By Alan Brody
‘I wrote to President Bush in 1989,” ex-Afghanistan President Najibullah told me in 1995. “I told him that with the Cold War ending, we needed to come together against our common enemy.” Najibullah was referring to “the greens,” those fighting under the flag of Islamist fundamentalism whom we now know as al-Qaida.
I’ve been thinking about Najibullah these days as America ponders how to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Najibullah clung to power for three years after the Soviets left Afghanistan, but by early 1992 he’d found himself surrounded by forces of at least four different Mujahedeen groups, some armed and funded by America and European powers via Pakistan, some by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and another by Iran. Sound familiar?
Najibullah mistakenly hoped his resignation in 1992 might spare Kabul the destruction of a full-blown war. The Mujahedeen groups largely destroyed the city anyway, fighting among themselves from 1992-95.
“President Bush never answered me,” the ex-president said wistfully over our tea that March 1995 evening when I met him in a U.N. guesthouse he’d been unable to leave for three years. A year later, the Taliban would sweep into Kabul in triumph, kill Najibullah, and hang his body upside down from a lamp post in a public square.
The West painted Najibullah as a monster based on the years when he was head of KHAD (the Afghan equivalent of the KGB). His ultimate removal was, I suppose, viewed within the American government as some kind of moral necessity. Those who came after him proved worse, however.
I mention all this old history amid rumblings out of Washington about action to punish Syria’s President Assad for the “moral obscenity” of using chemical weapons.
The human rights crowd in the White House may feel better about themselves after they’ve lobbed a few hundred cruise missiles at Syrian targets, but they’ll not achieve much to resolve life-or-death struggles that have already taken an estimated 100,000 lives there.
Interestingly, the United States seems to have stepped back from unconditional insistence that Assad must be removed from power. Perhaps someone in Washington has begun to recognize what Russia’s President Vladimir Putin foresaw from the start in the Syrian conflict: that the alternative to the unsavory incumbent president is likely to be at least as bad and probably much worse. Especially now that al-Qaida-linked rebels funded by America’s “friends” in the Gulf have become dominant among the rebel opposition, any collapse of the Assad regime appears to promise a terrible bloodbath and mass uprooting of Alawite, Shia and Christian minorities.
President Obama has declared that the international community must respond to use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that requires action. I agree with him, but first he must share with the world convincing proof of the Assad regime’s responsibility.
After that, his team must ensure any military action taken is designed actually to deter future use of chemical weapons, rather than merely to make a show of punishing Assad for what’s already been done. That means finding a way to hurt the people in the Assad regime and Syrian military who believe they can benefit from using chemical weapons.
It’s not wise to rush into military action, however. America should maximize the time between when the gun is cocked and when the trigger is pulled, for the psychological effect is increased when suspense and a sense of imminent danger are maintained.
I imagine the scenario thus. We find ourselves in a room filled with bad guys who’ve been committing very bad deeds. We have a gun pointed at them, but both they and we know we have only two bullets. We’d best keep that gun pointed at the boss man, but not pull the trigger. Let the standoff continue until everyone is exhausted.
Then with a smile and a sudden movement, shoot one of the boss man’s more notorious deputies. Immediately assure the boss man of his safety and the offer of your future friendship. With the weapon containing the second bullet pointed toward him say, “But please don’t use chemical weapons anymore.”
Back out of the room. End of scenario.
l Alan Brody of Iowa City worked overseas for more than 30 years. His article “Afghanistan Revisited: A Conversation with Najibullah” is online (Virginia Quarterly Review). Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org Alan Brody,