Afghanistan: partners in time.

Author:Cogan, Charles G.
Position:RETROSPECTIVE - Viewpoint essay

In 1993, I wrote an article for World Policy Journal entitled "Partners in Time: the CIA and Afghanistan since 1979." The title was intended to convey the idea that this was a temporary arrangement; that once the external threat had been removed (i.e., the Soviet occupation), then the Central Intelligence Agency (i.e., the American government) and Afghanistan would go back to a normal, less embracing relationship.

This the United States did with a vengeance. Between the unexpectedly delayed fall of pro-communist President Mohammad Najibullah in 1992 and the attacks of September 11, 2001, America did little to aid Afghanistan and little to influence the course of events there. This was clearly a mistake, although there was not much the United States could have done to earn the affection of the Afghan people, who are notoriously suspicious of foreigners, especially those roaming around in their own country.

After 9/11, however, the United States had no alternative. This was not a war of choice; it was an imperative. America's attackers had been trained in Afghanistan, whose Taliban chief, Mullah Omar, had refused to extradite the leader and mastermind of the 9/11 assault, Osama bin Laden. The United States, with the aid of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contacts in the Tadjik-based Northern Alliance, easily blew away the Taliban government but failed to prevent bin Laden's escape into Pakistan, conferring too much responsibility for the chase on Afghan, rather than American, military elements.

In 2008, the United States finds itself in quite a difficult situation in Afghanistan. To my mind, the basic problem in that part of the world since 9/11 is that we are, in general, up against the predominant ethnic group in Afghanistan: the Pashtuns, who also exist in vast numbers on the other side of the Pakistani border, thanks to the artificial Durand line drawn by the British in 1893. The Pashtuns comprise roughly 40-45 percent of the population of Afghanistan, and they have traditionally considered themselves, and themselves alone, the "real" Afghans. The Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtun. There has also sprung up a Pakistani Taliban organization. Pakistani Pashtuns are not only less likely to root out bin Laden from his hiding place in the remote and relatively lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), but also more likely to aid their Afghan brethren who come back across the border into Pakistan for rest and recuperation after...

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