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Guide to the Perplexed on Afghanistan By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, October 16, 2001


AS A STUDENT of Afghanistan throughout the 1980s — albeit from outside, since I never traveled there – and based upon all I have learned from real experts who did, like David Isby and others, here is my take on the commonly vented myths regarding Afghanistan and future US policy toward it.

There are a number of myths, some based on ignorance, some on malevolent intention, regarding what we could, or could not, should or should not do in Afghanistan.

Myth # 1 - The British (in 1840-42) and the Soviets (1979 - 1989), both world empires at the time, broke their teeth in Afghanistan. Hence, the US, today's dominant world power, will suffer the same fate.

This is a myth equally supported by the Taliban, some of their not-so-well-disguised Muslim fellow travelers and useful idiots, and, naturally enough, by the purposefully ignorant Western Left fringes.

Reality check

The British in 1840 tried and failed to impose an unpopular puppet king in Kabul, thus uniting all the fractious Afghans who, then as now, could only be united against any effective central government. Later on, the British realized their error and engaged in a policy of manipulating (mostly with money) the various Afghan groups, and did so successfully, as demonstrated by the transformation of Afghanistan into an effective buffer state (or, perhaps, better put, a buffer territory, since "Afghanistan" was always, and still is a geographic expression more than a real state, let alone a "nation") between the competing interests and ambitions of the British and Russian Empires.

The United States in 2001 has no interest, capability or geopolitical reasons to control, let alone occupy, Afghanistan – and unless we fail absolutely in our propaganda efforts, all "Afghans" know it. Moreover, the recent (as in "before the Soviet invasion of 1979") developments, made worse by the incompetence of the Mujahedeen regime of 1992 - 1996 in Kabul, now represented by the "Northern Alliance," have done what history has not done – sharpen ethnic divisions within the country, with Tadjiks, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Hazaras , Turkmen – together a majority, loosely and temporarily "united" against the Pashtun-dominated Taliban regime. It is no coincidence that the Taliban 's political and ideological center is not multi-ethnic Kabul but all-Pashtun Kandahar.

Myth # 2 - The terrain in Afghanistan is such that modern military technology is largely irrelevant. The implications are 1) that an almost Stone Age military would defeat a 21st century power, and b) that the terrain is the same and equally important everywhere.

Reality check

The two main reasons the Taliban did conquer so much of Afghanistan since 1994 are the following:

  1. The desire of many people, in fact most people, to have some order and discipline imposed in their areas, as long as that was not done by some foreign (e.g. Soviet) force. Simply put, an end of banditry and warlord-ism, and the reason for mass emigration to Pakistan. But consider Herat’s recent history: under Ishmael Khan, a former Royal Afghan Army officer, it successfully fought the Soviets, and since 1989 established an enlightened system in which girls and boys had equal access to education; captured by the Taliban in 1998, and then escaping, Khan is now close to retaking the city – Afghanistan's most multicultural and historic. Helping Ishmael Khan is helping everyone in Afghanistan.
  2. The Taliban's ability to buy local military cum religious leaders – particularly in Pashtun and Nuristani areas. With Al-Quaida and Pakistani help, that was doable; with no more money flows from Islamabad, and Al-Quaeda now centered on its own physical survival, the ability to buy local warlords is limited at best – and we could buy them instead – at least temporarily.

While a lot of Afghanistan is mountainous and exceedingly difficult for infantry operations, a look at the map would make it clear that key areas – the Uzbek border, the Shamali Plain north of Kabul and the entire southeast around and including Kandahar, are perfect operational areas for heliborn forces. These are also the areas of major Taliban force concentrations. As for the truly difficult mountainous regions, the worst of those, the Badakshan Wakhan Corridor is under Northern Alliance "control" – whatever that means – but certainly not under the Taliban's; the strategic Panjhir Valley remains, as ever, under Tadjik control, as is the entire area around Herat. It is only in the mountainous East, around Jalalabad and the Pakistani border that Pashtun ethnics may – if the price is right – continue to support the Taliban cum Al-Quaeda group. But would the latter have the money? Or the aura of success following the US/British air attacks? Considering the past, that is at best doubtful.

