SCMP Tuesday, October 9, 2001
Chances and risks
The long expected military strikes by the United States and Britain against Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghani stan and against the Taleban regime which shelters him, bring both great opportunities and great dangers.
First, the opportunities. The aftermath of wars and other military actions can create the conditions to resolve long-standing disputes. There are at least two long-running conflicts which the United States and its allies should take the opportunity to solve in the wake of the military action in Afghanistan. These are a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a resolution to the conflict over Kashmir.
In various forms, both these disputes have been running for more than five decades. They have provided the breeding ground for the extreme thinking that led to the September 11 incidents. Unless serious efforts are made to resolve these conflicts, there can be no guarantee that even after a successful US military operation in Afghanistan, new Osama bin Ladens will not emerge to wreak their deadly havoc.
The immediate aftermath of the Gulf War saw a determined effort by the United States to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Significant progress was made in getting the two sides together. Who can forget the sight of the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawns watched by a beaming Bill Clinton? True, there is still no peace in the Middle East, but at least a solid basis for a peace agreement exists.
It is of crucial importance that in the aftermath of the action in Afghanistan, the Bush administration throws its considerable weight into a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It is not enough for the United States alone to be involved. The same coalition of nations that has thrown its weight behind the action against Osama bin Laden must back the United States in a peace effort as well. With such a concerted international effort, there is little doubt that a peace agreement can be reached. Once this is done, there is one less reason for a generation of embittered Arabs to take up cudgels against the rest of the world.
The other issue that the Bush administration is well placed to help resolve is the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Compared to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kashmir is more low profile, and less of an obvious threat to world peace. But if left unresolved, this dispute could have dramatic, far-reaching consequences. Both countries have nuclear weapons, and Kashmir is the one issue that could trigger a conflict between them. The level of violence in Kashmir is also directly linked to the presence of radical Afghan fighters supported by the Taleban regime. A regime change in Afghanistan can be expected to result in a sharp reduction in the level of violence in Kashmir. But a reduction in violence alone is not enough. The United States needs to use its influence on both India and Pakistan to reach a political settlement that will satisfy both countries as well as the people of Kashmir.
What are the dangers inherent in the current campaign in Afghanistan? The most obvious one is of the US and its allies confining themselves to their short-term goals of uprooting Osama bin Laden's network in Afghanistan and removing the Taleban from power, and then getting out of the region.
This would leave behind a crippled, bitter and anarchic Afghanistan, at the mercy of various tribal leaders. It would also be a sure recipe for future terrorist attacks against the West. A decade ago, the US and its allies defeated Saddam Hussein, but left him in power. The result has been years of misery for the Iraqi people. The United States cannot afford to make the same mistake twice. It must use this opportunity to rebuild Afghanistan and build modern institutions and give the Afghan people the opportunity to choose a representative government.
Rebuilding Afghanistan is important not only for the Afghans, but for neighbouring Pakistan as well. Pakistan is the first country to feel the effects of instability in Afghanistan. Pakistan's own return to democratic government would be impaired by instability in Afghanistan.
Moderate regimes in South East Asia, too, will come under increasing pressure from Islamic fundamentalists if the United States does not use this opportunity to rebuild Afghanistan and address Kashmir and the Middle East. Radical Islamic movements in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines could be strengthened by continuing instability in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Terrorism can only be fought in the long run by attacking its root causes. These causes include poverty, bad governance and a sense of alienation from the modern world. The United States and its allies are uniquely positioned to address these issues in Afghanistan. It is important that they use this opportunity to rebuild this deprived corner of the world in much the same way that Europe was rebuilt after the World War II through the Marshall Plan.