The Balkans and Afghanistan

It's tempting to dwell on similarities, but it's the differences that shed more light on what is likely to happen in the post-Taliban era

By Stan Crock

More and more, Afghanistan is starting to resemble the Balkans. That's surprising -- and not all bad. More important, though, are the crucial differences between the political and military predicaments.

The first similarity: When it comes to the title of worst location on the planet for U.S. military operations, it's a dead heat. And it's not just the daunting terrain and logistics. Both areas are inhabited by ethnic and tribal factions that have been at each other's throats for centuries. These factors led to dire warnings in each conflict that any U.S. involvement would lead to a disastrous quagmire and the loss of thousands of American lives.

LESSONS.

  Yet it is precisely the length and devastating impact of the internecine battles that could lead to more promising futures for Afghanistan and the Balkans. In both cases, war fatigue led exhausted foes to the bargaining table. In Afghanistan, local leaders weary from fighting are "ready for a solution now," says Harold A. Gould, a visiting professor of South Asian studies at the University of Virginia.

U.S. officials believe the Afghan factions won't repeat the mistakes they made a decade ago that enabled the Taliban to take over the country. "They seem to have learned some lessons," says a senior Bush Administration official. "Ten years ago, disunity left a vacuum for the Taliban." That bodes well for both the current meeting of Afghan leaders outside Bonn, as well as future gabfests to devise a governing blueprint for Kabul.

The similarities don't end there. It would be easy to draw the wrong conclusion about the impact of bombing from both the Balkans and Afghanistan. Air-power proponents believe that bombing with precision-guided missiles is a war-fighting breakthrough -- and all that is needed to bring an adversary to its knees. This school of thought is pushed by some in the Air Force. Sympathizers include David Halberstam, who argues the point in his new book, War in a Time of Peace.

NOT ENOUGH.

  I disagree. Look at the Balkans. Slobodan Milosevic didn't stop waging war against Bosnia and Croatia until Bosnian and Croat troops regained the territory they had lost to Milosevic's Serb forces. Likewise, the Serb strongman didn't cave on Kosovo until he realized the Russians were withdrawing their support, leaving him with no outside lifeline. Bombing in both instances was necessary, but not sufficient for victory.

The same is true in Afghanistan. The initial strategic bombing took out surface-to-air missile systems and command-and-control centers, but the Northern Alliance didn't take a square inch of soil during that period and the Taliban fighters weren't in flight. It was only when tactical bombing was combined with opposition troop movements that the anti-Taliban forces got the upper hand. Standing alone, bombing does nothing but harden the resolve of its victims, as it did in the Battle of Britain, in Vietnam, and elsewhere.

Another parallel is the schizophrenic behavior of the press. Before the U.S. entered the Balkans, the chattering classes declared it would be a disaster. Now the same pundits have gone from portraying the Afghan operation as an extremely difficult mission (given the British and Russian experiences) to a cakewalk (after the strategic bombing went so easily) to a failure (when the Northern Alliance seemed stuck) to a rout (when the Taliban was on the run) to a difficult mission (as the mop-up of the diehard Taliban near Kandahar begins). When that coverage turns 180 degrees, it's likely to be wrong both times. When will the press learn that the truth usually isn't at either end of the spectrum?

In the end, though, it's the differences between Afghanistan and the Balkans that offer the most reasons to be optimistic about the operation's future. One is that there is no Slobodan Milosevic among the factions likely to be in the ruling coalition. Another is that while the Afghan factions often are at odds, they switch sides with ease, which is accepted. "Afghanistan is not like the Balkans, where the ethnic groups want to exterminate each other," says a U.S. official. Adds the senior Administration official: "There's a long history of local leaders going with the winners." That's why he's not worried about a few warlords with ties to the Taliban joining the ruling coalition. "I don't think the Taliban are ever going to make a comeback," he says.

Granted, bringing peace to Afghanistan won't be easy. The Taliban may head to the hills after the battle for Kandahar and try to provide some guerilla resistance. But guerillas need outside funding and local support, and the Taliban have neither. So while they won't be eliminated overnight, their long-term prospects seem bleak. Also, those who, in the past, have tried to manipulate Afghan proxies for their own ends are still at work. Pakistan, for one, is trying to make sure it has some clout with whatever government emerges. "The key to this is the outside powers," says Rachel Bronson, deputy director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

HEAVY LIFTING.

  Those forces also are relying on the Afghans themselves to do a lot of the heavy lifting. As a new Afghanistan is assembled, much will depend on local tribes being able to work together. It is the traditional leaders who will participate in the loya jirga, the council of elders, which will craft the blueprint for a new government. It's why King Mohammad Zahir Shah is emerging as a unifying figurehead to lead the coalition government.

"The traditional political system is trying to reassert itself," says the University of Virginia's Gould, a political anthropologist. That may be the best news of all after the wrenching rule of the Taliban.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton