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Afghanistan Land Mine

by S. Frederick Starr, Washington Post, 19 December 2000


Three little-noted recent measures on Afghanistan mark a fundamental shift in U.S. policy not only toward that impoverished land but toward all Central Asia and even the Middle East. Whether it succeeds or fails, the outgoing administration's latest gambit will damage basic U.S. interests.

First, the United States has quietly begun to align itself with those in the Russian government calling for military action against Afghanistan and has toyed with the idea of a new raid to wipe out Osama bin Laden. Until it backed off under local pressure, it went so far as to explore whether a Central Asian country would permit the use of its territory for such a purpose.

This comes at a time when Central Asians are as concerned over recent Russian activities as they are over the Taliban -- specifically over Russian efforts to use the specter of terrorism and Islamic radicalism to regain control of their region. In fact, the United States' new militancy arises just as Afghanistan's immediate neighbors are preparing to accept the Taliban regime so long as it puts a stop to cross-border actions and otherwise respects their sovereignty.

Second, Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth met recently with Russia's friends in the government of India to discuss what kind of government should replace the Taliban. Thus, while claiming to oppose a military solution to the Afghan problem, the United States is now talking about the overthrow of a regime that controls nearly the entire country, in the hope it can be replaced with a hypothetical government that does not exist even on paper.

Third, the United States is supporting a one-sided resolution in the United Nations that would strengthen sanctions against foreign military aid for the Taliban but take no action against its warlord opponents, who control a mere 3 to 5 percent of the country's territory. These warlords, when they ruled in key areas, showed a brutal disregard for human rights and for other minorities that was comparable to the Taliban at its worst. Yet the fragment of a government they support limps on and, with U.S. backing, occupies Afghanistan's seat in the United Nations.

How did the United States become the junior partner to a misguided Russian policy arising from that country's desire for revenge against humiliations suffered in Afghanistan and Chechnya and from a kind of post-imperial hangover? The trail goes back to the Clinton administration's desire to throw Moscow a bone after brushing the Russians aside during the Kosovo crisis. That bone was support for Russia's crusade against "Muslim fundamentalism" and "terrorism." We bought the Russians' line that these forces, rather than seven generations of savage Russian and Soviet misrule, fueled the revolt in Chechnya.

It appears likely that the Clinton administration also supplied the Russians with special equipment used against the Chechens. Confronted on this point in a Senate hearing, a State department spokesman took two weeks to produce a letter claiming disingenuously that the State Department itself provided no arms -- as if Secretary Albright, rather than the Pentagon, controlled America's arsenal.

By making itself the junior partner in a Russian-Indian crusade against Muslim Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States will eliminate itself as a future mediator in one of the world's major trouble spots. This is all the more unfortunate because even today the United States is better positioned than any other country to resolve the Afghan tragedy and associated pathologies infecting the entire region.

The United States supported opposition to the Russian invasion of 1979 and welcomed the Taliban to the extent it reduced killing within the country. Even today, $9 of every $10 of food aid distributed there by the United Nations comes from the United States, and the Afghans know this.

But few in the Islamic world will doubt that the object of Russia's and India's efforts is not just Osama bin Laden or specific policies of the Taliban regime but Islam as such. This in turn will further damage America's position as a broker in the Middle East. It will weaken Israeli moderates who have reached out to Muslim states such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Equally serious, the new states of Central Asia already sense that the United States is subordinating its policy toward them to Russia's aspirations in the region. The considerable credibility America gained from a decade of support for independence and development in their region will evaporate.

These shifts add up to a fundamental redirection of American policy toward the world's largest and most vexed zone of conflict. All this is occurring without public discussion, without consultation with Congress and without even informing those who are likely to make foreign policy in the next administration. Thus the Clinton State Department is preparing a kind of land mine that will explode in the face of the incoming Bush administration.

The writer is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

Copyright © 2000 The Washington Post Company
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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