That Colin Powell is one smart general, and I entirely subscribe to his doctrine for military engagement: clear purposes (goals, objectives, whatever you want to call them), sufficient and continued commitment of resources, and the strong and continuing support of the American people. Who can disagree with this much good sense?
But my man left something out. I am pretty sure that, if you want to fight a war, you had better have an enemy. Try as hard as I can, I cannot identify one—not the Taliban, not Al Qaida—not in Afghanistan, not yesterday, but today and tomorrow.
Now I do not think highly of the Taliban for a lot of reasons. But I have to say that bad as that party of politico-religio fanatics is, the US abides many worse parties without waging war on them. I am quite sure that I prefer the Taliban to Iranian mullahs, North Korean dictators, Myramar generals, and assorted sub-Saharan despots. But I am also quite sure that I do not prefer them to no-account Cuban cigar-smokers.
Oh, yes, I hear shrill cries about 9/11. Although the Taliban government gave Al Qaida sanctuary before that date and refused US requests or demands that it expel or extradite Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaida leaders, it had no role in the 9/11 attacks. My guess is that, if it had known such attacks were being planned and implemented by its guests, and if it had known that such attacks would lead to an American invasion ousting it from power, it would have rescinded its invitation. With this history better known to it than to us, the Taliban, if it returns to official power, would be highly unlikely to repeat it.
Currently, the Taliban effectively control about four-fifths of Afghanistan, with little help from or involvement of Al Qaida. The latest numbers bandied about indicate about 100 known Al Qaida members are in the country. The Taliban currently operates as an effective but elusive insurgency in its country. If the US were to withdraw its troops and left the Taliban to reassert control of the country, it would no longer be elusive; it would be the government. It would not occupy and, as necessary, abandon make-shift camps, or retreat into and be absorbed by a supportive populace; it would occupy the buildings and facilities of government. It could become a target again, as it was in 2002. Anyone who thinks that the Taliban in Afghanistan would support Al Qaida again and risk losing control again has a lot of explaining to do.
Meanwhile, for all practical purposes, Al Qaida constitutes a trivial political and military presence in Afghanistan. It knows this 9/11 pre-history, it understands the realities of past and the illusions of future support in Afghanistan, so it realizes that it has more to fear from the Taliban, which does not want it, than from Pakistan, which presently appears unable to control it and limit its operations. For Al Qaida, better Pakistan than Afghanistan.
So, in today’s Afghanistan, we have the Taliban, which had little or nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks; which cannot be imagined to want to repeat its expulsion from power by harboring a terrorist group and thereby inviting another US military campaign against it; and which otherwise has no nefarious designs on the United States except to continue supplying it with heroin. And, in today’s Afghanistan, we have an Al Qaida presence of about 100 widely dispersed members of no influence or importance to the Taliban and its local interests. In the end, the Taliban is not a threat and does not want a fight, and Al Qaida is not a threat and cannot fight—not from Afghanistan. Here, their interests are different: the Taliban wants to rule a country, Al Qaida wants to ruin ours. So who is the enemy there whom we should stay to fight? And, as Powell might ask, what are our purposes justifying the commitment of resources and earning the support of the American people?
We do not need a policy on Afghanistan which continues a war against no real enemy in that country, one with no tradition of a central government, not to mention a legitimate one, in a “fourth-world” society of illiteracy, poverty, and disease. Afghans seem to like it that way; they certainly want neither the Russians nor the Americans to dictate or develop new ways of life. They hate foreigners more than they want freedom, favors, or fortunes. Who are we to say different?
Of course, Taliban and Al Qaida might join forces in Afghanistan, as they are doing in Pakistan. Perhaps, their union is one of mutual convenience in an insurgency against the Pakistani government. If successful, it remains to be seen whether the union can survive its success. I worry that it can. Whereas the two groups have different purposes in Afghanistan, they seem to have similar purposes in Pakistan, the acquisition of nuclear weapons which would empower both enormously beyond their current capabilities. Much depends on who controls these capabilities and whether they share them. So the issue of Afghanistan morphs into the issue of Pakistan, a situation which may require, not negotiations with those who have proven resistant to negotiations, but military action of a dramatic nature. The Pakistan government seems to be aware, albeit belatedly, of the extreme threat to its survival and that of its country.
We know how to fight that kind of war. What we need is a policy for combating terrorism which will likely rarely involve war. We need to be able to wage highly specific campaigns tailored to defeat identifiable enemies in various and shifting locales as they move from one to another. We need a way to wage such campaigns in accordance with civilian control of the military, our obligations under national and international law, and a regard for the importance of moral as well as material means to counter terrorism and its wellsprings in the frustrated longings of most people for a better life in this life.