A Kundoozy; Things Should Change After Sept. 11

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"Rumsfeld's been extremely callous," a Pakistani official told reporters last weekend. As he spoke, he didn't know the half of it. He was referring to the U.S. Defense Secretary's earlier warning that the Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens who were then helping the Taliban defend their last northern stronghold at Kunduz would face the usual choice for defeated soldiers?"surrender or death." As it turned out, they faced all of the above.

Months or years from now historians will be writing short books on the hour-by-hour unfolding of the surrender at Kunduz, much as they now write about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or the battle of Stalingrad. That is, it looks like one of those self-contained war episodes that teach universal lessons because of their very uniqueness. There are questions about Kunduz that, in the short term, are beyond the reach of even the most diligent and scrupulous reporter to explain.

First, whatever became of this portrait of the Taliban as wild-eyed, ideologically committed maniacs? On Saturday, thousands of Taliban surrendered at Kunduz. The Afghans among them were allowed to head for the hills. In some cases they were welcomed back into Afghan society with open arms. Literally. There were pictures of Taliban and Northern Alliance soldiers embracing after the truce. Typical of the Afghans who surrendered was the Taliban tank driver Mullah Gulmir, who explained to reporters, "I joined the Taliban because they were stronger. I'm joining the Northern Alliance because they are stronger now."

The hundreds of foreign agents provocateurs, meanwhile, who had poured into fundamentalist Afghanistan as a kind of International Brigade of the new millennium, were afraid they'd be treated differently. Not to put too fine a point on it, they feared they'd be executed in reprisals for the half-decade of imperialistic sadism they'd visited on a country whose customs they'd never respected and whose language they'd never bothered to learn. They turned out to be right. They were transported to a fortress near the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif, and at midday on Sunday they were all slaughtered during a bizarre "prison revolt" that turned into a bloodbath. We heard a lot in September about the Afghan ethos of "hospitality," which supposedly made it impossible for Mullah Omar to offer up Osama bin Laden?much though he would have liked to. In the event, murder, evisceration and (to judge from Tyler Hicks' spectacular New York Times photos) castration have been the usual postinvasion policy regarding the country's Arab "guests."

This raises a second question: What is the relationship between the Afghans and the "Afghan Arabs," or, differently put, between the Taliban and Al Qaeda? It appears more and more that the palaver about how invading armies inevitably meet their doom in Afghanistan ("?after all, the British and the Russians and?" blah-blah-blah) is dead wrong. In fact, Afghanistan was successfully conquered from without in the 1990s, by a committed army of largely Arab Islamic radicals, funded by Saudi Arabia and organized by Pakistan, which also contributed most of the foot soldiers. Otherwise, why this Ding-Dong-the-Witch-Is-Dead jubilation in every single town from which these murderous bullies have been ousted?

The strongest lasting impression one gets from the splendid reporting of Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid is that the Taliban are, strictly speaking, foreigners themselves. They should not be confused?as they almost invariably are in this country?with the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in the 1980s. With a few exceptions, they're too young for that. At the Taliban's core are lumpen thugs brought up in Pakistani refugee camps. It may not be much of a stretch, in fact, to say that there never was a Taliban Afghanistan, any more than there was a Nazi Denmark or a Stalinist Poland. "Taliban" is just a name for the form of occupation government imposed on Afghanistan by Mullah Omar and his Pakistani-bred refugees, aided by Al Qaeda and a few other terrorist networks, with the help of opportunists and collaborators.

There's a third question that ought to detain us before we get to the historical analysis: Exactly what the hell happened in Kunduz last week? Reports that in the days before the surrender the United States let a handful of Pakistani flights come and go out of Kunduz, spiriting away Pakistani toughs by the planeload, have been denied by U.S. diplomat Kenton Keith, but no one believes those denials. Not even Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, who said on Sunday, "I just listened to our ambassador make the denial. I would be skeptical."

And was it a prison riot? The official Northern Alliance story?that several hundred of the foreign Taliban were able to smuggle rifles, grenades and Kalashnikovs into the prison under their robes?suggests that the Alliance is either a pack of liars or the most easy-come-easy-go guerrilla army ever assembled. Particularly after their fervently expressed wish that the Arabs be slaughtered once and for all, letting them enter prison with hundreds of military weapons bespeaks a negligence that stretches credulity.

What, finally, was the U.S. role in this? I ask this purely out of intellectual curiosity, and without the tiniest velleity of outrage. If the foreign Taliban are indistinguishable from Al Qaeda, and if Al Qaeda's reason for being is to murder American civilians, then this resolution to the Kunduz siege will work better than any alternative pour décourager les autres. Over the long term, our role in the incident is more likely to be revealed (and exaggerated), but at the very least we can say that last week saw an historical first.

(Unless there's ever been another "prison riot" put down with the help of B-52 bombers.)

Profiling in Courage

For all the tut-tutting over civil liberties that has followed President Bush's announcement that he'd try terrorists in military tribunals, and for all the muttered "misgivings" over the detention of a thousand terrorist suspects and material witnesses, the White House has shown itself fairly timid in its prosecution of the domestic-front war on terror. Yet, Bush's own policy is not far from the one urged last week by President Clinton's liberal solicitor general Walter Dellinger. "I am more willing to entertain restrictions that affect all of us," Dellinger said, "like identity cards and more intrusive x-ray procedures at airports?and somewhat more skeptical of restrictions that only affect some of us, like those that focus on immigrants or single out people by nationality."

In particular, the President is petrified that he will be accused of racial profiling. That's a misplaced worry. There's a Willie Sutton logic to a criminal investigation?you go where the suspects are. When the FBI was hunting for potential accomplices to Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, they weren't knocking on the doors of Arab Americans. White Christian Americans do terrible things?but they are not the prime candidates to commit crimes in the name of Islamic radicalism. There's nothing in the least bit racist about acknowledging this, and making believe you have reason to investigate everybody randomly, as Dellinger would have it, only means slowing down the investigation and dramatically increasing the potential for others to get killed.

Among politicians, Vermont's Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy has become the leading whiner about civil liberties. Leahy is not the sharpest knife in the Senate drawer, but it's tough to argue with him now that he has received a great big bundle of kudos in the mail along with his anthrax-loaded letter. Still, there's an infuriating goody-goodyishness to the fellow's tone, a cocksure, Edward R. Murrow-style, conscience-of-the-universe demeanor. On Meet the Press last week, this smugness was displayed in all its imaginationless glory. (He's probably playing back the tape and beaming to himself as you read this.) In Leahy's view, those who favor military tribunals are flying off the handle, and it's only the "voices of reason" like his own that are rescuing the country from constitutional perdition.

Generally we should be grateful for such voices. But there are moments when those who urge extreme measures are the sensible ones, and the "voices of reason" are merely casting desperately about for ways to flaunt their moral vanity. This seems to be one of those times. The belief that Sept. 11 should change nothing?which is the belief that actuates Leahy and others?does not really accord with any commonsensical approach to real life.

Suppose you wake up in the middle of the night and hear someone trying to get in through your window. You might have an urge to call the police. You might want to chase the thief away. You might want to make a racket so the guy runs. But don't! Getting up out of bed, after all, would be a "victory for the cat burglars."

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