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Targeting the Taliban: What next?

Jim Steinberg
Former national security official Jim Steinberg said a peaceful, stable Afghanistan is a direct U.S. interest.  

By Matt Smith

(CNN) -- Despite President Bush's stated aversion to "nation-building," the United States would be obligated to rebuild a ravaged Afghanistan if its ruling Taliban are overthrown in the campaign against terrorism, observers say.

The United States accuses the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban of harboring Osama bin Laden, who U.S. officials hold responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Before the conflict began on October 7, British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned the Taliban to "Surrender the terrorists or surrender power."

But any plans to knock the Taliban out of power will require an extensive commitment, said Jim Steinberg, who served as deputy national security adviser to President Clinton.

"If you are engaged in changing the regime then you have some responsibility for what you replace them with," he said. "We won't serve our long-term interests if we replace this government but create chaos and instability in Afghanistan. It can still be a place that terrorists use as a base and training ground."

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Blair's speech Tuesday was the strongest indication to date that the overthrow of Afghanistan's fundamentalist Islamic government would be an objective of the anti-terror campaign if it did not hand over bin Laden.

The White House has yet to state explicitly that overthrowing the Taliban is would be a war aim, but an administration document includes the removal of the Taliban from power as an objective.

"I don't think it's as overreaching as it might sound. But still, the first target has to be the terrorists," said Charlie Wilson, a former Texas congressman who was an ardent advocate for Afghanistan's anti-Soviet guerrillas in the 1980s.

The United States is flirting with support for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, mostly the remnants of Afghanistan's pre-Taliban government. The group still controls between five and 10 percent of the country.

Steinberg, now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and a CNN analyst, said an attempt to bring down the Taliban would mean an open-ended U.S. military commitment and possibly the use of ground troops. And Wilson said he doubted the United States would publicly list the overthrow of the Taliban as an explicit goal.

"There are a lot of subtleties and nuances that have to occur here," said Wilson, now a Washington lobbyist who represents Pakistan's government. "I think that perhaps, for lack of a better world, the collateral result of our going after bin Laden could push the Taliban over the edge, and more moderate forces in Afghanistan would take their place."

Lessons of the last Afghan war

But U.S. policymakers have been down that road before. The United States supported the Afghan mujahedeen, the guerrillas who battled the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, then turned away from the region after the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

Once the Soviet-backed Afghan communist government yielded in 1992, conflicts among mujahedeen factions left an opening for the Taliban to come to power in 1996 as a force for law and order.

Wilson is still critical of the U.S. decision to "abandon" the mujahedeen after the Soviet withdrawal. That history obligates the United States to rebuild Afghanistan if the Taliban are overthrown, he said.

"I think we realized what abandonment meant when we abandoned them in 1990 and '91," Wilson said. "I think this time we will stay with it and provide a mini-Marshall Plan, and perhaps provide a little hope for a good life for the people of Afghanistan when we're gone."

But that kind of talk that sets off alarms in the Bush administration: During last year's presidential campaign, then-Gov. Bush criticized the Clinton administration for using U.S. troops in "nation-building," a term that captured conservative unease with extended non-combat deployments.

Bush complained that the lengthy commitment of U.S. troops to peacekeeping missions in the Balkans sapped military strength, and he said last week that the United States would not be building any nations in central Asia.

Wilson said the debate over "nation-building" was just a semantic issue.

"Is it nation-building to string rural electrical wires in the mountains of Afghanistan? Is it nation-building to clear the mines that the Russians left there? Is it nation-building to provide them with the agricultural infrastructure, such as fertilizer and feed and all the other things they need? ... I don't think so."

'We cannot fail to care'

The United States should cooperate with the opposition because they will "keep the Taliban off-balance," Wilson said. Pakistan, which has agreed to limited U.S. military cooperation, "won't facilitate us in that. But they won't stand in the way."

Joseph Biden
Sen. Joseph Biden will propose a reconstruction plan for Afghanistan following a military campaign.  

Steinberg said any opposition coalition would need to include tribal leaders from the Pashtun ethnic group, which is the country's dominant ethnic group, and it can't appear to be the creation of outside powers.

The Bush administration announced October 4 that it would spend $320 million on food and medicine to help the Afghan people and refugees over the coming winter. And aides said Sen. Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would propose legislation for a long-term reconstruction and development plan for Central and South Asia following any military campaign.

Both Steinberg and Wilson said that in the aftermath of September 11, the American public is likely to be more likely to support a so-called "nation-building" effort in Afghanistan than earlier humanitarian and peacekeeping missions like those in Haiti, Somalia and the Balkans.

Steinberg warned that the job will be more difficult than U.S. missions in Bosnia or Kosovo because of the extensive devastation left behind by two decades of war. But he added, "We cannot fail to care, because we know now what the consequences are."

"It's a direct national interest of the United States. We're not simply building a nation, we're trying to create an environment in which those hostile to the United States don't have a breeding ground and a sanctuary," he said.

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