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Time To Reassess Afghan Aid

July 30, 1989

Is it in the interests of the United State to continue sending a lot of military aid to anti-government guerrilla forces in Afghanistan? More to the point, is it in the interests of the Afghan people, who increasingly seem to be the victims rather than the beneficiaries of actions by the insurgent moujahedeen ? The State Department, over objections from some defense and intelligence analysts, wants to go on giving arms to the guerrillas, for years to come if need be, and that view seems to have prevailed within the Bush Administration. Left unexplained is just what goal this expensive program is intended to serve.

For most of the 1980s, U.S. policy in Afghanistan had a clear purpose. Through clandestine arms shipments, it first of all aimed at keeping the invading Soviet army from occupying the whole country and then at making the cost of just holding on so high that the Soviets would decide to bring their forces home. The policy worked. The Russians are gone, leaving behind a pro-Soviet regime that controls little more than a few large urban areas. Confounding the predictions of some American experts, though, the regime has managed to survive, not least of all because the tribal-based moujahedeen remain unable to put aside their traditional suspicions and rivalries and cooperate on a coherent military strategy to bring down the Kabul government.

The best the insurgents have been able to do is put the cities of Jalalabad and Kabul under siege. But heavy shelling and blockades have so far done little but kill hundreds of mainly innocent civilians and threaten hundreds of thousands more with a loss of food supplies. The regime itself hasn't been discernibly weakened. Meanwhile, though, there are signs of growing public mistrust of the moujahedeen , who remain as far from political unity and as mutually suspicious as ever.

To continue to shower the moujahedeen with weapons and so to encourage the tactics they have adopted comes perilously close to endorsing actions that promote deliberate mass starvation. That is not what American efforts in Afghanistan have been all about. Instead of just doing more of what it has been doing for the last seven or eight years, the United States should be rethinking what its ultimate goals in Afghanistan are, and asking whether the crude tactics and apparently incurable political divisiveness of the moujahe-deen are the most promising means for getting there.

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