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American Diplomacy
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December 2001

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Those who find fault with American policies in strategically sensitive parts of the Islamic world cannot, I say, have it both ways.

Critics, friendly and otherwise, disapprove of America’s involvement – its very presence – in the Middle East, as broadly defined geographically. The stationing of U. S. forces in Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War qualifies as what they see as over-involvement. The superpower United States pursued generally throughout the Cold War a policy of actively countering the Soviet Union in the Middle East. Lately this has been viewed with alarm and disapproval, even in some Western quarters. This is so largely because the American policy of Containment in the Middle East led to the enduring, if sometimes uncomfortable, alliance with Israel, obviously a prime irritant in U. S. relations with most of the rest of the region.

Interference in the internal affairs of a number of Islamic countries is the rap.

Fault finders (not always the same critics) on the other hand have also criticized, usually well after the fact, decisions over the past two decades or so to withdraw from the region: Lebanon after the Marine barracks bombing, Afghanistan when the Soviets retreated from that unfortunate country, Iraq at the end of the lightning-fast Gulf War, Somalia upon encountering a particularly intractable peacekeeping task. In these cases, criticism centers on what might have been if the United States had maintained a significant presence, helping thereby to lead to political stability and economic recovery.

Damned if you maintain a presence in the region and damned if you don’t.

We focus currently on the instance of Afghanistan in the context of the war against terrorism. A little background here: Afghanistan, unlike numerous of its neighbors, has long been politically independent. As far back as 1919, King Amanallah initiated moves toward a broader-based government with overtones of Western political systems. Deposed in the late 1920’s, he was succeeded by Nadir Shah, who was assassinated in 1933. The latter’s son, Mohammed Zahir Shah, ruled from 1933 to 1973. He in turn was ousted in a coup that led to the establishment of a republic. (Mohammed Zahir Shah, in his eighties and exiled to Italy, is looked upon as a possible focal point for a new government, as is Burhanuddin Rabbani, who held the title of president for a time under the republic.) Only four years later, a Marxist revolution ushered in further turmoil and a decade-long, ultimately disastrous intervention by the neighboring U.S.S.R. In 1989, after years of costly warfare, Moscow pulled out, leading to further chaos and the rise of the Taliban regime.

Not even with many decades of sporadic efforts could the people of Afghanistan overcome their historic fragmentation along tribal lines. The Soviets were well out of it and the Americans were equally well advised not to hang around after 1989. Or so it seemed until recent weeks.

Maybe so, but the question is raised: Should the United States maintain a significant presence this time, once the last bastion of the Taliban is erased and al-Queda is removed from its Afghan bases? Or should any reexamination of U. S. policies toward the region arrive at a "hands-off" position, thus avoiding Muslim calumny for over-involvement in that fractured country’s affairs?

Of course, realistically such a determination must be in some shade of gray, neither of the absolutes of black or white, heeding neither of the critics’ extremes. The United States would, however, be well advised to avoid taking a leading role in any aspect of Afghan political reconstruction. The experience of the former Soviet Union is most instructive. Afghanistan’s history indicates clearly that achieving political stability based on power-sharing terms acceptable to a majority of the populace is an elusive goal. Further, the United States has no real stake in the Afghan choice of national leadership – so long as the government does not harbor international terrorists. Let the UN carry that advisory burden, and be seen by the rest of the Islamic world to be doing so.

America has more direct concerns about economic and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Even here, however, the United States should confine itself in economic development to Point Four-type technical assistance, as requested by a new government, and in limited numbers of personnel. Afghanistan should call upon the oil-rich Muslim countries for financial aid in the development process. U. S. assistance in the fields of emergency food, medicine, and temporary shelter, on the other hand, could well be offered on a significant scale. And this aid should be made widely known to the other Islamic peoples of the world.

So…. What should the role of the United States be in Afghanistan after the Taliban regime is overthrown? What should it be, more precisely, in order to satisfy critics at home and abroad, especially in the Islamic world?

  • Washington should wholeheartedly back international efforts by the UN and other associations of states in helping the Afghani people to establish a representative government in Kabul, without, however, getting out in front. No direct U. S. government involvement; no military assistance or training.
  • The United States should stand ready to provide technical assistance, from Peace Corps volunteers to highly trained, experienced specialists, when requested by a new Afghan government.
  • American humanitarian aid, funneled largely through the UN and possibly with NGO participation, should be made readily available as soon as possible after the fighting stops.
  • Washington should publicize widely and intensely these efforts, and the nature of these efforts, worldwide.

Perhaps with such an approach, America and Americans will be able to avoid criticism for doing either a) too little or b) too much – take your choice.



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