Engaging Afghanistan now is the preferred option


PRESIDENT Obama is caught in a no-win situation in Afghanistan.

He inherited a badly executed war from George W. Bush who, egged on by the coterie of neocons, invaded Iraq and took his eyes off Afghanistan.

For more than six years, the war in Afghanistan was of secondary importance, and in that time the Taliban regrouped and emerged as a formidable force.

Despite terrorists' attacks on 9/11, it was a mistake to invade Afghanistan. While the tendency is to retaliate, a more logical approach would have been to isolate the Taliban government in Afghanistan and take out its al-Qaeda sanctuaries.

There are many other ways, history tells us, to redeem a nation's honor.

Even after the invasion of Afghanistan, a focused approach to nation building and sealing the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan would have made al-Qaeda and the Taliban ineffective.

Now it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of great empires. Throughout history, many invaders came with high designs but eventually left in disgrace and humiliation. The country is located on the crossroads of Asia, between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia.

In history, no land invader has ever been able to establish a foothold there.

Many invaders fought their way through the land on the way to the Indian subcontinent. Starting in 2000 B.C. with the Aryans and ending with the Soviet invasion in 1979, there have been scores of invaders, including Alexander of Macedonia in 325 B.C., but no conquerors.

Underlying this phenomenon is the formidable mountainous terrain, the fierce independent spirit of the people, and a historic paranoia of outsiders that dictates their attitude and their actions. Sir Olaf Caroe, the colonial governor of the North West Frontier of Pakistan, in his seminal book on the Pashtuns (The Pathans, Oxford University Press, 1958), emphasized the nature of the country and its inhabitants by saying, "But the land was made for the men in it, not men for the land."

Islamic orthodoxy is just another, albeit the most recent, wrinkle in the lives of these rugged and unpredictable people.

These attributes, coupled with their religious orthodoxy, were exploited to the fullest during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1978-89) by Western countries. The land, the people, and their peculiarities, however, are the same despite the ebb and flow of invaders.

The Taliban rose from the ashes of the Afghan civil war waged for seven years after the Soviet defeat. They brought peace to a war- torn country and provided a sanctuary to their benefactor, Osama bin Laden, who had played a crucial role in the jihad against the Soviets. However, after the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and an immediate attack by a U.S. cruise missile on al-Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan, a rift developed between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In the winter of 2000, while writing for The Blade from Afghanistan, I asked Taliban leaders why they did not hand over bin Laden to the United States when his continued presence in their country had turned the entire world against them. They were quick to distance themselves from the embassy bombings, but were adamant - note the tribal mind-set - not to betray their "honored" guest. In Pashtun culture, once you give sanctuary, you cannot revoke it.

Afghanistan is a patchwork of ethnic tribes that are divided along Pashto and Dari, the two dominant languages. Pashtuns (all Taliban are Pashtuns) constitute 42 percent of the population, whereas Tajiks (27 percent), Hazaras, and Uzbek (both 9 percent each), and a sprinkling of minor tribes make up the rest.

The tribal divide was evident during the Taliban push in the early 1990s for control of the country. The northern tribes, then called the Northern Alliance, fought the Pashtun Taliban and kept them at bay.

The Taliban targeted and assassinated the charismatic Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in order to gain control of northern Afghanistan. After the U.S. invasion in 2002, that feud was pushed to the background, but it is resurfacing again.

The time has passed to bother with winning the hearts and minds of Afghans and most particularly the Pashtun tribes. The Pashtun Taliban are destined to return to power.

The only thing that could be done now is to engage them in some kind of negotiations and, with the promise of aid for nation-building, craft a face-saving exit.

It might surprise some, but another important piece in the propaganda arsenal of al-Qaeda is the American unwillingness and/or inability to address the Palestinian issue. In geopolitical terms, that issue is linked to all other regional conflicts in the Muslim and Arab world that involve America.

Once the Palestinian issue is out of the way, it will eliminate one major cause of anger against America in the Muslim/Arab world.

Time is of the essence for America, but not to the people in Afghanistan or in the Middle East. They can and will wait for generations to achieve their goal.

Better to engage them now than to be humiliated later.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net