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War Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card December 17, 2001

What Afghanistan?

As the Afghanistan campaign winds its way toward its conclusion, the leaders of various Afghani groups are trying to work out a way to make a government that might begin to solve the problems that have built up in that country over the years.

We're already hearing Afghani leaders talk about how the United States "has responsibilities" in Afghanistan. How we can't change everything and "just walk away."

Well, actually, we can -- and in fact that's the best policy.

I don't mean walk away from the humanitarian efforts that we had already undertaken before the war. We should be generous with foreign aid to the new government, and we should continue to help the people deal with the drought and the return of refugees.

But we did not create the mess in Afghanistan, we just acted to stop a part of that mess from spilling onto our shores. And we cannot solve the mess in Afghanistan.

The deep problem in Afghanistan is the same one that exists in many an African nation: There's no nation there.

Just as most African boundaries were put on maps without regard to preexisting tribal, ethnic, or linguistic communities, so that the resulting "nations" have a horrible time trying to create loyalties that surmount ancient enmities and distrust, so the boundaries of Afghanistan were shaped to fit the needs of Britain and Russia as they played the "Great Game" of trying to get -- or prevent -- Russian access to the Indian Ocean.

We can't fix that. Short of getting the U.N. or the Afghanis themselves to divide Afghanistan into a half dozen smaller -- and poorer -- nations that reflect the territories the various tribes occupy, there's nothing we can do except walk away, wish them well, help financially where we can, and act only to prevent outside groups (like the Taliban) from taking over.

And it's absolutely vital for the stability of the government of Pakistan that American troops quickly get out of the area, while Afghani refugees return to Afghanistan just as fast.

We were never at war with Afghanistan. We were only at war with the Taliban. Now that the Taliban's power is broken, there is no excuse whatsoever to maintain an American presence there.

Afghanistan should not be an occupied country any more than France was occupied after its liberation at the end of World War II.

Nor should we even think of using Afghanistan as a launching point for a campaign against, say, Iran. Afghanistan is not viable for maintaining a military supply line. It would be disastrous to try to use it that way.


I'm glad the campaign in Afghanistan has gone so well up to now. I don't think anyone expected the populace in most of the country would so quickly reject the Taliban, nor was anyone prepared for the way so many Taliban and Al-Qaeda troops declined to fight to the death after all.

We did lose men in combat, and those who died in accidents away from the actual shooting also perished in service to their country. Though their numbers were fewer than we feared, that does not make their sacrifice any less painful for their families.

They died, not in pursuit of vengeance, but rather to obtain safety for the American people and for other victims of terrorism.

That struggle must go on, and must be vigorously pursued.

It may not be so easy again.

True, a campaign in Sudan might be even easier, and heaven knows there are many Sudanese who have suffered more desperately from the genocidal practices of their fanatically Islamist government. We could expect to be welcomed as liberators by many in that land.

But Iraq, the second most dangerous of our enemies in this struggle, may prove a tougher nut to crack.

First, while many people within Iraq hate Saddam Hussein, there is no reason to think they will welcome us with open arms. When President Bush pere called for the overthrow of Saddam at the end of the Gulf War, the Kurds in the north and the Shi'ites in the south took him at his word.

Oops. He didn't mean them. Bush wanted a coup -- a laughable idea, given that Saddam has already murdered any Iraqi leader with enough courage and initiative even to imagine throwing him out of office.

So America stood by and watched Saddam cut the rebels to ribbons.

So Saddam's boldest enemies -- and all the ones who trusted the U.S. -- are dead. Any remaining Iraqis with leaderly talents will be slow to trust us now.

As for the common people, Saddam has been telling them, along with the whole Islamic world, that the U.S. is responsible for starving his people.

Never mind that he has plenty of money to feed them all -- and not little school-cafeteria-size meals, either. He could feed them at banquets every day on the money he spends building his palaces and buying his weapons.

But they don't know that. They have been pounded with propaganda blaming all things on us.

Of course they don't believe everything they read in their Saddam-fearing news media -- but if they believe only half of what they're told, we're still the devil in their eyes.

So the populace may not embrace us.

And then there's the problem of the nukes, the poison gas, the biological weapons. Whatever he has, Saddam will use. With the example of Afghanistan before him, he knows we won't let the bulk of his elite troops get away this time.

He might always pull a Baby Doc Duvalier and flee the country at the first sign of American invasion. (Suggested place of asylum: I'm sure Yasser Arafat would take him in.)

But if he fights it out, there's a real chance of devastating losses among our troops -- or truly monstrous terrorist attacks in our country using nuclear or bio-chem weapons.

What I'm saying is it may already be too late to eliminate the most dangerous terrorist-sponsoring governments without unbearable costs. They aren't all empty shells like the Taliban.

And dangerous as Iraq is, the fact remains: The most dangerous enemy we have is Iran. Our enemies in Iran are smarter and more sincere in their Islamic faith than Saddam, and while there are many citizens of Iran who long for the good old days and would welcome an American "liberation," an invasion of Iran would almost certainly be expensive in American lives.

Whatever Saddam's weaponwrights have come up with, we can be sure that Iran has had better-educated, better-funded, and more-dedicated scientists working on the same weapons for years longer.

Even if the Iranian government does not use such weapons against us -- for, unlike Saddam, they have no record of using weapons of mass destruction -- there remains the fact that Iran has long been a nearly unconquerable country.

If invading Iran is the only way to eliminate their support for terrorism, then we will have to do it. But Iran and Iraq are not loose collections of warring tribes like Afghanistan. Changing their governments may well be a long and bloody struggle.

It won't be something that can play in the background of our lives the way the Afghan campaign has.

Copyright © 2001 by Orson Scott Card.

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