AS1IEVILLE CITIZEN-TIMES CITIZEN-TIMES CITIZEN-TIMES OTHER VIEWS WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2001 All Guest Commentary Afghanistan: Hard to get in... harder to get out By Watson Sims The New York Times reported reported this week that journalists journalists from around the world are scrambling to cover news from Afghanistan. I wish them well, for from personal experience experience I know that covering news from Afghanistan is not an easy matter. From February, 1958, to June, 1961, Afghanistan was one of six countries I covered as Associated Press Chief of Bureau in New Delhi. A man I appointed as AP correspondent in Kabul later became became Minister of Information, but he, like many educated Afghans, was forced to flee the country and died as a taxi driver in Washington, Washington, D.C. My own most memorable visit to Afghanistan was in i960, when another superpower delivered an ultimatum to Kabul. Prime Minister Minister Nikita Khrushchev demanded then that the Afghans stop playing playing both sides in the Cold War and tilt toward Moscow. It was certainly true that the Afghans were playing both sides. The Soviets built them a large airport airport at Bagram, 25 miles from Kabul, while the Americans built them an airport at Quandahar, the country's second largest city. The Soviets built them a huge flour mill and an enormous silo, which they then filled with American wheat. Against this background, Khrushchev arrived in Kabul on March 2, i960, and I drove up through the Khyber Pass to cover his visit. Not only did two days of tense talks with King Zahir Shah and his powerful cousin, Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud, fail to budge the Afghans from neu- neu- (.:,,) Watson Sims trality, but Khrushchev narrowly narrowly escaped assassination assassination when dissidents placed a bomb under a bridge on the road from Bagram Airport. Airport. In the decades since Khrushchev's visit, Afghanistan has been governed governed by a king, by communist and non-communist non-communist non-communist regimes, and by the religious zealot Taliban. King Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin, Mohammad Daoud in 1973. Five years later, Daoud was assassinated by communists, and in 1979 the Soviet Army invaded invaded Afghanistan for a war that lasted 10 years and ended in disaster disaster that helped bring down the Soviet Union. During my time of coverage, Pakistan and Afghanistan were deadly enemies, and fighting often often erupted along their 1,500 mile border. A single battle in October, October, i960, left 600 Afghans dead. After the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989, however, Pakistan, seeing opportunities for new trade routes through Afghanistan into Central Asia, took a hand in fighting fighting among Afghan tribesmen by backing the Taliban. Henry Bradsher, a former colleague colleague in the Associated Press and author of an authoritative book on Afghanistan, contends that the Taliban were created, funded and supplied by Pakistan. But Pakistan, like other outside powers throughout history, found Afghan allies impossible to control. control. And now, having helped to create the Taliban government, Pakistan is in the embarrassing position of being asked to help bring it down. The decision is all the more dangerous because Pakistan Pakistan has its own substantial minority minority of religous zealots. No student of Afghan history would encourage using American ground troops in that country. If there is to be an attack by U.S. forces, it is likely to involve missiles missiles and commando forces for lightning strikes and quick withdrawal withdrawal on selected targets. For the long run, the United States must look not only for ways to guard our cities against terrorist attack but help the Afghan people free themselves of zealots who hold the country hostage. Many Afghans, like my friend the former Minister of Information, Information, dream of their country's country's liberation from zealotry and terrorism. Possibly some charismatic charismatic figure can unite rebels fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan, perhaps former King Zahir Shah, who now lives in France. Bradsher, a close follower of events in Afghanistan, says that such opinion polling as is possible possible shows overwhelming support for the return of the king. After traumatic experience with three other systems, the days of absolute absolute rule may seem more attractive attractive than the alternatives. By helping the return of Zahir Shah on an interim basis, the United States and its allies might open the door for elections, supervised supervised by the United Nations, in which all Afghans could freely choose their own place in the modern world. Watson Sims lives in Asheville.