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Our Afghan Warlords: Arming the Taliban's Opponents Will Only Deepen the Agony of a Ruined Nation


6 October 2001

Ironic, says the TV reporter, as his footage shows sacks of American flour being unloaded for the tide of desperate Afghans fleeing their homes in fear of American attacks. The word is low-key, mildly critical, not daring to stick its neck out. Ironic? Come off it. The policy is crazy. Can decision-makers seriously recommend military action which drives people in terror out of their homes to trek with their families across mountains and deserts and huddle before the closed gates of Pakistan and Iran, and then say we will feed you out of the kindness of our hearts because "our struggle is not with you but with your rulers"?

Before a single cruise missile has been launched, hundreds of thousands of Afghans are already on the move. Imagine the even greater panic and dislocation when the first wave of Tomahawks rolls in and the policy of "bombs and butter" takes off in earnest.

But two weeks of TV coverage of the human misery which is Afghanistan have not been entirely ineffective. They have provided a pause for thought and allowed the desire for revenge to cool. They have also given millions of people a crash course on the reality of this wretched country. A new generation of politicians, who barely knew where the place was a month ago, busily mugs up on the differences between Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazara and Pashtun. Some are starting to understand that this is a place of constantly shifting ethnic, tribal and regional alliances where central government has always been fragile.

Time has also shown how hard it is going to be to prove Osama bin Laden's hand behind the terror attacks, at least for the Muslim world to be convinced. The hijackers' identities are relatively clear. Where they lived and trained over the past few years is also coming into focus. But evidence that their orders came from Bin Laden has not yet been found. The soldiers are dead but the captains, let alone the enemy generals in this war, may never be implicated.

So the target of the planned American attacks is no longer just the suspected mastermind. The aim is being widened, or at least deflected. Unsure where Bin Laden is hiding, and eager for visible signs of success, the Americans - and Tony Blair - proclaim the Taliban leadership is equally legitimate a target. Instead of going for the bull's eye, any hit on the dartboard will be trumpeted as proof we've scored. The phasing of the promised war is also shifting. Missile strikes will just be the hors d'oeuvre. The main meal will be a sustained campaign to arm the Taliban's opponents, the Northern Alliance, so that they can seize Kabul and take power. We will then help them form a broad-based government and bring back the deposed King Zahir Shah. Afghanistan is in the midst of a civil war. We are not invading but responding to an invitation by one side for aid. The Northern Alliance may not be angels. Their attitudes to women's rights and social progress may be unappetizing but they are not as bad as the Taliban. So we are really liberators.

It sounds tempting, even noble. But wrong. I never expected to be an "old Afghan hand". The term sounds irredeemably colonial. But perhaps I deserve the label, as my own crash course in Afghanistan began in 1981 and I have reported from there six times since. On each visit the country had slipped deeper into the jaws of ever-widening war. During the Soviet period, I was in the small and unfashionable minority which came to the view that the Moscow-supported governments of Babrak Karmal and Najibullah were lesser evils compared to the ravages which the CIA- and MI6-backed mojahedin were likely to cause if they ever took power. Ravage Afghanistan they did. In the communist period, Kabul was virtually unscarred by war - and women had rights - but when the mojahedin moved in, they tore it apart.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Pashtun fundamentalist, shelled the city for two years, destroying half its buildings and killing 25,000 civilians because he thought the Tajik wing of the mojahedin "alliance" was not offering him enough power. A year later, Ahmed Shah Massoud, lionized abroad as the greatest leader of the anti-communist and anti-Taliban resistance, turned his guns on his Shi'ite Hazara allies who were concentrated in the western part of Kabul, killing thousands. Yet, in a pattern of cynical warlordism with which Afghan history is replete, Massoud, Hekmatyar and Karim Khalili, the Hazara leader, were allies again within months.

The current talk of a "broad-based government" with the ex-king as its figurehead is also nothing new. UN envoys rushed to his palatial home in Rome in 1988 to urge him to return when the Russians agreed to withdraw. The effort foundered on the king's chronic unwillingness to take a lead, the fact that even among many Pashtun he is not regarded with respect, let alone among non-Pashtun, and on the mojahedins' refusal - ardently supported by Washington - to give any political role to the ex-communists.

But the most promising idea of those bleak times did come from the Americans. The final phase of the Geneva talks, which led to the Soviet withdrawal, centered on the question of arms supplies once the Russians pulled out. The Russians wanted the right to go on aiding their ally, Najibullah, while insisting the Americans, Saudis, and Pakistanis no longer armed the mojahedin. In reply, George Shultz, the secretary of state, proposed "negative symmetry". Both sides would stop arming their clients. When the Russians refused, the Americans said this was unacceptable and so the two superpowers agreed on exactly the opposite of what Shultz had proposed. There would be "positive symmetry". The phrase is now forgotten but as a euphemism for an arms race it deserves a high rank in the lexicon of linguistic cynicism alongside "collateral damage".

Now is the time to revive "negative symmetry". Instead of giving yet more arms to the Northern Alliance, as Russia and Iran are already doing, and the United States proposes to do, the outside world should be saying enough is enough. Pressure also needs to be put on Pakistan to end its supplies to the Taliban. No arms embargo is ever complete, especially in a country, such as Afghanistan, with porous borders. But it is far better to press the parties in a civil war to reach a compromise by denying them weapons and fuel for their hardware rather than by Washington's proposed strategy of trying to defeat the Taliban by arming their opponents and aiding them with bombing runs and missile attacks on Taliban positions.

Foreigners have intervened in Afghan politics for too long and always with disastrous results. The country is awash with weapons and already in ruins. The United Nations' efforts to find a political settlement, which were revived four years ago, need to be refocused on the search for a federal structure in which regions and ethnic groups will have greater autonomy. Hope of strong central government in a country so split and traumatized is an illusion. Above all, air strikes and yet more supplies of arms are the wrong way to go.

Jonathan Steele.
Published in the Guardian on 6 October 2001.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001.



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