U.S. needs a vision for Afghans' future


U.S. OFFICIALS continue to debate the details of future military operations in Afghanistan, but it seems likely that Americans and Afghans will soon kill one another.

It is vital that U.S. leaders define and enunciate their vision for Afghanistan's future -- now, before blood has been shed. Military force in the absence of clear political objectives is simply wanton violence that dishonors the sacrifices of our armed forces.

Any plans are complicated by American ignorance of Afghanistan, a complex land. We must understand that what is called "Afghanistan" today is barely a country in any meaningful sense. It is, rather, a semi-permanent battlefield occupied by a variety of ethnic groups, tribes and clans.

Like the rest of Eurasia, Afghanistan's 25 million people are ethno-linguistically diverse. Roughly 40 percent are Pashtuns, 25 percent are Tajiks, 20 percent are Hazaras and 6 percent are Uzbeks. Seventy different languages and dialects are spoken in an area smaller than Texas.

What makes Afghanistan distinct is that there is essentially no state. Perhaps 90 percent of the territory is controlled by the ultra-conservative, mainly Pashtun Taliban. The rest of the land is occupied by the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other mainly non-Pashtun peoples. In neither area is there much of a functioning government; "governance" in Afghanistan today is the province of warriors, not bureaucrats.

A barter system based on drugs and weaponry is what passes for an Afghan economy. The official currency, the afghani, is practically worthless. Western journalists continue to report an Afghan per capita income of $480 a year -- a figure straight from economic fantasyland.

Four years of drought and famine have brought millions of already desperately poor Afghans to the brink of extinction. About 3 million to 4 million Afghans live as refugees in neighboring countries. Many hundreds of thousands more have been -- and continue to be -- maimed in the world's most heavily land-mined territory. Educational, medical and other social services are exceedingly scarce.

To tell the full history of Afghanistan's ongoing strife would require thousands of pages. In just the past 22 years, the Soviet Union (now Russia), the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India, Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have all been involved in its fate.

In order to locate and destroy the bases of the Sept. 11 mass killers, the United States proposes to re-enter this geopolitical maelstrom. In this endeavor, President Bush has the overwhelming support of the American people, myself included. But we need to tailor our military operations to our political objectives and the realities of today's Afghanistan.

Some say the United States should aim to topple the Taliban and replace it with the Northern Alliance, perhaps also reinstalling Afghanistan's last king -- deposed in 1973 -- as a figurehead around whom Afghans might unite. This is unrealistic.

The Northern Alliance includes very few influential Pashtuns, and any effective government would have to represent their interests. Equally important, the Northern Alliance already had its chance to govern from 1992 to 1996, and proved incapable. Any broadly representative postwar Afghan government must include Pashtun leaders, probably including some from the Taliban.

No one can predict a future Afghan political landscape. What the United States can do, however, is vow not to make the same mistake twice. In 1989, at the end of the Soviet war, a million Afghans were dead. Five million to 6 million more were refugees. Afghan cities were rubble. The country's agricultural infrastructure lay in ruins. Despite all this, the United States -- having achieved its goal of helping oust the Red Army -- simply walked away, leaving Pakistan to pick up the pieces.

What Afghanistan needed then, what it needs now and what it will need in the future is a comprehensive plan for reconstruction and development. During the Soviet war, few people in Washington thought about Afghanistan's post-Soviet future. Repeating that mistake would be a moral failing of the highest order.

Whatever U.S. military plans are being fashioned today, we -- and the Afghans -- can only hope that someone is thinking about how we can help make Afghanistan a country again.

Devin T. Hagerty is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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