It seems to be the fate of Afghanistan that its pressing problems are ignored by the international community until some major atrocity tragically reminds the world that Afghan problems are its problems, that addressing the roots of extremism in that country is a matter ofinternational security.
Such was the case before September 11, 2001, and in recent months it was becoming increasingly apparent that a variety of global crises, most prominent of which was the prospect of war with Iraq, were distracting attention from the imperatives of winning the peace in that devastated land. When internationally recognized Afghan expert Barnet Rubin, a professor of political science at New York University, addressed an audience at the 92nd Street Y on the urgency of the situation in that country and its meaning for the United States on Sunday, November 3, it must have seemed to many that he was talking about yesterday’s news.
A series of dramatic events and revelations over the past month has put the lie to that assessment. The release of an audiotape which confirms that Osama bin Laden is alive and is as determined to attack the West as ever, and the subsequent atrocity in Mombasa, Kenya that claimed innocent Israeli and Kenyan lives, starkly illustrate the magnitude of our unfinished business in Afghanistan.
The near-certainty that the Mombasa outrage was an al-Qaeda operation and the high probability that bin Laden is not only lurking on the Afghan-Pakistan border but is reactivating his training camps there as the Taliban look for opportunities to launch new attacks underscore the vital nature of the American engagement in South-Central Asia.
“Afghanistan is not just a humanitarian issue, its a security issue,” Prof. Rubin told his listeners. “The U.S. and other countries should make a serious commitment of resources to help the Afghans build up their government. The reason is compelling: The Taliban or something like the Taliban could come back if the current government doesn’t succeed.”
The idea that history could repeat itself, which underlies many experts warnings about complacency in the face of the probability of new terrorist attacks, was strongly stressed by Prof. Rubin in his remarks.
“It’s important to understand the origins of the Taliban. They were a southern, Pashtun response to the lawlessness that prevailed at that time,” he said in reference to Afghanistan’s most important ethnic group.
“The same two issues that the Taliban rode to power on are back – the marginalization of the Pashtun by a Tajik-dominated government , and a lack of security.”
“It is hard for people who haven’t been there to conceive of the level of physical destruction that exists in Afghanistan, ” he continued. “There is a tremendous need for physical reconstruction.”
Fortunately, the American government has come around to Prof. Rubin’s views. Frustrated in its search for al-Qaeda and Taliban holdouts on the volatile Afghan-Pakistan border and concerned about continuing unrest in the country, the Pentagon in November made a major shift in emphasis toward using the U.S. military in the country to rebuild its shattered infrastructure.
The move, long called for by international observers, is meant to win the hearts of the Afghans by demonstrating that the presence of the United States and its international coalition partners has concrete, beneficial results for the Afghan populace. According to Prof. Rubin, the change comes just in time.
“Recently there has been an increase in sermons being preached against the government by the mullahs,” he said.
And what does he think of Afghanistan’s prospects in general? His response is deliberately ambiguous.
“People ask me whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic, and my answer is ?No,’ because I’ve seen too many unexpected things happen over the years.”