The Taliban factor

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
14 November 2001

Two months after the New York and Washington attacks, the sixth week of the war, there have been substantial developments that make it a little easier to analyse the direction, possible duration and likely effects of the war. These partly relate to the mood in the United States, but also concern the recent and rapid Taliban withdrawal from much of northern Afghanistan, including Kabul.

The American mood

Although the Bush administration has found it difficult to handle the anthrax attacks, support for the war itself is remarkably strong. Away from the public service broadcasting channels and a few of the more heavyweight broad-sheets, the culture is one of “America Strikes Back”. This comes through strongly and persistently on all of the major TV news bulletins, with little or no critical analysis.

In one sense, this accurately reflects the public mood, although there is a certain underlying concern about the uncertainties of the war, and a much greater unease arising from a sense of vulnerability within the United States itself. 11 September does really only compare with Pearl Harbour, except that in 1941 there was a clearly defined state as the palpable enemy. “Terrorism” has become the pseudo-state, with the Taliban and bin Laden expressed as the embodiment of that near-virtual enemy.

As a consequence, the destruction of the Taliban has become the dominant war aim, at least in the short term, and almost anything goes in its pursuit, including an uncomfortable public debate on the possible use of physical interrogation (torture). There is very little general concern about civilian casualties. The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was casually dismissive of such losses in an interview last week; he acknowledged only that there might have been three or four civilians killed in one case, but implied that any talk of serious casualties was Taliban propaganda. We are not quite at the “gook count” attitude of Vietnam days, but not far from it.

There is, significantly, a widespread acceptance that the Afghanistan War could be costly for US troops. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll published on 8 November found that nearly half those polled would accept more than 10,000 casualties among US forces. The same poll indicated that 55% would back a war lasting more than two years.

Public opinion can be fickle, and views might change rapidly if the war drags on through the winter and substantial US casualties eventually ensue during counter-guerrilla conflicts in the Taliban-controlled areas. Even so, it is worth appreciating that the loss of those two World Trade Center towers, the most notable buildings in post-war America, has struck deep. This is reflected in the ease with which the administration has pushed through an immediate 10% increase in defense spending, with many members of congress arguing that this is too little.

The proposed increase, $32.3 billion, is about the same as Britain’s entire annual defence budget, and includes $5.5 billion for additional munitions and $4.5 billion for force protection. The latter is an indication of the perception that US forces overseas are going to face increased threats to their security, especially in the Middle East and South West Asia, as the war drags on. The new budget also includes repairs to the Pentagon, now estimated at $500 million. In addition, the Navy, in particular, is already running down its stocks of laser-guided bombs and Tomahawk cruise missiles, and priority will be given to replacing these and similar weapons.

Retreat from Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the speed of the advance of the Northern Alliance across the north of Afghanistan, including the taking of Mazar-e-Sharif and the Taliban withdrawal from Kabul, has been a surprise to virtually every analyst. There are three factors involved in this change of circumstance, although they do not sufficiently explain these rapid developments.

Firstly, from around 4 November, the US substantially escalated its air attacks on Taliban positions, with much heavier use of area bombing by B-52s. The capacity of these planes is considerable. The standard munition used recently in area bombing is the unguided 250kg bomb. Each bomb has about twice the destructive power of each of the Provisional IRA bombs that did so much damage to the centre of Manchester, and the Baltic Exchange, Bishopsgate and Canary Wharf districts of London during the mid-1990s.

Each B-52 can deliver more than 50 of these bombs in a single attack. Used extensively, and targeted by US special forces working in co-ordination with Northern Alliance troop movements, the effects have been considerable. Given that Taliban concentrations have been interspersed with local people in villages and smallholdings, the “colateral damage” (i.e. people killed) will also have been considerable. This is unlikely to be acknowledged, certainly not by Mr Rumsfeld.

The second factor is that Northern Alliance forces have been substantially armed from Russia, using American aid, enabling them to advance more quickly and constitute a more significant force. Thirdly, they have been advancing in areas in which the Taliban militia have largely been occupying forces, often controlling territory that has only been in their possession for two to three years.

Even so, these factors do not sufficiently explain the manner in which the war has changed, with large-scale advances by the Northern Alliance seeming even to indicate the rapid fall of the Taliban regime.

