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Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2001 / 29 Mar-Cheshvan Tishrei 5762

Philip Terzian

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The Yanks are coming? -- IMAGINE if the Allies, having defeated Nazi Germany in 1945, had retreated behind their newly-configured borders, and left the war-weary Germans to their own devices. They might have muddled through -- Hitler had brought his countrymen unparalleled destruction, and the Germans were ready to re-embrace democracy -- but then again not.

What saved Germany, of course, was military occupation and the Marshall Plan. Recognizing that a vindictive peace settlement, and worldwide indifference to Germany's political and economic plight after World War I, had sown the seeds of Hitler, the Allies were determined not to repeat the errors of Versailles. We now face comparable circumstances in Afghanistan. Not exactly the same, to be sure, but close enough.

While it is both inaccurate and unfair to suggest that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are the unforeseen consequences of American support for the anti-Soviet resistance of the 1980s -- the so-called "blowback" theory -- it is certainly true that once the mujahadin drove the Russians out, the United States swiftly disengaged itself as well. Similarly, in the Persian Gulf, once the United Nations had fulfilled its stated mission -- that is, driven Saddam Hussein's legions out of Kuwait, and preserved the integrity of Saudi Arabia -- we saw no reason to press further.

At the time, both decisions made eminent sense. Afghanistan was, and remains, a toxic blend of ethnic rivalries and regional conflict. And after assembling a huge, multinational army to chase the Republican Guards out of Kuwait, the United States had little interest in conquering and occupying Baghdad, and fashioning some successor regime to Saddam Hussein.

We now see, however, that prudence was short-sighted. One of the principal grievances against America in Afghanistan is the notion that we lost interest in the mujahidin at the moment when they needed us most. And everyone agrees that the price of Saddam Hussein during the past decade has probably exceeded the cost of conquering and rebuilding Iraq.

Which leads us to the sudden, and comparatively effortless, collapse of the Afghan capital. While it is true that the remnants of the Taliban have retreated from Kabul to their stronghold in the region around Kandahar, it is equally true that they are now a spent force. American air power has succeeded in destroying their capacity to defend themselves, and without the loss of a single U.S. combat casualty. Osama bin Laden, having exhorted his fellow Muslims to rise up and strike at the infidels, now finds himself dangerously isolated, devoid of the protection of any Afghan regime, and facing the wrath of a unified humanity, Muslims included.

If ever there was a moment for the United States to intervene decisively, and not declare victory and turn homeward, this is it. The Northern Alliance has taken full advantage of the U.S. destruction of the Taliban's power, but the Northern Alliance cannot take full credit. If it were not for the United States and its allies, the various, and decidedly unsavory, combatants who make up the Alliance would still be dodging artillery shells near the Pakistan border.

That is the fact. The question is whether the people of Afghanistan comprehend it.

This is why it is so important for the United States and its allies to be on the ground, as it were, as soon as possible. When the suffering women of Kabul throw off their burqas, when men shave their beards, when music is heard again in the streets, and the schools and shops and clinics reopen -- as has already happened in Mazar-el-Sharif -- the identity of the liberators should be fully understood. The United States cannot rely on bloodstained warlords, like the Uzbek Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance, to serve as proxies: While most Afghans are relieved to be freed of Taliban rule, they would look upon trading the Taliban for Dostum as one burden for another.

The arguments against introducing ground troops are familiar: Afghanistan has been a political and military quagmire for outsiders since the middle 19th century, and the Vietnam war remains fresh in American minds. But the arguments in favor of engagement are decisive. We cannot hope to win any kind of war against anti-Western terrorism, much less President Bush's ambitious agenda, without seizing the Afghan initiative ourselves -- and before this opportunity slips from our grasp.

If we are genuinely concerned about sentiment in the Muslim and Arab "street," let them see Muslims in Afghanistan celebrate the arrival of U.S. troops, watch the Allies hunt down and destroy al Quada, let U.S. power and prestige enforce a Mideast peace. No such undertaking will be easy, or painless, or uncomplicated; but the rewards would be considerably greater than the cost..

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal