AFGHANISTAN AND TERRORISM
By Graham E. Fuller
Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence
Council at the Central Intelligence Agency. He was political officer at
the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from 1975 to 1978 and is author of the Rand
Corporation study "Islamic Fundamentalism in Afghanistan.''
WASHINGTON -- Little could be as daunting as the geopolitics of
taking on terrorism in Afghanistan. There is a wealth of conflicting agendas
across the region involving Islamic politics, no element of which fully
dove-tails with U.S. interests. The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan
in 1996 with the mission of restoring law and order -- on the basis of
a highly conservative and basic interpretation of Islam -- in a country
racked by long civil war ever since the Soviet occupation. In fact, they
inherited a country full of training camps for Islamic activists and radicals
from all around Asia. While they themselves had little external Islamic
designs, they permitted the presence of these fighters, large numbers
of whom had helped liberate Afghanistan from the Soviets.
They have not wanted to expel them, both out of Islamic loyalty and because
these fighters have helped the Taliban against the forces of the feckless
but more moderate previous Afghan Islamist regime.
The single central reality is that Islam acts as the natural vehicle of
politics across the Muslim world. As Westerners look to the French and
American revolutions as models for freedom from tyranny or the Magna Carta
as a basic doctrine on good governance, in the Muslim world the Koran
serves as a source for justice, humanity, good governance and opposition
to corruption. Islam provides ideology both for internal struggle against
"secular'' authoritarian rule and for Muslim minorities seeking liberation
from frequently harsh non-Muslim rule.
Thus Central Asia has produced a welter of Islamist movements, many now
quite radical or violent -- all in response to what they have seen as
radical and violent conditions of dictatorship, oppression of believers,
corruption and bad governance.
-- In its 10 years of independence, Uzbekistan, under a neo-Stalinist
regime, has jailed, tortured, killed or exiled members of opposition parties
and leaders of any stripe, leaving the hard-to-crush Islamist opposition.
Ruinous Uzbek policies have thus managed to generate an armed Islamist
opposition movement where none had ever existed; indeed, the Uzbek government
would love to cooperate with Washington against "terrorism'' -- the
name it gives to all opposition.
-- Chinese oppression of an 8 million Uyghur Turkish Muslim minority in
Xinjiang has pushed Uyghurs to both nationalism and Islam to oppose the
Han colonialism; these movements have turned violent. China would love
to co-opt Washington's "war on terrorism'' to justify crushing Uyghur
-- The Chechens have fought for independence from Russia for more than
200 years, traditionally speaking in the name of an Islamic struggle.
Russia, too, welcomes a "war against terrorism'' that justifies crushing
-- Muslim Kashmiris feel the heavy hand of Hindu misrule and invoke Islam
as part of their struggle.
-- In Tajikistan clan warfare has typically taken on Islamic coloration.
-- Iran, too, hates the Taliban because they are so harshly anti-Shiite.
-- And for Pakistan, Afghan camps provide training to Kashmiri guerrilla
forces that constitute Pakistan's major foothold in Kashmir and a bargaining
chip with India in granting Kashmir more autonomy and even independence.
All of these peoples -- Uyghurs, Chechens, Kashmiris, Uzbeks and even
some Arab opposition movements -- have been using Afghanistan for guerrilla
training, many for more than 20 years. They often pool their resources
to offer help to other besieged Muslims -- Bosnians, Kosovars, Moros in
Strictly speaking, it is not Afghanistan that has generated the movements,
but more accurately the regional conditions that have generated the movements
that have sought refuge in Afghanistan. But nearly all of these regional
powers -- India, Iran, Russia, China, Uzbekistan -- would welcome an end
to an Afghan regime that provides refuge for their opposition movements.
Here the United States faces some fairly unpalatable bedfellows.
But there are limits to the geopolitical tolerance of even these states
for Washington's goals. While none will shed tears for the Taliban, nearly
all are hostile to any hint of American hegemony in Asia and to American
unilateralism. They fear the precedent of American military action on
their doorsteps that would strengthen American interventionism around
In the Middle East, most autocratic regimes face political opposition
typically from local Islamist movements, most of them nonviolent, but
a few quite violent, as in Algeria and Egypt. Many Muslims see Islamist
movements as natural vehicles of struggle for change, often peaceful,
against entrenched regimes that refuse to liberalize -- in Egypt, Saudi
Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, to name a few.
Thus if an American "war against terrorism'' ends up being a war
on behalf of entrenched regimes against even peaceful local Islamist movements
(or strengthening Israeli control over Palestinians), it is likely to
engender a lot of suspicion about the real U.S. agenda.
The choice is very tough because as these struggles continue, they tend
to become more radicalized or violent. Reasonable and equitable solutions
of the Palestinian and Kashmiri problems are almost a prerequisite for
gaining genuine regional acquiescence to U.S. war aims.
Pakistan is in the toughest position of all. Confronted with a powerful
India on the east, Islamabad needs a friendly regime and strategic depth
on the west. It helped the Taliban come to power in order to restore order
in Afghanistan via friendly forces. It did not bargain that Afghanistan
would become the center of controversy. While the leadership of Pakistan
has no love for Osama bin Laden, the Taliban are a useful ally. If it
is compelled to force the Taliban to turn over Bin Laden, Pakistan would
be highly vulnerable to major backlash from an Islamic population that
views Bin Laden as a hero, not only standing up successfully to the U.S.S.R.
but now to "American imperialism.'' It would be ironic if the United
States got Bin Laden and in the process lost Pakistan to hard-line fundamentalists.
In short, across much of the Middle East and Asia, it is very tough to
separate "terrorism'' from politics -- particularly in the eyes of
Muslims. So as Washington bids to become involved in the domestic politics
of a multitude of countries, it is likely to lose friends at the popular
(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/18/01)