Myth # 3 -This is an irregular campaign the US is not prepared for or competent to win.

We are bombarded with analyses from former military officers, with no experience in Afghanistan whatsoever, civilian analysts having a hard time reading the maps of that country, and all-knowing journalists. The general theory of those claiming that US forces will be faced with an endless guerrilla campaign in the mountains (see above) and plains of Afghanistan is based upon the experience of the Soviets – precisely the Taliban's main ideological point – and is all wrong.

Reality Check

Unlike the Soviets, whose support was limited to a very thin group of urban intelligentsia and (Soviet educated and indoctrinated) military officers vulnerable to communist atheistic and secular propaganda, the present U.S. campaign does not try or claim any cultural and religious (or anti-religious) goals. Hence the moderate Northern Alliance and the Shi'I Hazaras see nothing wrong with the U.S. Air Force being their Air Force against the Taliban.

The implications are obvious – or should be to some of those "experts." While U.S./British Special Operations forces – the British Gurkhas look very much like the central Bamyan province's Hazaras – may and should play a key role, most of the hunting for bin Laden and his crowd – most of whom are Arab or other foreign fanatics – will be done by Afghans themselves – once the Taliban loses control over the major cities and regions. "Let a thief catch a thief" will clearly apply.

A Taliban guerrilla war? Where, if they are seen as losers and do not enjoy Pakistani intelligence and military support, as they did until recently?

With the major air bases of Shindand in the West, Bagram in the Kabul area, and Mazar e Sharif in the north out of commission already, and some minor ones under anti-Taliban control already, U.S. forces will have free access to operations throughout the country.

Myth # 4 - It is impossible to find Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

This theory is based on all the above fallacies. It assumes that Al-Quaeda's Arab (or foreign) militants could find a refuge inside Afghanistan, without the locals knowing their locations or acting upon the usual Afghan dislike and suspicion of all foreigners, or the more recent dislike of "Islamic" foreigners.

Reality Check

Any Afghan worth his history and tribal traditions would join the winners (i.e. the anti-Taliban forces); capture and/or kill bin Laden if that makes him, or his group, very wealthy.

Finally, where, and for how long, could a foreigner and his large group of "Arabs" hide in a country where the population wants international aid, money, and food, and is historically xenophobic?

Myth # 5 - Since the Northern Alliance, though recognized by the United Nations as the government of Afghanistan, is made up largely of ethnic minorities, it cannot form a stable government in Kabul. Hence there is no realistic, long-term alternative to the Taliban. This is the Islamabad thesis – but then Islamabad is not exactly an objective observer.

Reality Check

To begin with, ethnic "minorities" (Tadjiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Aimaks, Hazara and Nuristanis) make up a large majority of the Afghanistan population – the Pashtuns are under 40 percent - the largest ethnic group but clearly a minority themselves. It is true that, for Pakistan – which has more Pashtuns than Afghanistan does – that is the key element. But for Afghanistan?

Second, the Pashtuns are not, pace Secretary Rumsfeld, "southern tribes." They are, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, a people separated by a common language. The Durrani confederation in the east and south is the Taliban's power base, BUT – and this is a very large but – the Ghilzai confederation in the east (with Jalalabad its center) is unhappy with the Durrani/Taliban power sharing arrangements. And they are equally represented in Pakistan - hence Musharaff's admittedly daring challenge to the Taliban.

The former King Zahir Shah is a Pashtun – and he is recognized (probably temporarily, as all things are, and always will be, in Afghanistan) and he could bring enough of his people around to get rid of the bin Laden gang of foreigners . As usual, money will talk also.

We should consider all these facts in talking about Afghanistan – the chances

and probability of success of our military action – and in dealing with nonsensical, ahistorical and ignorant arguments to the contrary.


Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.


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