May 23, 2013
The Wrong Man for the Job
Posted on Jan 23, 2009
By Scott Ritter
It was early in October 2001, and I had been invited to New York City on behalf of The History Channel for a show in which I was to discuss the situation in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. I was pitted against a seasoned American diplomat who had made his reputation negotiating peace accords in difficult corners of the world. I felt a little out of place, since my area of expertise was arms control and disarmament, and specifically how arms control was being implemented in Iraq. I had written a few scholarly articles about Afghan-Soviet relations, with a focus on the ethnic and tribal aspects of Afghan politics, and in the mid-1980s I had been an analyst with the Marine Corps component of the rapid deployment force, following very closely the Soviet war against the Afghan mujahedeen, so I wasn’t totally out of my element.
I fully expected to play second fiddle to the veteran diplomat, and appreciated the opportunity to hear his insights into what clearly was a very difficult situation facing the Bush administration. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization had used their status as guests of the Taliban government of Afghanistan to formulate and implement their terrorist attacks against the United States. The question confronting the Bush administration was how best to respond. I had spent some time thinking over the problem and came down firmly against the idea of direct military intervention. History had shown that, since the time of Alexander the Great through the Soviet invasion and occupation, outside forces had fared poorly when they tried to impose their will on the diverse grouping of tribes and ethnic groups that made up Afghanistan.
Our fight, in any case, wasn’t against the people of Afghanistan. To a certain extent, it wasn’t even against the Taliban, since it was al-Qaida, not the Taliban, that had attacked us. Some, including leaders of the Bush administration, were making the case that the Taliban was directly implicated in the attacks since it had provided al-Qaida with a safe haven to plan the events of 9/11. It had yet to be proved that the Taliban was a witting host, however. As a student of the region, I believed that the United States would do well to use tribal concepts of honor to isolate and disenfranchise bin Laden and his Arab outsiders from their Taliban host. If the United States, working through the offices of the Pakistani intelligence services, could convince the Taliban that its hospitality had been abused by al-Qaida—in that the murder of innocents had been committed while under its protection—then Afghan tribal custom and honor and, even more important to the fundamentalist Taliban, Islamic law, dictated that the Taliban revoke the protections and privileges afforded bin Laden and al-Qaida.
I did not believe that the Taliban would impose justice itself, but rather could be convinced, through a combination of logic and economic incentive, to disperse al-Qaida and turn bin Laden and his senior leadership over to a third party, presumably an Islamic nation such as Pakistan or the United Arab Emirates. If a direct approach failed, then covert action, using proxy forces in Pakistan and Iran, would make contact with moderate elements of the Taliban, personified by its foreign minister, to remove the conservative Mullah Omar from power and achieve a more direct result against bin Laden and his cohorts. A new, moderate Taliban leadership would be more than capable of assembling the religious clerics necessary to convene a sharia, or Islamic, court, which would find the actions of al-Qaida to be violations of Islamic law. Also, a loya jirga, or tribal gathering, would revoke the protected status of “guest” enjoyed by bin Laden and his fellow terrorists. The least productive option America could pursue was that of direct military intervention, and I anticipated that the veteran diplomat would concur with that point of view.
What happened, however, was the exact opposite. The diplomat rejected out of hand any sort of diplomacy, arguing that there were only extremists within the ranks of the Taliban. There was, in his opinion, no such thing as a moderate Taliban, and as such the United States had no choice but to lump the Taliban and al-Qaida into a singular target set, and initiate direct military action designed to remove the Taliban from power and destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan. I responded by noting that it would not be an easy thing to separate the Taliban from Afghan society, since the Taliban was a product of Afghan society, and that any military action against the Taliban would only strengthen the bonds between it and al-Qaida, which was of course the last result the United States should be seeking. The diplomat rejected my argument as simplistic and unrealistic. He argued for a military solution, and, of course, that was the result the Bush administration delivered. The diplomat’s name? Richard Holbrooke.
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