Ronald Reagan celebrated them as "freedom fighters" for upholding "the ideals of freedom and independence," and declared a day in their honor. Back then, the Chechen, Pakistani, Arab and Afghan fundamentalists had been valued CIA recruits in the war against the godless Soviets. Now they're just hundreds of crisp corpses, incinerated by American bombs dropped to quell a prison riot of people the U.S. invaders/liberators of Afghanistan dismiss as "foreigners."
Ironically, Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Northern Alliance general who rounded up those Taliban prisoners, is an Uzbek who fought on the Soviet side in the old days -- but in America's battle for freedom, timing is all. Even the fortified caves where Osama bin Laden is suspected of hiding, just as his fellow "freedom fighters" did when they fought the Russians, were cleverly engineered to withstand aerial bombing, thanks to the designs and financing of our CIA.
Now we and the Soviets have changed places, although of course our intentions are far better. They always were. Still, as the Marines land and the war of surrogates in Afghanistan becomes indelibly a U.S. war, it's time we ended the sanctimonious sneer that has dominated war coverage.
The bipartisan chorus of approval for anything President Bush wants could make matters worse for Afghanistan and the war on terrorism, not better. There is much to debate about our commitment and much to learn from our slippage into past quagmires. We must begin by recognizing that we've failed miserably in Afghanistan ever since President Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, decided to arm the fundamentalist mujahedin -- even before the Soviets invaded in support of a regime that, whatever its failings, was at least committed to a more modern Afghanistan in which women were free to work and study.
The difference, this time around, is that the United States can no longer hide behind Muslim fanatic surrogates who are too deeply divided by past ethnic conflict and current greed to rule on their own. Nor can the fig leaf of international support obscure the fact that this is an American war brought to this point in response to an attack the United States assumes, but has not proven, was directed from Afghanistan.
Before Sept. 11, however, the United States was playing footsie with the Taliban, delighting in its stunning eradication of the huge Afghan opium crop. We took that to be a major contribution to the war on drugs -- a war now forgotten, but the center of U.S. foreign policy interests at the time.
Assistant Secretary of State Christina B. Rocca acknowledged this drug war boon in an Aug. 2 meeting with the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, although she mixed into her conversation demands for the extradition of bin Laden. Hardly chastened, Zaeef described the meeting as "very successful. The atmosphere was very cordial." Five weeks later, the World Trade Center was obliterated.
In August, refusing to embrace the fact that the Taliban and al-Qaida had basically merged, the United States thought it could drive a wedge between the two. Now the pack of them are referred to by Bush as simply "the evildoers." An accurate description, of course, but one that may come -- and all too soon -- to fit the motley collection of warlords who are temporarily on our side.
To leave Afghanistan as a festering wound, as we did before, will spread, not contain, the disease of terrorism, even if bin Laden is eliminated. The Marines have landed, and in the eyes of the world, that makes the United States responsible for the future quality of life in one of the world's most conflict-ridden countries. What is required is the very thing -- a commitment to nation-building -- that Bush campaigned against in last year's election.
If we can get the job done with the effective use of the United Nations or some other international presence, fine. But there can be no abrupt pulling up stakes this time around. Whatever happens in Afghanistan now happens on our watch, and it better involve more than building that pipeline that U.S. oil companies have wanted so badly, or the eradication of opium, which will be back in full harvest, what with the farmers now starving and the puritanical hold of the Taliban lifted.
Our massive intervention in Afghanistan carries with it the obligation to ensure the implementation of basic human rights there, beginning with the humane treatment of prisoners and public and fair trials for alleged war criminals, and ending with a peaceful government that respects the political, social and religious rights of all Afghans, beginning with women.