David Miller: What Remains for Afghanistan?
What Remains for Afghanistan and bin Laden?
According to General Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command and the war effort in Afghanistan the noose around Osama bin Laden is tightening. General Franks claims that the bombing campaign is now becoming more focused and the arrival of British and US troops at the Bagram airfield north of Kabul would suggest that the mission to destroy al-Qaeda has entered a new phase. The question now is where would bin Laden go should his position in Afghanistan become untenable?
Given the high profile of Osama bin Laden it is unlikely that he would find refuge easily. According to the United States State Department, there are seven countries that harbour terrorist groups and figures in some capacity and if one was exploring options for the next location of the al-Qaeda hierarchy then these are the places you would look first.
Throughout the 1990’s, Iran was considered to be the leading state sponsor of international terrorism. Tehran was considered to be active in assassinations of leading dissidents around the world and supporters of groups such as Hizbollah who fought to destroy the Middle East peace process and who remain active around the world. Other states on this list included Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Syria, North Korea and Cuba. Afghanistan would have been added had Washington recognised the Taliban regime, while Pakistan was placed on the “watch list”.
Given the high profile of bin Laden it is unlikely that any of these states would be willing to offer him shelter. Iraq would be the most likely candidate, however it realises that should it do so, then the already active US air campaign over its skies at present is likely to increase dramatically and will no doubt involve Saddam Hussein’s regime in a full-scale war. The other countries are either trying to rebuild their relations with the US and the West, such as Libya and Sudan or are unrealistic choices for bin Laden due to geography, that is, North Korea and Cuba.
The best hope of protection Osama bin Laden has at this present time is geography along with the weather conditions in Afghanistan and South Asia. His best ally is the inhospitable terrain of the Afghan mountains and the numerous caves that are located there. Should the Taliban militia survive this offensive to become a rural guerrilla force then they too will seek to utilise these conditions. Unless the US and Western intelligence is one hundred percent accurate or there is a willingness to deploy troops into these areas then they will remain at large and a threat. There is a suggestion that bin Laden may try and relocate to Kashmir where there are groups operating who are loyal to his cause and once again he would seek to use the terrain to his advantage.
The point at which this war will end has yet to be determined with some commentators claiming that it will be with the capture or death of bin Laden and other saying it will not end until all al-Qaeda and terrorist groups are eliminated. Either way there is now discussion on the composition of a post Taliban government in Afghanistan, with Presidents Bush and Putin saying that it must be peaceful, inhospitable to groups such as al-Qaeda and cease its trade in illegal drugs. Unfortunately, the world’s powers may have little say influence in this regard.
Already there have been scenes of violence between the anti-Taliban factions and there are signs of the fractuous nature of this coalition. CNN reported over the weekend that the country is already being divided into fiefdoms based around a particular tribe or warlord and exerting any control over these groups or getting them to work together will be extremely difficult.
This is simply because the United States is not in control of events on the ground inside Afghanistan. It controls the airspace overhead and has newly won allies at the borders but inside the country itself the factions are calling the shots. The prime example of this was the fall of Kabul. The US expressed its wishes that the Northern Alliance hold off entering the city in order to give the United Nations time to put together a government. This edict was ignored and the city fell. The reason why is that those tribal leaders and warlords are no more welcoming of US or Western involvement in their affairs that the Taliban was. This arrangement between the US and the opposition forces is merely a marriage of convenience that offers no assurance of survival.
On the whole I am fearful for the future for Afghanistan. A working and effective government may be established in Kabul that brings stability to the nation but if recent history is anything to go by, this may be a hope instead of a reality. At present, the US and its allies are welcome guests in the country as they are helping to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda and are supplying the much-needed supplies to the opposition forces. However as time wears on and the common enemy is no longer, friends can easily become adversaries. After all that is the story of Osama bin Laden.