by Austin Bay
Though pockets of Taliban fighters continue to resist and AlQaeda operatives still huddle deep in Himalayan caves, the Taliban's fractiousmilitary collapse suggests the "Afghanistan combat operations phase" ofAmerica's Millennial War is approaching a conclusion.
The Pentagon and the State Department must be prepared to answerthe question "So what comes after the caves?"
For Osama Bin Laden, the "post-Afghan cave" world is eitherafterworld or bitter aftertaste. He may escape Afghanistan, if he'sparticularly adept and very lucky, but America has made the point there areno more havens and safe-harbors.
For America, however, there may be no escape from Afghanistan,or at least no quick, clean break.
Given the chaos and confusion afflicting Afghanistan, thePentagon buzzword for ending combat operations, "conflict termination," ismuch too humdrum.
In fact, a well-informed cynic might argue that chaos andconfusion always afflicts Afghanistan, with peace in that tough region beingthe odd and precious moment when international warfare, violent tribalclashes, and big-time banditry briefly lapse.
Thus "conflict termination" in a region characterized byinsistent small-scale armed struggles is both (1) an impossible task and (2)a necessary chore, as are most assignments Washington dumps on the Pentagonand State.
The United States wants to end the fighting in Afghanistan withthe Taliban toppled and Al Qaeda's Afghan network eradicated. It wants theobject lesson "you don't attack the United States" fully emphasized. Tomaximize the object lesson, Washington doesn't want Afghanistan left withtoo many fraying political wires, several million starving refugees and anew crop of vicious bums in control.
Trust the military to have another dry but applicable phrase,"post-conflict operations." In "post-conflict ops," a military presenceremains, but political and economic programs begin to supercede thebayonets.
"Post-conflict ops" intend to further U.S. war aims and "lockin" the battlefield victory. Consider the end of WWII. In the case of Japan,the United States decided to let the Japanese keep their emperor. Debatestill rages over Hirohito's degree of involvement in Japan's aggression, butthe U.S. decision produced immediate political stability. In Germany, theallies decided they weren't going to make the mistake they made after WWIand simply leave a defeated Germany to chaos and radicalism. The alliedoccupation, a de facto partition, led to a political division that lastedover four decades.
WWII also illustrates that even a decisive victory doesn'tnecessarily produce a robust peace. WWII simply reshuffled the deck. DefeatGermany, and Russia fills the power vacuum. Defeat Japan, Russia and Chinafill the power void.
In Afghanistan, despite the presence of a former king, there isno emperor. Don't paint the Northern Alliance in pastels, nor anti-TalibanPushtuns -- these guys are battle-hardened warlords whose personal andtribal goals briefly overlapped our own. The deck's being reshuffled.
However, the United States has learned, tragically, that anarchyin even the world's most remote corners attracts anti-American terrorcliques like Al Qaeda. Afghanis deserve the opportunity to try to escapetheir own debilitating history of fractious infighting, rebuild and reachnew political accommodations.
A U.S. and coalition abandonment of Afghanistan is in no one'sbest interest. In the reignited civil war, Taliban factions would reassertthemselves. A humanitarian disaster would follow, with millions starving andWashington taking the blame.
But taking on Afghanistan as an American "nation-building"project has little appeal and little likelihood of success. The UnitedStates wants to focus on the next major combat phase, be that Somalia, Iraq,Yemen, Sudan or elsewhere.
U.N. bureaucrats say they have a role, but the U.N. has a dismaltrack record for providing stability when armed factions remain in place.
This argues that the United States needs to remain inAfghanistan as "the lead nation," at least politically and economically.This means it needs to keep rapid-reaction forces, if not in Afghanistan, atleast within regional striking distance. The military and political burdens,however, must be shared. Several Muslim nations, Turkey among them, haveoffered peacekeeping forces. The Turks have the added attraction of beingNATO troops.
Washington needs to encourage maximum effort and participationby non-governmental relief organizations.
Ultimately, fostering stability in Afghanistan means promotingregional stabilization. Afghanistan's immediate neighbors -- Iran,Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan -- must actively and positively support theAfghanis' new political accommodations. Like it or not, that's another toughmission the State Department and Pentagon must accept.