Stop the nation building

Posted: Nov 13, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--We are rolling. Under American air power, the Northern Alliance has taken Mazar-e Sharif and swept through almost half of Afghanistan. It is now at the gates of Kabul, eager to take the capital--except that the president of the United States, who dramatically ended his speech to the nation last Thursday with ``Let's roll,'' has told them to stop. Why? Because the Northern Alliance does not represent all the Afghan tribes and we want to establish a wall-to-wall coalition in Kabul rather than allow it to fall to one faction. But we've been trying this for weeks. The government we are trying to hatch has to satisfy the requirements of six neighboring countries (especially Pakistan, which does not like the Northern Alliance), four major tribes, and a myriad of ethnic prejudices and half-buried grievances. And so, with the Taliban on the run and vulnerable, the Northern Alliance is supposed to break its momentum and wait outside Kabul while the diplomats work to pull off the political trifecta of the year. This is crazy. We are again reverting to the mode of the first three weeks of the war, when our diplomats restrained the military. Those initial weeks of discriminate, calibrated bombing--``air attacks on front-line Taliban troops had been restrained in order not to favor rebels of the Northern Alliance,'' reported The Washington Post, citing administration officials--brought us nothing but stalemate and grief. The war turned around when we changed our strategy on Oct. 31 and unleashed a savage, unrelenting air attack on Taliban front lines. The rewards have been remarkable. The Taliban have lost almost half the country. Pro-Taliban leaders, militias and soldiers are defecting. Kabul is waiting. There is no underestimating the effect of taking the capital. Militarily, routing the Taliban would increase their disorder and disarray, drain more of the swamp in which al Qaeda operates, and cut them off from the center of commerce and communication. Psychologically, the defeat of the Taliban in their capital would symbolize their forfeiting the mandate from heaven. And it would demonstrate the awesome reach of American air power: Operating at enormous distances and with an outnumbered ally on the ground, it prevails (BEG ITAL)without a single U.S. combat casualty(END ITAL). Politically, the effects would be enormous. Weeks of presidential protestations about our religious tolerance and respect for Islam have had so little effect abroad that administration officials are huddling with Hollywood to figure out how to fix our image. How about this, gentlemen? Let Kabul be taken as soon as possible and then have every earthly news camera show (as has just happened in Mazar-e Sharif) women taking off their burqas, music again being played, girls going back to school, and the Taliban gallows in the soccer stadium being torn down. We claim to be liberators. Every army does. But we can prove it. On camera. It makes no sense to dither on the city outskirts as winter approaches, while the diplomats try to put together their coalition government. The obvious answer is to have the Northern Alliance take Kabul, with the assurance from the United States to Pakistan and others that their interests will be represented in whatever coalition government finally gets established. Victory will make coalition-building that much easier. A triumphant march of our allies through Kabul will powerfully concentrate the minds of wavering Pashtun leaders on the wisdom of joining the winning side. We could have the Northern Alliance then turn the running of Kabul over to a mostly Muslim international police force. Ten years ago, another President Bush, having broken through enemy lines and having the enemy on the run, decided to stop short of the enemy capital. He did this at the urging of the neighboring coalition partners, like Saudi Arabia, who warned against occupying Baghdad with foreign troops. We rue the day that we made that decision. Its consequences--a decade of U.S. troops on Arabian soil, and of sanctions and bombing raids on Iraq--haunt us to this day. (Indeed, they constitute the two main articles of bin Laden's indictment of the United States.) The new President Bush, with the enemy on the run, is being similarly advised by a neighboring coalition partner, this time Pakistan, to stay out of the capital. We dare not make that mistake again. There is no substitute for victory. We're just now getting the anthrax out of our mail. The president warns that the terrorists are trying to acquire nuclear weapons and would use them. Bin Laden says he already has them. The clock is ticking, and yet, once again, we are calibrating the fighting to fit fine-tuned political ends. This is no time to get lost in the morass of Afghan politics. Mr. President, take Kabul. The politics will follow.