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Why Are We in Afghanistan?

For the past decade the anti-Communist guerrillas of Aghanistan have been secure in their status as American heroes. Democrats and Republicans alike have called them freedom fighters and ardently backed our policy of arming them. Reporters have called them “fiercely independent Muslim tribesman” and written with are of their bravery. A few years ago Dan Rather even put on a costume and sneaked across the Afghan border to be seen rubbing elbows with them.

All of this makes the next logical step in our Afghanistan policy a bit awkward: explaining to the rebels that we don’t them to actually, well, win their war of national liberation. We appreciate them driving out the Soviet army out of the country, and we hope they’ve enjoyed our generous financial and moral support. But their 15 minutes are up.

The abandonment of the mujahideen’s military campaign isn’t set administration policy. Officially, the United States still vows to stand by the rebels until they unseat President Najibullah, the Soviet puppet in Kabul. But eventually someone as pragmatic as say James Baker is bound to confront the strange truth: of the several outcomes that seem plausible not that the Soviets army is gone, the worst would be for the rebels finally to reach the miiltary goals we’ve helped them pursue for the last ten years.

Unfortunately, the longer it takes the administration to admit this, the harder it will be to realize the best of the plausible outcomes: a brokered peace, sponsored by the United Nations, the United States, and the U.S.S.R. Many of the mujahideen will not immediately embrace this idea, but in the end it could bring Afghanistan the self-determination, sovereignty, and unity they profess to want--or, at least, as close an approximation of these things as is likely to come by any other means.

Oddly enough, this conclusion, though still resisted by the most devout supporters of past policy on Afghanistan, more or less follows from the logic that has driven that policy. What keeps people from seeing this is the fog bank of inspirational rhetoric that was used to sustain public support for the policy. According to that rhetoric, our involvement with the mujahideen was borne of moral outrage at the violation of national sovereignty by the invading Soviet army and of sympathy for the oppressed. And no doubt there was genuine outrage and sympathy within both the Carter administration, which started the arms flow, and the Reagan administration, which sustained and accelerated it. Still, at bottom, our policy in Afghanistan has been simple cold war realpolitik, and our goal has been to frustrate Soviet expansionism.

If you look closely at the inspirational rhetoric, you can see the realpolitik between the lines. Reagan, in a 1986 message to Congress about the Reagan Doctrine, said, “We have acted in the belief that our peaceful and prosperous future can best be assured in a world in which other peoples too can determine their own destiny, free of coercion or tyranny from either at home or abroad.” In othre words: we’re the superpower; they’re the proxies.

In the case of Afghanistan, it wasn’t just expansion in South Asia and the Middle East that was of concern. Yes, some people worried that the Soviet invasion presaged more mischief in the region, such as the destabilization, or even invasion, of Pakistan. In this view, well armed Afghan rebels were a wall between the Soviets and their long-sought warm-water port. But much of the support for arming the rebels, in both the Carter and Reagan administrations, was more generic. The object of the game was just to teach the Soviets a lesson. For the first time, they had sent their troops beyond the confines of the Warsaw Pact, and they had to be punished. Further, they had sent their troops into a quagmire, and thus could be punished inexpensively. Indeed, among the more cynical and less insecure of conservative strategists, the invasion of Afghanistan was greeted not with alarm but with something bordering on glee. The Soviets had stumbled badly, and now we could keep them “tied down” in Afghanistan. If all went well, this might not only divert their resources from other global opportunities, but even hasten a general review of the costs and benefits of adventurism in the Third World. Whichever of these rationales you choose, the function of the Afghan freedom fighters, from our (real) point of view, was not to bring freedom and democracy to their homeland, or even to prevail over the Soviets militarilv. Rather, it was to irritate and stymie the Soviets; to trade corpses with them as long as both sides felt up to it.

One sign of how little serious thought the Reagan administration gave to an outright rebel victory is how it spent its money. A disproportionate amount of the arms we’ve distributed among the seven rebel factions has gone to the very last guy we should want to lead a post-victory Afghan government: a murderous anti- American fundamentalist named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who heads the Hezb-i-Islami (Party of Islam). Hekmatyar most recently made news in July, when his fighters slaughtered 36 members of a rival mujaheddin faction and tortured a few of them by pouring gunpowder in their eyes and lighting it. The alibi for our strong support of Hekmatyar is that it was a concession to Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence agency (Pakistan’s CIA), which serves as the conduit for rebel aid and has its own reasons for liking him. True enough. Still, had the intentions of our policy-makrrs extended much beyond inflicting prolonged misery on the Russians, we probably could have divvied up the money with more foresight.

The recent tendency of freedom fighters to murder and torture one anothre helps explain why the collapse of the Najibullah regime--onece assumed to follow automatically from a Russian pullout--hasn’t happened and doesn’t appear imminent. What little unity the rebels ever had was a product of three things: (a) a hated foreign intruder (the Red Army); (b) a hated puppet dictator (most recently Najibullah); and (c) the fact that Western aid, funneled through a shell rebel coalition based in Pakistan, was made contingent on a show of unity. Now (a) the Russians are gone and {b) Najibullah has launched a kinder-gentler offensive that includes being nice to his urbanite subjects and offering peace and large chunks of turf to rebel commanders who will Ieave him alone. That leaves (e), which doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.

