If U.S. moves against Afghanistan, cost could be high
By TIMOTHY APPLEBY, The Globe and Mail
Friday, September 14, 2001
With every hour it increasingly appears that Afghanistan might become the target of massive U.S. retaliation.
But at what price? History is littered with ill-fated attempts to tame the remote, mountainous country at the crossroads of central Asia, whose inhabitants are famously resistant to invaders.
Ever since Vietnam, U.S. foreign policy has been characterized by political unwillingness to place Americans in harm's way. That reluctance was a principal reason the U.S.-led coalition did not go all the way to Baghdad in 1991. It was also instrumental to the saturation bombing of Kosovo two years ago.
Fear of killing innocent civilians, too, has been a major consideration. During former U.S. president Bill Clinton's final days in office, senior officials weighed a military strike against the headquarters of terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan but rejected it for that reason.
But all that seems to have changed in the past 72 hours. Poll after poll shows a mounting U.S. desire to hit back at the engineers of Tuesday's horror, even if Americans are killed. In remarks yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made clear that Mr. bin Laden is the prime suspect.
What also is evident, however, is that a sustained bombing campaign against the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, a country in ruins, is likely to achieve only a huge body count. The only other military option, unthinkable just a short time ago, is invasion, in the form of waves of Apache helicopters and thousands of U.S. infantrymen.
If there is sufficient international backing, suggested terrorism expert John Thompson of the Mackenzie Institute, a think-tank in Toronto, such action is not merely viable, albeit tremendously difficult, but unavoidable.
"Toleration of areas outside the law, like Afghanistan, which is a haven for organized crime, has to end now," Mr. Thompson said. "Passive defences on frontiers, rather than getting involved in the dark places of the world, is what the Western world has been doing in the 1990s, and we know that policy is a complete failure."
Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism expert with the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service, agreed. "In my view, [crushing Mr. bin Laden] is going to require ground action. You're going to end up not only with the capture of bin Laden but with a war against the Taliban movement."
If military force is what U.S. President George W. Bush has in mind for Afghanistan, he is not the first.
Twice during the 19th century, the British tried to invade Afghanistan in doomed efforts to create a buffer zone protecting India. The invasions failed, wrote British Field Marshal Lord Roberts in 1880, largely because "in addition to the natural hatred which every Afghan feels towards a foreign invader, there is a strong underlying current of fanaticism."
A century later, Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev ignored similar warnings and dispatched troops to Afghanistan to protect the Soviet Union's southern border. After nine years of fruitless bloodshed that cost them at least 13,000 lives, the Soviets, too, retreated in disarray. Afghanistan was often referred to as Russia's Vietnam.
But for three reasons, a U.S.-led occupation might succeed, Mr. Thompson suggested.
First, revulsion at Tuesday's slaughter could create unprecedented international backing to deal once and for all with Mr. bin Laden and his Taliban protectors. Iran and Russia, each of which borders Afghanistan, might be especially glad to see the troublesome regime gone.
Second, high-tech Western military capability would flatten anything placed in its path.
Third, and arguably most important, Mr. Thompson and others believe that the extremist Taliban, a byword for dictatorial fanaticism, is almost devoid of support among the roughly 20 million impoverished, war-battered citizens it rules and among the two or three million more Afghans who languish in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.
"I think after 25 years of conflict, most of the people of Afghanistan would be delighted if [foreign intervention] happened."
Nor would any occupation have to last indefinitely, he suggested. Rather, it could be a stepping stone, under United Nations auspices, to elections and the creation of a workable social infrastructure.
Among those who favour such intervention, the rationale is twofold. It would deny Mr. bin Laden a base from which to operate and it would reinforce the message to other anti-Western regimes that when the United States speaks of waging war against terrorism, it means it.
Still, the risks of such an operation are enormous. Notwithstanding its daunting firepower, the United States easily could become bogged down in Afghanistan for years.
Nor would such a strategy offer any guarantees of vanquishing the primary target. Even if Mr. bin Laden is responsible for Tuesday's terror (which he denies), he has sunk from view many times and presumably would do so again, only to resurface elsewhere. His agents, too, are believed to be scattered around the world.
There is a still a larger danger inherent in an invasion of Afghanistan: Some Muslims might construe it as an assault on the entire Islamic world.
Were that perception to take root, the mass murders that rocked the United States this week could be just the beginning.