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Time to Take Sides in Afghanistan



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Taking Sides in Afghanistan
By REUEL MARC GERECHT - The New York Times 3/8/01

BRUSSELS  In Islamic history, the time before the coming of the Prophet

Muhammad is the jahiliyya, the Age of Ignorance. For Muslim
fundamentalists,
like the Taliban of Afghanistan, the jahiliyya didn't end in the seventh

century. They see modern times as a constant affront to the purist
principles that God ordained. The tolerance of traditional Islam, which
in
Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent even made its peace with
polytheists and idol worshipers, is as foreign to them as the secular
principles of Western civilization.
The destruction of Afghanistan's statues  including, it appears, the
Great
Buddhas of Bamiyan, two huge and ancient sculptures  is of a kind with
the
extreme, sometimes nihilistic, violence of militant Islamic movements in

Algeria, Egypt and Sudan.

The anti-idol declaration by Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban's
chieftain,
ought to be seen for what it is above all else: a crystal-clear signal
that
Osama bin Laden, the Saudi terrorist who has lived in Afghanistan since
1996, has found a true spiritual brother in the Taliban movement. The
Taliban's six-year war of conquest  to which Mr. bin Laden contributes
a
small but not insignificant Arab force  has developed into a brutal
fight
where no quarter is given to Afghans who oppose Mullah Omar's prophet-
like
pretensions.

Indeed, in a country demarcated by land mines, burned-out tanks, and
blown-up roads, bridges, dams, schools and power grids, Mullah Omar and
Mr.
bin Laden have become mythical figures. Among the front-line soldiers
and
prisoners of war I have interviewed over the last two years, they are
seen
as prophets.

America has been very slow to appreciate the international dimension to
the
Afghan mess. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, we
ran
away from the country, abandoning the people who, more than any other,
had
frayed the Soviet empire's will. After the rise of the Taliban in 1994,
the
Clinton administration toyed with the idea that the Taliban would be no
worse than its Saudi backers, conservative Muslims who tolerate America
and
fear and hate Iran. Moreover, the administration became focused on other

priorities. In 1996, it seemed possible that American-built gas and oil
pipelines from Central Asia could run through an Afghanistan ruled by
one
leader. Cruelty to women aside, we did not condemn the Taliban
juggernaut
rolling across the country.

Even after the arrival of Mr. bin Laden, the Clinton administration held
out
hope that a modus vivendi could be reached, with the assistance of the
Saudis and Pakistanis. Mr. bin Laden would be contained, perhaps even
booted
out of the country.

That hope is gone, but no sensible policy has yet followed. To really
put
Mr. bin Laden out of business, America must shut down his operations
inside
Afghanistan. Pretending that we have a robust counterterrorist program
picking apart Mr. bin Laden's organization  while he and his followers
nearly sink an American destroyer in Yemen  is delusional and
dangerous.
The October strike against the American destroyer Cole in the port of
Aden
will long be remembered by Muslims who still believe that jihad is the
sixth
pillar of the faith.

Since America's counterterrorist forces cannot unilaterally reach inside

Afghanistan, we have only one option. Play realpolitik the old-fashioned

way.

Taliban leaders truly fear only one thing: the possibility that
Afghanistan's many tribes will put aside their differences and unite to
topple them from power. They've launched numerous offensives against
Ahmed
Shah Massoud, the strongest of the anti- Soviet Afghan commanders. His
troops are the only ones still seriously contesting Taliban rule. As
long as
Mr. Massoud survives, he is a threat.

Mr. Massoud, a devout Muslim, is unquestionably one of the greatest
guerrilla commanders of our era. He detests the Taliban's treatment of
women; he has no truck with Mr. bin Laden. A literate man, he is no
doubt
horrified by the most recent attack on Afghanistan's Buddhist patrimony.

Yet, the Clinton administration kept its distance from Mr. Massoud. Why?

Pakistan has long loathed him and supported the Taliban, ethnic and
increasingly ideological cousins of the Pathan, the dominant tribe of
Pakistan's northwest frontier. The administration, which was reluctant
to
re- engage in Afghan affairs or to oppose Pakistan's preferences,
advocated
a "negotiated settlement between all parties"  diplomatic shorthand for

American abstention and de facto neutrality. But no one can negotiate
with
Mullah Omar. Like Mr. bin Laden, he seriously believes he has received
his
marching orders from a non-negotiating authority.

It is too late to save Bamiyan's treasures, but it is not too late for
the
United States to play hardball. The Bush administration could give a
small
slice of the multibillion-dollar counterterrorist budget to Mr. Massoud.

That might bring Mullah Omar down to earth. He and his supporters,
particularly the Pakistanis, might reconsider the unthinkable  shutting

down Mr. bin Laden's operations  if the alternative were the
dissipation,
and perhaps the destruction, of Taliban rule.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a fellow at the Project for the New American
Century, is
a former Middle East specialist in the Central Intelligence Agency.







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