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US Military Options Debated - 2001-09-18

A debate is now underway on what kind of military response the United States should make to the terrorist attack. Some call for intensive bombing of Afghanistan. There is even talk of using nuclear weapons. Others, citing the complexities involved, urge a more measured approach that will not add to the enemies of the United States.

In response to the terrorist attack on the United States, President Bush said emphatically, "I want justice, and there is an old poster out West, as I recall, that said - 'wanted dead or alive.'"

The problem is finding Osama bin Laden, whether dead or alive, says Afghan-American writer Nasir Shansab. As they have proved many times in the past, Afghans can be notoriously elusive under attack. "Afghanistan is a rugged country. There are a lot of mountains, a lot of places where people could hide fairly safely," said Mr. Shansab. "It all depends on how good the intelligence is. If the intelligence is good, and the United States knows where to go and strike and land, then it might work out. If the intelligence is not as good as it should be, then it could be a futile enterprise."

Even so, it can be done, says Anwar-ul-hag Ahady, professor of Middle East politics at Providence College in Rhode Island. He says an attack must be precisely aimed with a clear end in view to avoid a more widespread encounter that could cost innocent lives.

Like others, he notes the traditional Afghan resistance to invaders, from the British to the Russians. "I think people unite against foreigners when they invade the country," he said, "I am not so sure that an attack against Osama bin Laden would fall into that category. I think the people of Afghanistan have suffered a lot from terrorism, and I am not so sure there is widespread support for the presence of Osama bin Laden and his group. So if the attack is targeted against Osama and his people, I am not convinced there would be too much opposition. What is important is what is going to happen after that."

Professor Ahady says the United States must have a strategy for dealing with Afghanistan once it has seized or killed bin Laden and his followers. If Afghans believe the United States is acting in their interest as well as its own, they will be more willing to accept a U.S. attack. "Even people might not react negatively if the Taleban were removed, provided that people know what is going to happen after that. There is the possibility of anarchy. And Afghanistan suffered from anarchy when the Communist regime collapsed, and I do not think they prefer that situation. Let's assume the Taleban government collapses. Who is going to replace them? That is a major source of concern for the people."

Some outsiders favor returning King Zahir Shah, who is now in Rome. He is popular in Afghanistan, says Professor Ahady, but at 87, it would be hard for him to lead a country in such desperate condition. He adds that the Afghan people must eventually choose their own leadership through elections; it cannot be imposed from outside.

In his opinion, there is no exile group in waiting that could assume power if the Taleban fall. The so-called Northern Alliance, which is still fighting the Taleban in the far north of Afghanistan, has just lost its leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated quite possibly by bin Laden supporters.

The United States may decide to aid the alliance, says Professor Ahady, but its future is uncertain. Professor Ahady continued, "I expect there will probably be more rivalry among the different personalities. It took Massoud about four or five years really to consolidate his power, and I think there will be more dissenting views within the organization. On the other hand, they also realize that their very survival would require some sort of unity between them. As to which one will prevail the view that survival requires unity or personal rivalry we will have to see."

Aiding the Northern Alliance makes sense militarily, says Mr. Shansab. But it could lead to broader political problems. "Of course, if the United States were to give the north military help," he said, "they would probably be stronger than they are today. But it could lead to a separation of Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance under those conditions could possibly take over the north, and the south would remain in Pushtun hands, and that would lead to dismemberment of Afghanistan."

If you think there are divisions in Afghanistan now, says Mr. Shansab, consider what partition would bring.

Professor Ahady says the best course would be to cut off Pakistani aid to the Taleban. Without it, they would not be able to carry on the war or maybe even survive in power. Given the widespread support for the Taleban among Pakistani fundamentalists, this would not be easy to do. It would test U.S. diplomacy as much as its resolve.

In this situation, would the Taleban finally call it quits and compromise in some way to end the fighting? That surely is not their style, says Professor Ahady, but stranger things have happened in this world.