If Western money can’t keep the rebels behaving themselves now, imagne what will happen if Najibullah does fall. We could well see a bloodbath longer and mores spectacular than the simple massacre of Communist bureaucrats that American hardliners have long dreamed of (and bloodier--at leat in terms of pints per week--than the ongoing repression of the Communist regimes that have governed Afghanistan for the past decade). No one can say how long it would take for things to reach equilibrium, what that equilibrium would look like, or how much the West could shape it (not to mention the question of how much we’d want to shape it, having invested so much rhetorical energy in self0determination for the Afghan people). But there seems to be a good chance of an outcome that would in one way or another make our decade of support for the freedom fighters look highly ironic.

The possibilities range from a fundamentalist America-hating dictator (though nothing on the Ayatollah scale is considered likely) to ongoing diffuse chaos (the “Lebanon scenario”) to an authoritarian regime that evolves willfully into a Soviet client. There are brighter scenarios, too. The one the administration clings to is that the rebels will take Kabul, lay down their weapons, and call for fair elections. But little in Afghanistan’s history--and not much in human history for that matter--gives reason to bet on this.

What to do? Going strictly by the colc calculus that got us into Afghanistan, you could make a fairly strong case for pulling the pug: stopping the arms shipments, or scaling them down rapidly. After all, virtually all the goals of our Afghanistan policy have been reached. The Soviet Union’s troops are out, and though its puppet, Najubullah, remains, Gorbachev seems unlikely to use Afghanistan as a base for adventurism. Indeed, more broadly, Gorbachev seems to have given Russia’s expansionist foreign policy a more thorough rethinking than we dared hope for back when spurring such reflection was one of the main reasons for arming the rebels. Besides, even if the Soviets did suddenly revert to adventurism, Afghanistan would make a poor stepping-stone. The most widely feared regional adventure--an invasion or destabilization of Pakistan--will be track so long as the mujaheddin stand between Kabul and the Pakistani border.

Pulling the plug could even have a stabilizing effect. With the Russian troops gone and the U.S. money cut off, a lasting deal might be struck between Najibullah and the various rebel commanders. If he continued to mellow (not that I’m betting on it) the result might even be a government as coherent and benign as has often been found in Afghanistan: not democratic but highly decentralized, with most regions effectively governed in accordance with their dominant ethnic and religious tradition.

In fact, such an outcome would resemble the hoped for result of a negotiated settlement, with one big difference: in a brokered peace, we would want even the kinder, gentler Najibullah replaced with a legitimate ruler. For that reason alone, peace talks are preferable to pulling the plug.

And, as Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment has noted, there are other reaons as well to start talking oeace immediately. (Harrison, one of the foremost proponents of this view, has a good track record: he was vocally supporting the U.N. talks that led to the Soviet pullout back when almost o one considered a pullout likely, and he was among the few analysts to warn that a rebel victory would not come on the heels of the pullout.) First, the war continues to bleed Pakistan--not home of a few million Afghan refugees among other imported problems--at a time when democracy has a fresh chance there. (One of the enduring ironies of our Afghanistan policy is that by cranking up the column on the war, especially during the mid-‘80s, we did nearly as much damage to Pakistan as a mildly successful destabilization campaign by the Soviets would have done. That explains why Benazir Bhutto now favors peace talks.) Second, unless the rebels feel their oats soon, our bargaining position to going to deterioirate steadily, as Najibullah starts looking more and more viable. And third, lets not forget the stars of the show: the Afghan people. As long as the war goes on, they die on a daily basis. About a million have already been killed during this little shoving match between us and the Soviets and you can expect some big body counts if the rebels fight on to victory. The basic offensive strategy seems to be to pick a big city and shell it until there are no signs of activity.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the people killed in such shellings are Afghans, not Soviets. Some may be Communist Afghans but many more are just people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Besides, if we meant what we’ve been saying about self-determination, their ideologies wouldn’t matter: the goal would be a government that embodies the collective aspirations of the Afghan people, and we would want as many of them as possible to still be breathing when election time comes.

A negotiated settlement will take time and patience. Najibullah and the rebel comamnders alike will have grave reservations about it, partly because it will ultimately mean less superpower money for them. But the superpowers seem to have enough leverage to get them to the gable (i.e., the threat of withdrawing all the money), and Gorbachev is said to be willing to give up Communist control of Afghanistan. (For one thing, he’s not wild about single-handedly funding the reconstruction of a war-torn backward country.)

It would be easy, not that the cold war appears to be winding down, to ridicule the hard-nosed geostrategic thinking that led us to accelerate the dying in Afghanistan. After all, the overall rethinking of Mocow’s expansionist foreign policy probably had more to do with Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascendancy and with the long-term economic than with the well-armed Afghan rebels. So there’s a decent chance that the Red Army would by now be out of Afghanistan even if Western aid to the freedom fighters had been quite low, or even nil. But no one can say for sure that turning up the head in Afghanistan wasn’t decisive. And besides, this sort of hindsight isn’t fait. At the time, the Soviet threat looked real enough and the cynical appropriation of the rebels noble cause seemed fair as cold war policy goes. (Certainly the rebels weren’t complaining.)

But not that the Soviet threat has faded, to insist on spending a hundred thousand more Afghan lives just to give America’s far right (and a few posturers on both sides in Congress) the taste of Communist blood would be to carry cynicism beyond the boundaries of propriety. And justifying such a policy in terms of some spiritual commitment to fighters everywhere would be the most cynical thing of all.

The policy makers who most resist a negotiated settlement tend to be the ones most fearful that Gorbachev will ultimately prove to have been a mirage--that he’ll either return the Soviet Union to a Brezhnevian mode or step down in favor of someone who will. This may be true, which is all the more reason to sit down at the table now.