By William Pfaff
In past columns, I have asked without success for an explanation of why the United States should be at war with the Taliban, a violent sectarian Muslim reform movement of modest size in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Neither side can give a coherent explanation of who the other is. The Taliban must ask what it could have done to the United States that Washington should now have some 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, accompanied by allied forces from Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and other countries, with 17,000 Marines waiting to ship out from the United States this spring.
Last weekend, the NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Krakow made the search for replacements to rotate these troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan a major item of discussion, with little to show for it. There were a few tentative offers of temporary reinforcements during August, when Afghan national elections are scheduled, but that was the best they managed to do.
The usual Washington reaction is that this is the result of European pacifism, good living and loss of appetite for war, but the real reason lies elsewhere. The allies, too, are looking for an explanation as to why Americans and the NATO governments should be doing this to themselves.
What has the Taliban done to the Westerners that the United States and its allies should have twice (first in 2001-2 and again now) sent major air forces to destroy Taliban villages and warriors? In 2002 it was B-52 heavy bombers operating from very high altitude (out of fear that the Taliban might have Russian ground-air missiles). Now it is U.S., British and French fighter-bombers reinforced by aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea.
The American command knows that, tactically and politically, aerial bombing is the worst way to do precision attacks on small ground units, since it produces high levels of what military-euphemism-speak calls collateral damage. But aerial bombing is what the allies have in the absence of more NATO and U.S. infantry.
However, back to the fundamental question: Why are we doing this? There are two answers, one of which is blunt, brutal and in the Cheney-Pentagon tradition. They are “bad folks” and “evil.” They provided traditional hospitality to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida after the government of Sudan had put the latter out of its country under pressure from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden to the U.S. as a matter of honor (although there also are reports that it provided American emissaries with opportunities to take bin Laden, which the U.S. failed to do because it was culturally blind to the signals being given).
Actually, there are three answers. The one that Westerners instinctively give is that the Taliban must be made to let girls go to school and marry as they wish, must abandon medieval criminal punishments and must set people free to say what they think. But no one is forcing the Afghans and the Pakistanis to adopt the Taliban’s deplorable practices; the people of those two nations are making the choice to do so.
The most important reason for the American war on the Taliban is that Washington under the Bush administration, and with the enthusiastic support of certain leaders of the neoconservative gang among think-tank intellectuals, had decided that America had to destroy “Islamo-fascism,” and the Taliban was the only radical Islamic fundamentalist group that Washington knew about. U.S. leadership was seriously unaware of the difficulties of invading other countries to stamp out objectionable forms of native religion.
Moreover, the Taliban had resisted the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, sent with orders to capture Osama bin Laden. So this is a grudge fight, which President Obama inherits from President Bush.
(In the months leading up to the presidential election last November, George W. Bush was quoted by a supposed witness as demanding of all his armed forces and intelligence chiefs: “By Nov. 1, bring me bin Laden’s head on a platter! Whatever the price!” It reads like a Jacobin scene: the king rending his garments, foam flecking his lips, crying out, “Ten thousand ducats shall be yours, and a Texas kingdom of your own, my youngest daughter as your queen!”)
My own belief is that what is going on is folly. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India should be asked to a conference on regional stability, in which the U.S. puts on the table an offer of complete non-interference in the internal affairs, including the religious affairs, of these countries, unless there is further attack on the United States by any of them.
None of the four nations has anything to gain from making the United States its enemy, the U.S. would point out. And the U.S. has no wish to have any as an enemy. The internal political affairs of all, including India and Pakistan’s Kashmir issue, are to be settled (or left unsettled) by themselves, possibly with international mediation of their own choice. The new American administration will deal generously with every government at peace with its neighbors, believing that peace is better than war.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.
USAF / Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon
A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft deploys flares over Afghanistan.