Bombing Out of the Stone Age

Speaking to reporters on recently, President Bush said that U.S. goals in Afghanistan were limited to bringing terrorists to justice—and not focused on overturning the ruling Taliban regime. Although he would clearly like to see a new government in that country, Mr. Bush has decided not to make it an explicit goal of forthcoming U.S. military action. As he put it succinctly, “we don’t do nation-building.”

The president’s words were understandable at one level. As bad as the Taliban may be, the primary American goal in the struggle against terrorism must be to weaken the capacity of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization to carry out future attacks against the United States and its allies. In military terms, that means seizing as many terrorists as possible, and making sure they cannot use places like Afghanistan as sanctuaries for their activities. Retaliation against the Taliban for harboring al-Qaeda cannot be allowed to interfere with these primary objectives. Given Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, and its distaste for the Northern Alliance resistance movement in Afghanistan, we would risk losing access to critically needed Pakistani airspace, bases and intelligence information if we targeted the Taliban explicitly at this point.

However, on both moral and political grounds, Mr. Bush must not rule out nation-building so categorically. It may never be possible for the United States to occupy and rebuild Afghanistan as it did Germany and Japan after World War II. But we must not leave Afghanistan in even worse devastation after our upcoming military actions.

Politically speaking, the United States cannot afford to reinforce the widespread perception that it is indifferent to the fate of Islamic peoples. It is precisely such perceptions that motivate many terrorists, including some of those involved in the tragic events of Sept. 11. Many Muslims, rightly or wrongly, blame the United States for the plight of the Iraqi people and the breakdown of the Arab-Israeli peace process. They also remember how the United States supported the Afghan Mujaideen in their fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, only to desert them and the Afghan people in general after Mikhail Gorbachev ordered his troops back home. As a result of that cynical decision by Washington, civil war ensued in Afghanistan—ultimately giving rise to the conditions that allowed the Taliban to gain control of most of the country.

Mr. Bush now seems poised to adopt the same type of policy today. Without saying so explicitly, he is suggesting that we will help the Northern Alliance only long enough to achieve our chief strategic objective of seizing bin Laden and his top lieutenants and driving al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan. We would then leave our erstwhile allies to whatever fate might await them.

In addition to the political problems that would create, such a policy would be unacceptable on moral grounds. American military action will undoubtedly worsen the plight of the Afghans. Even if bombing is done carefully, some innocents will suffer “collateral damage.” Our support for the Afghan resistance will also intensify and broaden the country’s civil war. Taken together, these actions will impede the work of relief agencies in a land where millions are internally displaced and most lack substantial food reserves. Since 1978, at least 1 million Afghans have died due to warfare in their country. U.S. military action is about to add to that toll. At a minimum, we must make sure that life gets better for the Afghans once the war is over.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, not normally known as this administration’s chief nation-builder or humanitarian, nonetheless has displayed better judgment about this moral quandary than the president in recent days. He expressed sincere concern about the plight of the Afghans, and said that the United States should do what it can to relieve their suffering. But what can we really do?

First, we absolutely must provide relief to any Afghans we can reach. This means a direct role for the U.S. military flying supplies into parts of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance. It may also mean air-dropping food and supplies in certain places still under Taliban control, even at the risk of lost American lives.

Second, we must work to broaden the Northern Alliance to include tribes from the Pashtun ethnic group. Doing so is necessary if that alliance is to have legitimacy within Afghanistan as a possible ruling regime; it is also necessary if Pakistan is to be convinced to accept the necessity of a new government in Kabul.

Third, we must plan to provide sustained economic aid to a future Afghan government provided that it satisfies basic humanitarian and economic standards. Such aid cannot be delivered now, but it can be promised.

None of these measures requires a fundamental change in U.S. policy compared with what is now planned. None should necessitate a breakdown in cooperation with our critical Pakistani ally in the coming weeks and months. But they would go far towards reinforcing the moral clarity and international political appeal of our effort.