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The Afghanistan Problem Has Returned to Haunt Us : Policy: The U.S. fondness for proxy wars in the '80s armed and trained an Islamic extremism that has reach our shores. But all is not lost.

August 22, 1993|John Balbach | John Balbach, former staff director of the Congressional Task Force on Afghanistan, recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan. He is currently an associate with the Gorbachev Foundation, USA

SAN FRANCISCO — War by proxy, like credit-card consumerism, was a favorite excess of the 1980s. Proxy wars seemed relatively cheap, politically palatable and easy to walk away from. But Washington's generous sup port for the Afghan moujahedeen , once-favored Davids who slew the Soviet Goliath, has backfired.

From terrorist bombs at the New York World Trade Center to blasts in the streets of Bombay, from assassinations in Cairo to uprisings in the mountains of Kashmir, evidence is mounting that U.S., Pakistani and Saudi support for extremist elements of the Afghan moujahedeen was, at best, shortsighted. Afghanistan is a case of unfinished business that, if not stabilized, may haunt us and other nations for years to come.

After the Soviet invasion in December, 1979, and throughout the 1980s, the urge to assist the Afghan people was compelling. For Washington, the war was an ideological necessity, another front against communism. For Muslim states, the war was a call to jihad, a holy fight against atheistic invaders. From such divergent motivations was born a coalition supporting the moujahedeen . The United States and Saudi Arabia were the primary bankers, Pakistan and Iran were the chief tacticians and the moujahedeen were little more than pawns on the front lines.

When the Soviets finally withdrew in February, 1988, the United States claimed victory, and, as is its habit, walked away. According to Washington, the war was over, the objective achieved, the good fight won.

The U.S. position was that Afghanistan's political future was a question best left to the Afghans. That future, however, was largely shaped by U.S. assistance during the war. Washington provided billions of dollars in weapons and support to the Afghan resistance, more than $3 billion by the end of the decade. Unfortunately, it did not choose who would receive the aid.

Both the Reagan and Bush administrations felt that Pakistan knew best which of the various Afghan resistance groups should get U.S. largess. According to conventional wisdom at the time, the United States would not repeat the mistake of Viet Nam--micro-managing a war in a culture it did not understand.

In essence, the United States gave blank checks to the Pakistani intelligence service. Pakistan, in turn, supported the most militant elements of the moujahedeen , increasing the power of the radical Islamic movement within Afghanistan.

The more money Washington funneled through Pakistan, the stronger and more vocal became the militant groups, headed by current Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A nation and a people that had been moderate turned decidedly radical, absorbing in increasing numbers of Islamic extremists from other nations. Today, the national bill for this policy is coming due. Opium production in Afghanistan has dramatically increased over the last few years, prompting one official of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to call Afghanistan the new Colombia of the drug world.

For terrorists, the most sought-after antiaircraft missile--the Stinger--can be easily found in the bazaars of Afghanistan. The price: $70,000 to $100,000 each. Within Afghanistan, guerrilla training camps established with U.S generosity house young Islamic extremists. Graduates are destined for a new Islamic war with bordering Tajikistan and, potentially, with Russia.

Despite the formation of a government in Kabul, no one truly rules Afghanistan. The moujahedeen groups that the United States and Pakistan supported during the war occupy Kabul, holding the titles and the chairs of national office. They do not, however, control the country. More than 3 million refugees continue to live in squalid camps in Pakistan, Iran and India, loudly stating by their absence that the butchers in power are there by use of force, rather than by popular consent.

It is not too late to repair the damage, however. Afghanistan, despite appearances, is not a lost cause.

In the countryside, traditional tribal councils are again taking hold of local governmental power. Afghan-managed assistance groups are carrying the heavy burden once held by international agencies--emergency humanitarian assistance and economic revitalization. Afghan non-governmental organizations have demonstrated the ability to produce more results with less expense, helping increase the effectiveness of tight foreign-aid dollars.

The United States must support these positive developments. Required now, at the minimum, is a recognition by the international community--Washington, in particular--that to continue ignoring Afghanistan is to invite more unrest, terrorist attacks in U.S. streets and the entrenchment of a powerful drug economy whose target audience will surely include Americans.

The international community must support the local councils, the Afghan non-governmental organizations and the country's moderate political elements. Foreign-aid programs designed to directly aid the countryside would dramatically help create jobs where now there is only despair, give hope where terrorists are now trained. The alternative is to watch America's "freedom fighters" continue on their path of destruction.

Whether we like it or not, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is unfinished. Afghanistan is back. This time, let's make it right.

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