Endgame in Afghanistan

On the ground and at the table, it looks to be a lengthy drama

With his attention shifting from a nearly liberated Afghanistan to a defiant Iraq, George W. Bush on Nov. 26 issued a sweeping declaration of U.S. intentions in the war on global terrorism: "Afghanistan," the President said, "is just the beginning," and left it to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein to fill in the blanks. But despite this well-scripted show of bravado--largely an attempt to rattle the Iraqis and stoke Allied support for sanctions against a regime intent on developing nuclear, chemical, and biological arms--the fact is that Bush is a long way from taking a victory lap around Baghdad. He's still hip-deep in the Afghan campaign, and likely to remain preoccupied for months with the chore of shutting down the Al Qaeda terror network.

That might strike some as odd, given the Allies' rapid progress in knocking out the Taliban militia. But in reality, the Afghan endgame figures to be a demanding drama, one that now shifts from uprooting the Taliban to the tricky business of simultaneously crafting a broad-based government in Kabul while putting U.S. troops at the forefront of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. As a result, the denouement of the American intervention may not be as fast-paced or satisfying as that boffo Act I, something Bush hinted at when he cautioned that the campaign was entering "a dangerous period."

On both the military and political fronts, difficult days lie ahead. For the first time, U.S. Marines are on the ground in Afghanistan. And for the first time, representatives of Afghanistan's feuding factions are sitting around a conference table under the watchful eye of the big powers. On Nov. 27 in Königswinter, outside Bonn, four Afghan delegations convened the first of a series of peace gatherings. The goal: agreement on a transitional regime and discussions about the need for a multinational security force from Turkey and other Islamic nations.

In Germany, Allied observers looked on as delegates for the largely Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Northern Alliance huddled with Pakistan-based delegates seeking to speak for the Southern Pashtuns, an ethnic grouping representing 43% of Afghanistan's population. But other prominent Pashtun leaders were otherwise engaged, battling to secure Kandahar and a seething triangle of southern Afghanistan. Also at the table in Germany: a Rome delegation loyal to ex-King Mohammad Zahir Shah, considered by the Allies as a key unity figure; and the Cyprus Group, a cadre of largely Shiite exiles allied with Iran.

It only took the disparate band of Afghans a little over a day to reach a basic agreement on allowing the exiled king to serve as a titular leader of a new government. Although details were still being hammered out as BusinessWeek went to press on Nov. 28, plans called for the 87-year-old monarch to serve for two years or so while a new constitution is drafted and more specific power-sharing formulas are drawn up. Sometime next spring, Afghans would convene a loya jirga, or grand gathering of elders, to hammer out details of tribal representation.

If it stands, the deal marks a turning point for postwar Afghanistan. For starters, it represents a major concession for the Northern Alliance to agree to the king's return. Moreover, after more than two decades of war, some Afghan commanders may recognize it's time to rebuild first, reload later. "There's a tremendous war-weariness," says a senior U.S. official in Bonn. As a further inducement, the Allies are dangling the prospect of massive aid.

But several thorny issues remain, including what to do about the Afghan Taliban fighters who have been defecting in droves. Initially, the Northern Alliance ruled out a Taliban role in a new regime. But now some elements of the former government may end up in the new coalition--which would please Pakistan, the Taliban's erstwhile backer. Taliban leaders who defect "are entitled to some consideration," says a senior Washington official. "If they start helping, they earn even more chits."

Despite such U.S. overtures, Pakistan views the emerging shape of postwar Afghanistan with growing alarm. The talks in Germany have provided little solace for President Pervez Musharraf. That's because he has been relegated to backing a weak group of Pashtun exiles based in Peshawar. "Pakistan," says a top American official, "is desperately looking for a voice in Afghanistan."

But Pakistan may not face the abyss some forecast. If stability is restored to Afghanistan, many of the 2 million Afghanis in Pakistan may go home, easing the political and economic strain. And for however long calm reigns, land-locked Afghanistan will need Pakistan's trade routes to the Arabian Sea. That means a possible strengthening of economic ties between the two neighbors.

With events moving faster than anyone expected, Pentagon planners are focusing on the key aim of the campaign: capturing or killing bin Laden & Co. One hope is that a $25 million bounty placed on bin Laden's head will prompt someone to simply hand him over. The less palatable alternative is a risky search of the network of caves where he could be holed up. "A major firefight may be needed to get bin Laden," says Michael E. O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. "We could lose [a lot of] Marines." And there remains the admittedly small chance that the ongoing operations in Afghanistan could bog down.

Whether the climax is attenuated or sudden, American officials who once feared years of Afghan involvement have been growing increasingly confident that within a year or less, Al Qaeda's nerve center will be knocked out. That's when the Administration will face a key decision: stop there, or take the war on terror to Somalia, the Sudan, the Philippines, and, eventually, Iraq.

SOMALIA NEXT? Already, there is talk that the U.S., allied with Ethiopia and friendly African nations, might tackle Al Qaeda forces in Somalia next. So long as the U.S. provides credible evidence that Al Qaeda is operating in Somalia or elsewhere, Bush can likely count on some multinational support. All bets are off, however, when the subject turns to Iraq. The Russians, French, and Chinese--all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council--are uncomfortable with the idea of a military assault on Baghdad. Nor would such an operation go over well in the Arab-Muslim world.

Despite such obstacles, Bush has upped the rhetoric against Saddam Hussein. By calling for a resumption of U.N. weapons inspections, the President is trying to spur Allied support for his "smart sanctions" policy. The goal is "to bring pressure to bear [on Iraq] in a much more focused way," says Sir Timothy Garden, a retired Royal Air Force General now with London's Center for Defense Studies.

The betting is that Bush will put Iraq on the back burner for now. His Administration will be preoccupied for the time being with finishing the job in Afghanistan and foiling more terrorist attacks from sleeper Al Qaeda agents. But that doesn't mean the President has put the Iraqi problem out of his mind. Eventually, aides say, Baghdad will enmesh Bush and his war planners again--and revive 10-year-old memories of scores to settle and promises to keep.

By Lee Walczak, Stan Crock, and Paul Magnusson in Washington and Frederik Balfour in Islamabad, with bureau reports

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