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Moscow Times
September 20, 2001
Bin Laden Best Left to Rot
By Pavel Felgenhauer

For a week or so, the world media has been awash with stories about a
possible invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. troops to punish or capture the
millionaire Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden -- the alleged mastermind
behind the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

At present, the U.S. military has the capacity to attack targets in
Afghanistan with long-range cruise missiles and strategic bombers. Such
attacks may kill some of bin Laden's associates and damage the military
forces of the ruling Taliban, but would not do much to "win the war against
terrorism" that U.S. President George W. Bush has promised.

U.S. Army and Special Forces could possibly seek out alleged terrorists
more effectively if they are allowed to comb Afghan cities and the
countryside. Theoretically, the United States could land a force of
paratroopers equipped mainly with light weapons in Afghanistan. But in the
absence of air or supply bases in any of the countries neighboring
landlocked Afghanistan, it would be impossible to provide constant air
support, establish reliable supply lines, provide speedy evacuation of the
wounded or a full evacuation if paratroopers are assaulted by a heavily
armed enemy.

Without such bases, sending a ground mission into Afghanistan would be
suicidal, and neighboring states do not seem to be particularly forthcoming
in providing real assistance.

Iran's religious leaders have already announced that they are totally
opposed to any military action by the United States against targets in
Afghanistan. In Pakistan anti-American religious radicals have lots of
supporters in the armed forces, the security services, within political
parties and among the general public. No one could guarantee the safety of
U.S. servicemen in Pakistan if attacks against the Taliban go ahead. In
fact, U.S. servicemen may be in as much peril in Pakistan as on Afghan soil.

Russia has troops and bases in Tajikistan on the Afghan border and has
already been fighting a proxy war with the Taliban for years by supporting
the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. But Moscow and the states of Central
Asia are afraid to challenge the Taliban openly, since this could provoke

Last year, Russia's Defense Ministry alarmed the Kremlin with a report that
the Taliban could march north, occupying large parts of Uzbekistan
including the capital city Tashkent, and that the small Russian military
contingent in Tajikistan would have no chance of stopping them. Fears have
been expressed that the United States will launch a hit-and-run attack on
Afghanistan and then leave Russia to fight a second bloody unwinnable war
against Moslem extremists in addition to the one it is already fighting in

In a peculiar twist of Cold War thinking Russian generals are, at the same
time, afraid that the Americans would never withdraw and would flush the
Russians out of Central Asia.

The United States is in fact preparing for large-scale air and land
operations, but the primary target is apparently not Kabul but Baghdad.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has been U.S. enemy No. 1 for more than a
decade. Iraq was the only nation in the world to officially endorse the
terrorist attack on America but has not been singled out once since the
terrorist attack, which is in fact an ominous sign. True military plans are
never published in magazines before they are embarked upon.

The United States has bases, forces, stockpiles of equipment and allies in
place to hit Saddam as hard as is necessary to topple him. The Iraqi army
has been defeated and humiliated many times in recent years. Iraqis are not
Afghan tribesmen and will hardly fight invaders for decades in the hills.
It is possible that Saddam's regime will implode after one good push. U.S.
soldiers' lives may be lost, but today the American people are ready to pay
the price, especially if it brings a swift, clear-cut victory.

The toppling of Saddam would allow the immediate lifting of sanctions,
redressing one of the main grievances that is fermenting anti-American
Islamic terrorism: the suffering of ordinary Iraqis. After that, it would
only require a NATO occupying force to impose a just peace on the Israelis
and Palestinians, as was done before in Bosnia for example, and the roots
of terrorism would really be weakened.

Afghanistan is not the source of modern terrorism. It is better to confine
the troublemakers there, rather than push them out into the high-tech
world. In fact, condemning bin Laden to life in Afghanistan could indeed be
considered a cruel and unusual punishment.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.

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