Why I... think the bombing should stop and the talking should commence

October 26, 2001

I have met the man who helped open the latest tragic chapter in Afghanistan's history. Osama bin Laden used to come to my office in Peshawar in the late 1980s to ask me if I could help him import bulldozers to build roads in Afghanistan. There was nothing very remarkable about him. He was polite and unassuming. I suppose the casings of people can hide a lot.

But his network now includes a lot of hardline Arab and other foreign extremists who took the Afghan leadership hostage. This became obvious in March when the colossal Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed. Before that, Mullah Omar had been supportive in protecting the cultural heritage. He issued numerous edicts to this effect, published in the official government Gazette.

The situation in Afghanistan is not as simple as US leaders would like and I doubt whether the hardline network can be destroyed by bombs and missiles. There is no lack of caves for them to hide in. Despite the millions of dollars that the United States is throwing into its attacks, the present venture is unlikely to be any more successful than the strikes in 1998.

Meanwhile, this military offensive is deepening hatred of the US and the West to the point where it is embracing those Afghans who were beginning to oppose Taliban policies. This is no surprise. It has happened throughout Afghanistan's history: they may fight one another, but they bond together at the first sign of outside interference.

The US made its first big error when it walked away from the Afghan people after the Soviets left. By ignoring Afghanistan, the US lost its opportunity to grasp a leadership role in the region. Now it is trying to bomb itself into that role.

If the present power structures in Afghanistan do collapse, the US and its allies must tread carefully. I can see some benefit in inviting the former king back as a symbol around which others may rally, although they should be cautious about the old-timers who will want to come with them.

It is perhaps the right time to call a Loya Jirgah - a great assembly, the traditional mechanism through which Afghans legitimise regimes by consensus. Many Afghans have been recommending this for years. They are not talking about a meeting of a few friends of the US; they are talking about upwards of 1,000 representatives from all parts of Afghan society. This would include moderate Taliban, for they are part of the society as well. From such a gathering, perhaps new voices will rise.

Above all, whatever is put in place must not bear the fingerprints of outsiders. Afghanistan's history shows that the people will not accept that. To install any group seen as puppets of outside interests would be a monumental mistake. It would take us back to where this tragedy began.

I remember travelling from Pakistan to Jalalabad in 1992 just after the mujahideen had established itself in Kabul. The region was a moonscape. Houses were rubble. There was no water in the irrigation canals. The fields were bare because they were mined. It was most depressing.

On returning just three months later I found the houses repaired, clear water flowing in the canals, farmers ploughing and corn almost as tall as I was. Afghans are not only courageous, they are hard workers. Now they need long-term assistance to provide the materials they cannot themselves supply. With these and with peace, the world will be astounded at how quickly prosperity returns.

* Nancy Hatch Dupree lives in Peshawar. Her numerous books on Afghanistan's history and heritage include An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, published by Afghan Air Authority in 1977, £60.00.

* Interview by Chris Bunting

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