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Is This What We Mean By Victory?

3 December 2001

Much of the U.S. media are awash in triumphant words and images heralding our "victory" in Afghanistan. America's military is said to have performed heroically and, we are told, the Taliban enemies have been routed with surprising efficiency.

Let's stop for a minute and soberly survey exactly what so far has been accomplished: Through the overwhelming power of sophisticated weapons, the world's mightiest military apparently has forced a shaky regime of religious idealists to abandon their leadership experiment.

The Taliban assumed power in 1996 to bring order to a nation that had spiraled into anarchy following the 1992 defeat of the Soviet-backed regime of President Najibullah. The so-called Northern Alliance, that same group of folks we now hail as the nation's saviors, also held sway during this time of anarchy. "The Northern Alliance's Islamic state of Afghanis tan was less a government than a state of institutionalized chaos," wrote Ted Rall in a Nov. 28 dispatch from Afghanistan published on the AlterNet Web site (

Rall, a syndicated columnist and cartoonist, who has been covering Afghanistan for many years, noted that "the highways were patrolled by rapists and warlords, and the cities became so unsafe that few Afghans dared venture out after dark," during Najibullah's four-year regime.

According to Rall (and other reporters on the ground in that embattled country), "the bad old days, it seems, may be coming back." Reports in the (Toronto) Globe and Mail and the Independent of London present evidence the Northern Alliance is up to its old tricks. Amnesty International has called for an inquiry into a reported massacre in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif and near Kandahar further south.

A Nov. 28 story in the Independent also details how "U.S. bombs killed more than 100 unarmed civilians" in the Afghanistan town of Khanabad. Was it America's intent to return Afghanistan to the thrilling days of yesteryear?

Is that what we mean by victory?

The Taliban regime was an experiment in extremes, intended to bring order to an extremely disordered region. Nurtured and abetted by Pakistan (and the U.S.), this ragtag collection of religious zealots seemed to offer a buffer against the former threat of Soviet-styled communism or the new threat of Russian imperialism.

What's more, many Western oil companies hoped the ascetic Taliban could provide the stability necessary to spur the development of pipelines through Afghanistan, linking an energy-hungry world to the Caspian Sea basin's (especially Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) massive oil and gas deposits. The U.S. reportedly is negotiating with all of those nations about an American military presence.

Both the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network are outgrowths of the mujahadeen--a CIA-supported group created to help repel the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Even the religious fanaticism common to these two groups was encouraged by the U.S. to counterbalance the "godless Communism" of the Soviet invaders.

The very qualities we cultivated help generate the anger of our new enemies.

And this is not the first time our angels have turned into antagonists; in fact, U.S. foreign policy has become so predictable, I nominate a name to characterize it. Frankensteinian. That's a mouthful, I grant you, but I think it perfectly captures the macabre exercise this nation goes through at virtually every crisis point in recent years. The name is based on Mary Shelley's 1818 book - Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus - that told the tale of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the single-minded scientist who reanimated a composite creature that ultimately became his worst enemy.

Shelley's rich allegory touched many bases in the human psyche (one reason why her book is a classic tale). But her basic theme of a scientist's oddly conceived creation turning against him aptly illustrates the principal animating our foreign policy.

Many of our recent bogeymen--Manual Noriega, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden--were shaped and molded in the state department labs of U.S. foreign policy and deployed to serve our national interest. When their purpose was served, the U.S. moved on to other interests. But like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, they continue to reap havoc, eventually turning against their creator.

We are busy creating yet another composite monster to rule Afghanistan and our mode of operation has become so laughably predictable, it may better be portrayed by comedian Mel Brooks' movie "Young Frankenstein" than Shelley's serious book. It would be hilarious if so many people weren't dying.

Is this what we mean by victory?

Salim Muwakkil.
Published in the Chicago Tribune.
2001 Chicago Tribune.

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