Anatol Lieven: Endgame Afghanistan

Only a Muslim UN force can secure peace after the bombing, writes Anatol Lieven from Peshawar
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A cruel paradox underlies Afghanistan's endgame. It will find it very difficult to live with a heavily armed international peacekeeping force. It will also be completely unable to live without one.

The presence of such a force in Kabul will be absolutely necessary to create a secure, neutral space in which a national assembly – or loya jirga – may have at least a chance of beginning the process of state building. Unfortunately, nothing in the history of the past 30 years suggests that, left to themselves, Afghans will be able to work out any kind of peaceful settlement.

But no Western force would be either useful or acceptable to a majority of Afghans. The idea of Scandinavian- or Dutch-subsidised backpackers trying to ensure peace in Kabul in the face of fanatical Taliban diehards and ferocious Uzbek militia is laughable. As to the Americans and British, they may have will and firepower, but by the end of this war they will be utterly hated by many ordinary Afghans, let alone the radical Muslim element. They would therefore immediately become targets, and we would see a repeat on a much worse scale of the experiences of the US interventions in Somalia and Lebanon – or indeed the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan after 1979 and the British one after 1839.

Any international force and authority will need legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans, and the protection and respect that such legitimacy would afford. And given basic Afghan prejudices and the way in which they are likely to be fanned by this war, such legitimacy can only be Islamic. The peacekeeping force for Kabul should therefore be recruited by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) from a range of Muslim countries, and should operate under the joint aegis of the OIC and the United Nations.

Furthermore, we should not wait until the defeat of the Taliban to start preparing such a force. It may be that only such a force from the Muslim world could persuade hardline Taliban fighters to surrender. With all their dreadful faults, the core of the Taliban are obviously very brave, dedicated warriors. Were they not, they would not have come from nowhere to conquer 90 per cent of Afghanistan in a few years. I have seen in Grozny what happens to a city and its civilian population when a few thousand brave men decide to die beneath its ruins fighting against overwhelming numbers and firepower.

As both Grozny and the fighting in Kabul from 1992-96 showed, such a battle is made even worse when the different actors harbour strong ethno-religious hatred. Even though in any such battle for Kabul the atrocities and most of the destruction would be the work of Afghan groups, the allied war effort would none the less be badly discredited, especially in the Muslim world.

The promotion of an international and Islamic framework for a settlement can be conducted only by Britain. The US, and especially the Republican Party, often feels the deepest distrust of both the United Nations and any Muslim international combination. American officials have repeatedly stressed their determination to keep an absolutely free hand in the conduct of this war. But Britain is by far the closest US ally in the war. This gives us real prestige in the US, which we must be prepared to exploit in the interests of a genuine long-term solution which will eliminate Afghanistan as a base for future terrorism.

One of the difficulties in establishing a stable state is that it is questionable whether "the Afghan people'' actually exists. This is not to say that Afghans of different tribes and ethnicities have not been able to combine spontaneously and effectively on many occasions. But these combinations were almost always for war, and under the banner of religion: whether war to throw out an infidel invader from Afghanistan or war to go forth to conquer and plunder infidels in their own lands.

Although Afghanistan was never directly ruled by European empires, modern Afghanistan is in many ways an artificial European imperial creation, like Sierra Leone or Angola. It was the territory left between the Russian Empire and the British Indian Empire; and the founder of the modern Afghan state, Emir Abdur Rahman, was armed and subsidised by the British to build up that state. But the modernising Afghan state was hated by all too many of its own subjects as an offence against both their old anarchical tribal freedoms and their religions traditions. And of course it did not help that, as elsewhere, the servants of the state were brutal and corrupt and its economic development programmes a failure.

When I travelled into rebel Afghanistan in the late 1980s, what first struck me was the completeness with which the mujahedin had swept away the modern state and its trappings. In the past decade, this destruction of the state has spread from the tribal mountains to the valleys and finally to the cities. And as a result of the wars, not only the modern state order but most traditional tribal and religious structures of authority have also collapsed. The result was the dreadful vacuum of the mid-1990s which the Taliban filled with their own pathological version of Islamic order. And the Taliban are no kind of modern state grouping. Their closest parallel in the Western world would be some eight centuries ago: the ethnically based crusading orders of the Middle Ages, the Order of Alcantara or the Knights of the Sword, with their enemies cast in the role of the infidel Moors or pagan Balts.

Given these legacies, much of the Western talk about the former king, Zahir Shah, convening a loya jirga is facile at best. First of all, who is to decide who will fit in the loya jirga? If this included all the Afghans who think that their status justifies a place, then the number of members would probably run to tens of thousands. How will the king be able to decide peaceably on the relative weight of the followings of dozens of competing warlords and groups? And if major military groupings are denied places which are given to traditional tribal and religious elders, why should the men with guns accept the results? And above all, who is to prevent the main leaders coming to the loya jirga accompanied by hundreds or thousands of heavily armed "bodyguards''. Clearly, some form of neutral but effective protection will be essential.

It is optimistic to think that such an assembly could be held together by the frail hands of an 86-year-old Italian pensioner. It is often forgotten that to his great credit, the king embarked in the 1960s on an attempt at parliamentary constitutional monarchy – which even in those much gentler times collapsed due to the chronic inability of Afghan leaders to work together in a constructive way. But if the king today cannot play a strong practical role, not just as a convener, but as a mediator, then certainly no other Afghan can do so.

Afghanistan today, like Somalia, is the sort of spectacle which has made Western governments throw up their hands and retire from the state-building business altogether. It makes the moral imperialism of Tony Blair look bizarre, if not megalomaniac. But today, of course, we cannot and must not destroy the Taliban and then throw up our hands and go home. If we do that, then Afghans will revolt against the resulting order in the name of Islam, they will receive support from radicals elsewhere in the Muslim world, and the whole damned cycle will begin again.

So the US and Britain need to play a very strong post-war role, with massive amounts of money to bribe Afghans (let's be frank here) to support a settlement, and the threat of massive firepower if they refuse. But this US and British role should also be a veiled one – and the veil should be coloured UN blue and, above all, Islamic green.

Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, DC