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Analysis: US Black holes on Afghan policy

WASHINGTON, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- The roadmaps for war -- and peace -- in Central Asia and Afghanistan remain shrouded in uncertainty. U.S. forces are deployed both in the north and south of Afghanistan, and the harsh winter is quickly approaching.

Two weeks into the war, politicians and military commanders in Washington and in the region are facing confusion and economic challenges almost as insurmountable as the towering peaks of the Hindu-Kush and the Pamir mountains.

These challenges are political, military, economic and humanitarian. Their proposed solutions are as contradictory and wrought with risk as the regional politics in and around Afghanistan have been for centuries.

If solutions are not found -- and quickly -- the United States may bog down in the mountains of Afghanistan for months, if not years to come, while new terrorist challenges are likely to flare up at home and elsewhere.

The United States has not presented any vision for a post-Taliban Afghanistan, much less a vision which would be acceptable for the ethnically diverse Afghans and for the regional powers -- Pakistan, Russia and Iran.

While Pakistan -- with Saudi help -- created and supported the predominantly Pushtun Taliban, Russia and Iran boosted the Northern Alliance, which is dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks. The Pushtun plurality in Afghanistan will not accept the Northern Alliance capturing Kabul and taking the country by force. Moreover, the Northern Alliance appears not to have the power to achieve a decisive victory in the battlefield.

One possible solution, declaring the deposed King Zahir Shah, an ethnic Pushtun living in exile in Rome a constitutional monarch, and having him assemble Loya Jirga (a grand tribal conclave) is still under discussion. "Getting Afghanis to agree is like herding cats," says one U.S. diplomat, who is pessimistic about the chances of having such a congress before the Taliban leadership is eliminated.

In the meantime, senior U.S. policymakers with responsibility for finding a political solution in Afghanistan are apparently busy elsewhere, while U.N. envoys have made the United Nations' lack of interest in mediating and policing an Afghan peace settlement quite clear.

The Central Asian states and Russia are watching the international political maneuvering around Afghanistan with apprehension. Russia is of two minds. It wants to support its client state, the Northern Alliance, but Moscow's top leadership also realizes that the Pushtun plurality needs to be accommodated.

Russia would be willing to settle for a neutral Afghanistan, provided the Taliban's export of its witch's brew of militant Islam and drugs is stopped. The Taliban currently supports radical and violent organizations in Central Asia, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is pledged to depose President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, an ex-communist and a secular, authoritarian leader. The U.S.-Pakistani talk about integrating "moderate" Taliban into the post-war Afghanistan's political structure makes Moscow furious.

The Taliban is also responsible for exporting pure heroin, thus bringing hundreds of millions of very dirty dollars into its coffers. These funds were used to finance the attacks on the United States and other "enemies" of "pure Islam" as defined by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

For now, the principal challenge facing Russia, the Central Asian states, and their ally, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan is the military situation on the ground. Since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the Northern Alliance promised military advances against the Taliban.

However, attempts to take the strategic town of Mazari-e-Sharif and the Bagram airfield near Kabul have so far failed due to the alliance's weakness and because of political calculations in Washington and Islamabad. The lack of desire to see the northerners taking Kabul prevented the U.S. Air Force from pounding the Taliban positions in the north hard enough to allow the alliance to break through the Taliban lines.

Moreover, the leaders of the Northern Alliance, lacking an effective liaison with Washington and a clear vision for the future of Afghanistan, are split in their attitudes toward the King and the U.S. military operation. Some northern commanders scoff at Zahir Shah's potential leadership role, while others take the Taliban propaganda about the necessity to unite and fight the infidels seriously.

According to the usually well-informed Moscow paper, Nezavisimay Gazeta Friday, Abdul Rasul Sayaf, a veteran of the Soviet Union’s 1979-89 war in Afghanistan and the leader of a religious group, Ittihad e-Islam, has defected to the Taliban, and was bombarded by the U.S. Air Force on Oct. 10-11.

Some military analysts now argue that unless the United States becomes willing to train, supply, and support the Northern Alliance, occupation of important parts of Afghanistan by anti-Taliban forces, and significant local support for U.S. special forces will remain impossible. That would impede and frustrate Washington's primary war aims in Afghanistan: the destruction of the al Qaida terrorist organization and the capture or killing of its leader, Osama bin Laden. And the longer the hostilities remain, the greater the tidal wave of refugees will become.

The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is likely to grow and directly affect Central Asia and Russia's allies there. On Friday in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, Russia and Central Asian former Soviet republics held a summit dedicated to humanitarian challenges.

Sergey Shoigu, Russia's minister for Emergency Situations (the Cabinet-level equivalent of the U.S. director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency) in an interview with the Russian RTR national Channel Two news, said that Russia sent seven cargo planes with humanitarian assistance for distribution to Afghan refugees.

Shoigu said 170 tons of tents, blankets, and medication have already been distributed. Three supply corridors -- through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are being launched, and will remain active until some of the roads are closed by snowfall, he added.

Mirkho Zieev, Tajikistan's Minister for Emergencies, told Russian television his staff was ready to open three centers for humanitarian aid: in the Pamir mountains of the Gorno-Badakhshan province; in Kuliab, and on the Tajik-Afghan border. However, he stressed that Tajikistan has no funds to pay for humanitarian assistance.

Large areas of the Tajik countryside have been affected by a severe drought, and international aide organizations have declared that many in Tajikistan are on the verge of starvation. And the long-term prospects for the humanitarian crisis will not improve until there is peace and stability.

The United States, Britain, other NATO allies and Russia also have to address other important issues in Afghanistan: economic development, anti-drug policy, and the complex interaction between religious extremism and the need for human rights.

The allies need to find funds for economic development; come up with workable projects to boost the Afghani living standard; beef up local and federal governments in the region; identify and support viable economic ventures. Crop substitution and drug eradication must be undertaken simultaneously with increasing transparency and fighting government corruption and organized crime.

Finally, after the war is over and the Taliban is defeated, the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia may be encouraged to open up some political space for democratic opposition, and allow greater freedom of worship, though not Islamist extremism.

In a recent State Department briefing, human rights activists from Central Asia insisted that the United States should demand from President Karimov of Uzbekistan the right to register and operate non-government organizations and political parties. Otherwise, they said, the authoritarian government will ultimately breed its own Taliban.

Meanwhile, it is business as usual in Afghanistan -- the business of a heart of darkness, the politics of a black hole on Planet Earth. Such black holes not only destroy everything and everyone in their vicinity, but exert their deathly pull far beyond their borders.

(Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.)

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