Toppling the Taliban: "The Afghans Can Do It"


Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane once was National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Now he's working on behalf of deposed Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was forced out of Afghanistan in 1973 in a Soviet-backed coup. After almost three decades, McFarlane and others are trying to get the 86-year-old King back into play.

McFarlane believes, given time and resources, that Afghans themselves can do a lot of the heavy lifting needed to unseat the ruling Taliban and roust terrorist Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it's a plan that has been in the works since well before the September 11 terrorist attacks, with the King and a group of anti-Taliban guerilla commanders meeting frequently in Rome.

Abdul Haq, 44, a popular mujahideen commander whose troops helped drive Russia out of Afghanistan in 1992, is taking heed. He is in Pakistan now and will cross the Afghan border within days. In an Oct. 1 meeting with BusinessWeek reporters and editors in Washington, McFarlane talked about this "Afghan Solution." Here are edited excerpts of McFarlane's remarks reported by BusinessWeek's Lorraine Woellert:

Q: Please explain the basis of your strategy and how it could help the U.S. efforts to find Osama bin Laden?

A: There is an alternative to American unilateral intervention to bring down the Taliban. It lies in grass roots Afghan fighters. I say that based not only on the obvious capabilities of the Afghan Northern Alliance, but on the dialogues we've had with other commanders in the southern areas of the country, Pashtun. They hope to benefit from the King calling on the villagers and peasants to reject the Taliban, and [from] a more friendly climate in which people could offer shelter, food, and intelligence. [On Sept. 26] in Rome, his Majesty, now in exile 26 years, announced publicly that he could no longer tolerate this blasphemy of Islam as well as the brutality of the regime.

Q: What has been the U.S. reaction to this pronouncement?

A: The Administration is skeptical. We've had an appalling lack of knowledge about the real sentiment at the grass roots in Afghanistan, and the capability in terms of strength, experience, and logistical wherewithal to wage a counter-guerrilla operation there.

Q: How big are these grass-roots forces you're talking about?

A: There are at least two Taliban division commanders who are ready to pull out right now. That will represent an erosion of Taliban strength by about 10,000 fighters. They only have 40,000. This is in a country of 25 million. Stop and just think about that. Here's a regime...when you add in the mullahs and soldiers, you may get up to 100,000 total Taliban population. And it's trying to swim in a sea of 25 million Afghans they've abused for five years now. I think there's a solid basis for optimism that this cabal can be brought down.

Q: Could neighboring countries take advantage of a weakened Afghanistan and move in?

A: The President's diplomacy with Pakistan has been thus far quite good. We will see...what the terms of this cooperation are. I think it will involve a lot of money for refugee relief and, beyond that, for helping Pakistan stimulate its own economy to cover its fiscal and monetary problems...and to maybe even provide incentives for investment in the country. In short, it's going to be in Pakistan's interest to cooperate with us.

Iran, on the other hand, has grievances against the Taliban -- but I don't think they have ambitions for territory, to carve out a piece of western Afghanistan. [In] Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, there is interest in parts of northern Afghanistan, but I think that we're going to have to call upon the Russians and together fashion a diplomatic approach that involves economic incentives [to] avoid any aggression there.

Q: If the Taliban are defeated and the various groups that join forces [to govern the country] don't get along, Washington might be largely indifferent to what happens after bin Laden is gone.

A: History is on your side. We bailed out and essentially betrayed that country after the Cold War, and left it with 1 million dead, 3 million maimed for life, and 5 million refugees, half of them still out of the country. I hope -- and it is no more than a hope -- that that history [won't be repeated]. If we don't tend to it this time...bin Laden or somebody else is going to come back.

Q: Where is bin Laden? Is he still in Afghanistan?

A: I think he is in Afghanistan because it's so easy for him. But the climate in which he has to exist is going to become more hostile, I believe...he may escape, but I believe after Afghanistan, the Administration's strategy is to go on to the other 50-odd [bin Laden] affiliates around the world. This is going to take time. Meanwhile, we've got to dramatically improve our intelligence gathering.... We can clean up and damage bin Laden's infrastructure in Afghanistan. I shouldn't say "we" -- I think Afghans can roll up his infrastructure there and I think they will. And I think it can happen in a couple months. But that's only taking away part of his capability. He can exist in Sudan, somewhere else.

Q: How do we fight a military war against the Taliban without turning the Afghans against the U.S.?

A: Our hope is we don't have to do that. The Afghans can do it. The Afghans may well ask us for help before long, and it won't be bombers. It will be beans, bullets, Band-Aids, and so forth.

Q: How long can we take this slow road before Americans start itching for some visible retaliation?

A: Two things could happen if we go in there by ourselves. One is we go in and it fails. Two is we go in and it kind of begins to work -- but in the process we kill so many Muslims that we lose all our allies in the Gulf and run the risk of some kind of oil disruption and so forth. Therefore it costs us nothing except maybe some political vulnerability here at home to let this option play out. If it does, fine, if it doesn't, we get at least a more friendly climate to go in.

Q: Do we need to change our laws to better ferret out these terrorist organizations?

A: This was a huge intelligence failure. It stems from not developing the resource that we knew 25 years ago [would be] needed to deal with these problems: human intelligence. Twenty-five years ago a conscious decision was made in the Carter Administration to cut off our human connection in the Middle East. Six hundred assets -- spies -- were severed.... Overcoming that is just going to take time.


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