few years is also coming into focus. But evidence
that their orders came from Bin Laden has not yet been found. The soldiers
are dead but the captains, let alone the enemy generals in this war, may
never be implicated.
So the target of the planned American attacks is no longer just the
mastermind. The aim is being widened, or at least deflected. Unsure where
Laden is hiding, and eager for visible signs of success, the Americans - and
Tony Blair - proclaim the Taliban leadership is equally legitimate a target.
Instead of going for the bull's eye, any hit on the dartboard will be
trumpeted as proof we've scored.
The phasing of the promised war is also shifting. Missile strikes will just
be the hors d'oeuvre. The main meal will be a sustained campaign to arm the
Taliban's opponents, the Northern Alliance, so that they can seize Kabul and
take power. We will then help them form a broad-based government and bring
back the deposed King Zahir Shah. Afghanistan is in the midst of a civil
We are not invading but responding to an invitation by one side for aid. The
Northern Alliance may not be angels. Their attitudes to women's rights and
social progress may be unappetising but they are not as bad as the Taliban.
So we are really liberators.
It sounds tempting, even noble. But wrong. I never expected to be an "old
Afghan hand". The term sounds irredeemably colonial. But perhaps I deserve
the label, as my own crash course in Afghanistan began in 1981 and I have
reported from there six times since. On each visit the country had slipped
deeper into the jaws of ever-widening war. During the Soviet period, I was
the small and unfashionable minority which came to the view that the
Moscow-supported governments of Babrak Karmal and Najibullah were lesser
evils compared to the ravages which the CIA- and MI6-backed moja hedin were
likely to cause if they ever took power. Ravage Afghanistan they did. In the
communist period, Kabul was virtually unscarred by war - and women had
- but when the mojahedin moved in, they tore it apart.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Pashtun fundamentalist, shelled the city for two
years, destroying half its buildings and killing 25,000 civilians because he
thought the Tajik wing of the mojahedin "alliance" was not offering him
enough power. A year later, Ahmed Shah Massoud, lionised abroad as the
greatest leader of the anti-communist and anti-Taliban resistance, turned
guns on his Shi'ite Hazara allies who were concentrated in the western part
of Kabul, killing thousands. Yet, in a pattern of cynical warlordism with
which Afghan history is replete, Massoud, Hekmatyar and Karim Khalili, the
Hazara leader, were allies again within months.
The current talk of a "broad-based government" with the ex-king as its
figurehead is also nothing new. UN envoys rushed to his palatial home in
in 1988 to urge him to return when the Russians agreed to withdraw. The
effort foundered on the king's chronic unwillingness to take a lead, the
that even among many Pashtun he is not regarded with respect, let alone
non-Pashtun, and on the mojahedins' refusal - ardently supported by
Washington - to give any political role to the ex-communists.
But the most promising idea of those bleak times did come from the
The final phase of the Geneva talks, which led to the Soviet withdrawal,
centred on the question of arms supplies once the Russians pulled out. The
Russians wanted the right to go on aiding their ally, Najibullah, while
insisting the Americans, Saudis, and Pakista nis no longer armed the
mojahedin. In reply, George Shultz, the secretary of state, proposed
"negative symmetry". Both sides would stop arming their clients.
When the Russians refused, the Americans said this was unacceptable and so
the two superpowers agreed on exactly the opposite of what Shultz had
proposed. There would be "positive symmetry". The phrase is now forgotten
as a euphemism for an arms race it deserves a high rank in the lexicon of
linguistic cynicism alongside "collateral damage".
Now is the time to revive "negative symmetry". Instead of giving yet more
arms to the Northern Alliance, as Russia and Iran are already doing, and the
United States proposes to do, the outside world should be saying enough is
enough. Pressure also needs to be put on Pakistan to end its supplies to the
Taliban. No arms embargo is ever complete, especially in a country, such as
Afghanistan, with porous borders. But it is far better to press the parties
in a civil war to reach a compromise by denying them weapons and fuel for
their hardware rather than by Washington's proposed strategy of trying to
defeat the Taliban by arming their opponents and aiding them with bombing
runs and missile attacks on Taliban positions.
Foreigners have intervened in Afghan politics for too long and always with
disastrous results. The country is awash with weapons and already in ruins.
The United Nations' efforts to find a political settlement, which were
revived four years ago, need to be refocused on the search for a federal
structure in which regions and ethnic groups will have greater autonomy.
of strong central government in a country so split and traumatised is an
illusion. Above all, air strikes and yet more supplies of arms are the wrong
way to go.