Afghanistan: a potential quagmire

A few weeks ago, many in the news media looked through the annals of modern history hoping to find a parallel that would shed light on our present circumstances. In the days immediately following the attack, the media referenced Pearl Harbor to explain the shock of the nation. Presently, the media is devoid of any analogies to explain the nature of our military response. But understanding this response is what we must concern ourselves with now. What are the dangers and pitfalls that we must avoid as we send our military forces into Afghanistan? Does history offer lessons about similar situations? I believe an understanding of Israel’s tragic, morally questionable and certainly fruitless venture into Lebanon serves as an excellent cautionary bedtime story for our leaders in Washington and our mostly ignorant populace.

In 1982, the Israeli army invaded an already civil war-torn Lebanon. It was modern history’s first military incursion aimed at preventing terrorism. Yet it was sold by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon as “Operation Peace for Galilee.” Since 1975, a civil war had been raging in Lebanon as the population demographics shifted and the Maronite Christians, who had been installed as the permanent holder of the Presidency in a coalition government, no longer comprised a majority in the Lebanese state. Many groups and political actors were at play: the majority Sunni population, the growing Shiite population in the South, the usually quiet, but militarily cohesive Druze in the mountains, and the newly-entered Palestinian groups, lead by the PLO, headquartered in Beirut. All of these “opposition” groups had private militias. Sometimes they allied together against the militia of the Maronites (called the Phalange), sometimes these “opposition” groups warred amongst themselves, and at other times certain factions within the groups were supported or opposed by Syrian money and arms.

It was into this war-torn nation that the Israelis rolled their armored columns. And like America today, the Israelis were barely able to articulate how they planned to accomplish their goals. They wanted to destroy the PLO and groups perceived as being or potentially giving rise to anti-Israeli terrorists; they also wished to install an order to the country that suited them. Today we wish to destroy Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network and oust the Taliban from power. The Israelis knew they could not fight the nitty-gritty battles in the Lebanon and that they would need to install a pro-Israeli Lebanese group to “rule” when the Israelis planned to leave. The Phalange was their natural ally; Israel supported them with money and arms.

We find ourselves in a similar or even worse situation. We can’t fight the Taliban (and obviously not bin Laden) with our airplanes and armor. We need Afghanis on the ground to do it for us and then to “rule” the country after the completion of the project. It seems we have found our natural ally in the opposition/minority group, the Northern Alliance.

In 1982, the Israelis didn’t really understand how the Phalange militia operated. They didn’t gauge that their agenda was not only power, but also tribal revenge, which resulted in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres. By siding with the Phalange the Israelis became prisoners to the Phalange agenda and guilty of their sins. Do our bigwig leaders understand the agendas of the Northern Alliance, a group of drug smugglers and warlords dominated by minority Tajiks and Uzbeks? Do our leaders know how to corral this group once we provide arms, the support of the Free World, and the legitimacy that comes with it? Do our leaders understand that it will be impossible to have a minority group attempt to rule over the majority Pashtuni population who see themselves as the ruling class within Afghani society and pride themselves on honor and tribal cohesion?

In 1982, Lebanon had been in a state of anarchy, strife, and bloodshed for seven years. In 2001, Afghanistan had been in such a condition for 22 years. In Lebanon, the Israelis killed some PLO supporters, but the important ones escaped and then restructured, strengthened, and popularized their organization. The Phalange quickly lost power after their leader Gemayel was assassinated and the Israelis got stuck in Southern Lebanon for 17 years, where their forces were frequently attacked. Frustration against Israel throughout the Islamic world only grew. Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, has already been assassinated. If we are not careful, our victim status that we earned on Sept. 11 will wear off and we will re-earn the title of aggressor.

It seems almost impossible that we will find and kill Bin Laden and almost guaranteed that he will use our technology and mass media to further his incitement. So what can we do to avoid having “our Lebanon” in Afghanistan? We must try to forge a broad coalition of support for our actions inside and outside Afghanistan. We must turn current important Taliban supporters, like Pashtuni tribal chieftains, into our allies. Of paramount importance, we must win the media war both inside Afghanistan and in the broader Islamic world. This was the key failing of the Israelis. Lebanon was a huge PR disaster that haters of Israel cite as proof that Israel is an evil empire, which seeks to oppress innocent civilians to achieve its hidden agendas. I pray that the U.S. military actions in Afghanistan are not remembered in the Islamic world as that action which shows America to be imperialistic, militaristic, hegemony intent on world domination. We must intensify our humanitarian aid to the Afghani people. And we must not let our military campaign drag on indefinitely. Only if we play our cards right can we avoid our vilification in Afghanistan and in capital cities around the Arab and Islamic worlds.

We are engaged in ruthless war against fundamentalist terrorists and a substantial portion of the playing field is al-Jeezera television. Bin Laden is poised to carefully manipulate the images of this war so that we will seem to be the bad guys. Have our leaders pondered long and hard about stratagems that can be employed so we will be perceived the good guys?