This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on September 20, 2001.
To coerce the Taliban into cooperating, the United States needs to send the
message that unless the regime does so, the U.S. will smash its military power
and threaten its control over Afghanistan. Getting it to take heed will be difficult,
since years of sanctions and diplomatic isolation have made little impression.
The U.S. must raise the stakes, and a good way to do so is by supporting the
Taliban's chief internal adversary.
The Northern Alliance is a confederation of tribal, ethnic, religious and
other groups, many of which organized to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
in the 1980s. It continues to resist the Taliban from the northeastern corner
of the country, although it now controls perhaps only 5% of Afghan territory.
Although the Northern Alliance has been ground down by the Taliban's troops,
it has not gone gently. If the U.S. were to provide it with weapons, ammunition
and other supplies, in addition to training and intelligence, it might be able
to reverse the tide of battle and eventually threaten Taliban control. With
access to bases in Pakistan or Central Asia, the United States could launch
airstrikes and special forces operations to support Northern Alliance assaults.
Washington could use an improved relationship with the alliance to learn about
Bin Laden's facilities and activities and perhaps use alliance bases to mount
its own operations. And if the United States decided that its war on terrorism
required the removal of the Taliban from power, here too the Northern Alliance
would be its best bet.
The United States has had mixed success supporting insurgencies by foreign
opposition groups in the past. But the failures have tended to be in cases in
which the opposition groups were not a serious threat to existing regimes. There
are four things an armed opposition needs to succeed: a willingness to fight
and die even if no major power stands with them, the military capability to
take on the regime's forces, internal backing from sizable factions of the population
and the support of at least one neighboring state. The Northern Alliance has
all four; all it needs is U.S. support.
The Northern Alliance fighters have demonstrated considerable military prowess
over 22 years of warfare. They are veterans of countless battles and have shown
the determination to fight and, if necessary, die for their cause. Its 10,000
seasoned troops and commanders have withstood repeated assaults by larger and
better-armed Taliban forces and have surrendered ground only grudgingly.
The alliance also has considerable internal support. The Taliban have imposed
a harsh, idiosyncratic version of Islam on Afghanistan, and the movement is
dominated by one community--the Pashtuns, who comprise less than 40% of Afghanistan's
population--to the exclusion of others. The Northern Alliance has long been
the champion of this disenfranchised majority.
Finally, the Northern Alliance enjoys support in the region. Iran, Uzbekistan,
Tajikistan and Russia already provide it with bases, arms and training, and
if the United States can persuade Pakistan to cut its ties to the Taliban, the
alliance might be able to open up a southern front as well.
Of course, support for the Northern Alliance will not be a silver bullet that
solves all of the United States' problems and will even bring some new ones.
Masoud, their greatest commander, will be hard to replace, although another
highly regarded fighter is likely to succeed him. And we will have to grapple
with the fact that in the past the alliance has funded itself partly through
the production and sale of opium. But if the U.S. is serious about taking down
Bin Laden's network, these are the kinds of allies it will need.
The Northern Alliance has demonstrated that it can stand up to the Taliban
on the battlefield. We should provide them with the wherewithal to prevail.
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