Finish the War in Afghanistan First

By Anatol Lieven

Originally published in the Finanacial Times, March 25, 2002.

By December last year, after the unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Taliban in the main cities, the war in Afghanistan looked as good as over. Today, things appear very different. The main leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain at large, as do many of their followers. US commanders are warning of a long war ahead.

The Afghan political process initiated by the Bonn conference is extremely fragile, and there is a real danger that the whole country will fall back into the civil wars of the early and mid-1990s. If that happens, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban will stage a comeback in the Pashtun provinces.

The Pentagon and the State Department are pursuing conflicting strategies in Afghanistan. Both are flawed in themselves. Put them together, and they risk bringing about a spectacular policy disaster. To design a unified and realistic strategy requires the concentrated attention of the Bush administration. And of course, the effort to track down and destroy al-Qaeda and allied terrorist groups stretches far beyond Afghanistan. Each new US military mission brings with it a host of potential local and regional problems.

With the struggle against al-Qaeda so completely unfinished, it is strange that the US should already be openly considering a war with Iraq. The dangerous effects of this shift of emphasis can already be seen, in the fraying of the international coalition against al-Qaeda and its allies, and still more in the distraction of US attention from Afghanistan. Already, amazingly, the Bush team is speaking of the capture or death of Osama bin Laden as if this were a matter of only secondary importance.

Of course, in principle the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is certainly desirable from many points of view, but I am afraid the shift in US strategy at this moment has much less to do with any imminent threat from Iraq - let alone Iran and North Korea - than it does with certain features of the contemporary US, stemming in large part from the cold war: above all, a security establishment geared for continual, massive military competition and military spending.

Everything about the present international position of the US suggests it should act as a satisfied power, defending the existing international order and seeking to extend the web of international rules and restraints on which the health of the world market ultimately depends. In fact, the US often acts like an unsatisfied one, expanding its spheres of influence, rejecting international law and actively seeking points of rivalry with other states.

This is curious, for the end of the cold war placed the US in a position of international dominance with no parallel in history. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed its only global military rival, and wars since have shown the absolute superiority of the

US in warfare against regular state forces. Equally important, the collapse of communism removed the only alternative model of modernisation to the market one of which the US is the supreme exponent.

The Russian, Chinese and other elites have become increasingly integrated into the US-led capitalist order. They, like the great majority of state elites around the world, have a strong interest in working with the US against the kind of revolutionary threat from below represented by Islamist radicalism and terrorism - and that is also true of the great majority of Muslim states.

It often seems that the only people who doubt the extent of US dominance are sections of the US elites themselves. I remember coming to Washington in 1996, fresh from the debacle of the Russian army in the first Chechen war, and from the materialism and above all deep ideological indifference of postcommunist Russia. To my stupefaction, I found many Americans arguing that Russia still posed a serious threat of attack to central and western Europe, not just because of the alleged power of the Russian army, but also because of the supposed ideological fanaticism of ordinary Russians.

In consequence, it was argued, the US needed both to maintain many of the forces, structures and weapons of the cold war, and to seek out occasions to confront Russia on the territory of the former Soviet Union. And when Russia became manifestly too weak to be portrayed in this way, there were strong moves in rightwing US circles to present China as its successor.

When it comes to the desire rapidly to confront Iraq and Iran, the influence of the Israeli lobby plays a role, as does an American nationalism that the attacks of September 11 have pushed in astrongly anti-Muslim direction. But more important, this shift reflects the priorities of powerful sections of the US military and military-industrial complex, which President Dwight Eisenhower - hardly a socialist or a pacifist - warned against 40 years ago.

For the global armed struggle against groups such as al-Qaeda requires in the first rank things that are relatively cheap in financial terms: good light infantry, a small number of officers and non-commissioned officers to train allied forces and, above all, effective intelligence and international policing. It does not require expensive Crusader artillery systems, which, because of their 70-ton weight, cannot even be deployed in most of the world, heavy armoured divisions and new generations of fighter aircraft and destroyers. To enable these systems and the business, military and academic careers that depend on them to flourish as a result of the surge in military enthusiasm and spending resulting from September 11 the US must be presented as facing a dire threat from powerful enemy states.

To allege that this is the product of conscious conspiracy would be to repeat the mistaken analyses of both the old hard left and the paranoid right. In general, such developments are the product of instinct more than cynical calculation. But that does not make them any less dangerous, above all, for the US itself. Let us for heaven's sake at least crush the forces directly responsible for the savagery of September 11 before we seek out new conflicts elsewhere.