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After Bombs Must Come Civil Rights

November 25, 2001|ROSA EHRENREICH BROOKS | Rosa Ehrenreich Brooks is a former senior policy advisor at the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. She is currently an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — With the rapid collapse of Taliban forces throughout most of Afghanistan, many commentators have uncorked the champagne. "War works!" trumpeted the New York Times, and the press is full of pictures of triumphant Northern Alliance soldiers.

If the Taliban is finished, good riddance. For years, human rights groups have struggled to call world attention to the Taliban's brutal interpretation of Islam, and particularly its oppression of women. The Taliban's support of Osama bin Laden was merely the final straw.

But celebrations are premature. Osama bin Laden's terrorist network apparently remains intact. What's more, the continued chaos in Afghanistan poses an ongoing threat to regional stability, to the long-term success of the U.S. "war against terrorism," and to the rights and lives of ordinary Afghans--especially women.

Ensuring that Afghanistan's future is less blood-drenched than its past will certainly require a long-term commitment of money and talent, as the U.S. works with the U.N. to help rebuild the nation's devastated civic infrastructure. But it may also require us to use force--possibly against our erstwhile Northern Alliance allies--to protect human rights and foster democracy in a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

FOR THE RECORD - Correction
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 2, 2001 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Opinion Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
An article in last Sunday's Opinion, "After Bombs Must Come Civil Rights," implied that the CIA had once assisted Osama bin Laden. While the CIA did provide assistance to the anti-Soviet moujahedeen, there is no evidence that Bin Laden was among the beneficiaries of that aid.

So far, the U.S. has aided anti-Taliban forces on the apparent principle that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. But the viciousness of Northern Alliance troops during the last decade of Afghan civil war was legendary, so much so that many Afghans--and the U.S. State Department--initially greeted the Taliban's 1996 takeover with relief.

What are the chances, post-Taliban, of lasting gains for Afghan women and civilians? Slim, if we leave it to the Northern Alliance. Some snapshots from the Alliance's recent past: in 1995, Alliance troops "went on a rampage, systematically looting whole streets and raping women" in parts of Kabul, according to the State Department's 1996 country report. Witnesses reported that hundreds of women committed suicide to avoid the mass rapes, many by throwing themselves out of high windows. Fahima Vorgetts, an Afghan women's rights activist, recalls bitterly that Alliance troops treated women as "movable property," carrying them off as part of the booty of war.

When Northern Alliance forces took Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997, they massacred several thousand Taliban prisoners of war. Some were lined up and shot; others blown up by grenades or drowned in wells. Throughout the war, the Alliance indiscriminately bombed civilian populations, and used children as soldiers and minesweepers. Recent reports of lootings and executions by Alliance troops in Mazar-i-Sharif suggest that little has changed.

We should know by now that the enemy of our enemy is rarely a reliable friend. The U.S. armed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a counter to Iran, only to end up at war with him a few years later. We gave the moujahedeen who later became the Taliban their most lethal weapons during the 1980s. At one point the CIA even helped support Osama bin Laden.

Getting rid of the Taliban is a necessary but insufficient step in the war on terror. If we leave post-Taliban Afghanistan floundering in violence and despair, we will have merely added fertilizer to a breeding ground for terrorists who will one day--with some justice--blame the United States and its allies for much of what is wrong with their world.

Building a democratic post-Taliban Afghanistan is in our self-interest: It is also the only way to avoid shameful hypocrisy. Since Sept. 11, U.S. officials have rightly condemned the Taliban's human rights record, and First Lady Laura Bush told the nation last week that "the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women." Now we need to show that we mean it.

We should accelerate planning for an interim U.N.-sponsored government to take charge until Afghan society is capable of sustaining a genuine rights-respecting democracy in which women are full participants. If this means getting tough with our Northern Alliance proxy soldiers, we shouldn't shrink from doing so if that's the only way to keep them from committing more atrocities.

The lesson from past interventions is crystal clear: protecting human rights and ensuring political stability can't be accomplished by hand-wringing alone. Sometimes it takes muscle--muscle that goes beyond simply dropping bombs from on high.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, U.N. peacekeepers stood by while forces backed by former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic slaughtered thousands of civilians at Srebrenica. Consequently, Milosevic came back to haunt us, expensively, a few years later. In Rwanda, U.N. soldiers retreated while nearly a million civilians were hacked to death. Since then, Rwanda's conflict has spilled over to destabilize a wide swath of Central Africa.

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