What next?

There are two possible explanations, and whichever is more accurate will largely determine the nature of the next part of the war. One explanation is that the Taliban militia are so incompetent and lacking in support that they can offer little real resistance in the face of a rather mediocre Northern Alliance backed up by substantial air power.

If this is correct, then Jalalabad and Kandahar will fall quickly, and the Taliban regime will lose control over all but small pockets of Afghanistan. US and other forces will move in rapidly to bases in the country in the coming few weeks and the al-Qaida network will be destroyed in the next few months.

Afghanistan may then be controlled by a Northern Alliance that is composed largely of warlord groups with an appalling human rights record, the al-Qaida network may be largely dispersed to other locations, perhaps in a position to prepare for further paramilitary action. But this phase of the war on terrorism will be considered to have been “won”.

The alternative explanation is that the experience of area bombing and of fighting a re-equipped Northern Alliance working closely with US forces may have convinced Taliban military leaders that they cannot win a war fought primarily on US terms. This may be especially so as the United States becomes increasingly able to operate from bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as within Northern Afghanistan itself.

On this basis, it would make little sense for the Taliban to try and maintain control of areas outside of its natural Pashtun support zone. Better, rather, to withdraw to its numerous local power bases in Central and Southern Afghanistan, allow the Northern Alliance to extend their areas of operations outside their zones of support, and engage in guerrilla warfare, even if this means withdrawing from Kandahar as well as Kabul.

In looking at this second possibility, four things are worth noting. One is that previous experience of the Northern Alliance suggests that it is, at best, an unstable coalition, with every prospect of fracturing between the different factions as new territory is gained. It also includes elements capable of dreadful human rights abuses, and there are already reports of massacres after the taking of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The second is that Taliban militia proved to be militarily effective in driving the Northern Alliance warlords from most of Afghanistan just a few years ago. Thirdly, there have been unconfirmed but plausible reports that most of the key Taliban militia groups withdrew from Mazar-e-Sharif and the surrounding region some days before the Northern Alliance advance, a factor which would itself help to explain the speed of the latter’s advance. It is certainly clear that the Taliban withdrawal from Kabul was both sudden and rapid, being undertaken overnight to limit the capacity of US strike aircraft to attack the forces on the road.

Finally, there is always a tendency to analyse a conflict through western eyes, so that the capture of cities such as Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar would tend to the conclusion that the Taliban was defeated and the war was over. But Afghanistan is a very poor country that is not greatly urbanised. Most of the population remains spread over towns, villages, farms and smallholdings throughout the lowlands and, to an extent, the highlands of the Hindu Kush and elsewhere.

It would therefore be perfectly possible for the Taliban to withdraw to their Pashtun heartlands, forming small groups scattered through extensive rural communities and able to offer continual opposition, largely through guerrilla warfare, to Northern Alliance forces.

The Taliban factor

Whether this happens depends on one aspect which remains unclear - the extent of support for the Taliban in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. This is why the CIA has put so much effort into helping anti-Taliban figures such as Hamid Karazai. If such people can unite Pashtun elements against the Taliban, then their position would be greatly weakened, but there are several reasons to question this.

For a start, there are reports that members of the Pakistan Intelligence Service have been supplying Taliban units with useable weapons. Furthermore, support for the Taliban remains high in north-western parts of Pakistan, with thousands of volunteers available for service. Perhaps most significant is that the people of the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, whatever their attitude towards the Taliban, may see the Northern Alliance and the United States as a single entity, taking a quasi-nationalist stand against what are seen to be “foreign” occupying forces.

When the Taliban first became prominent in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, they became popular in Pashtun areas, not least because of the brutal behaviour of the warlord forces that later came to make up much of the Northern Alliance. Furthermore, there is a certain anti-American sentiment that has been greatly exacerbated by recent proselytising. Northern Alliance advances into Pashtun areas made possible by repeated US bombing could serve mainly to provide communal support for Taliban and allied militias in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. If so, effective resistance could be protracted and US efforts to identify al-Qaida units and bases made much more difficult.

Many of these questions will be answered in the next month or so, but it would be very unwise to assume that the war is close to an end. Even so, the Bush administration retains great domestic support, it has the capability to use immensely strong military force, and based on previous US performance in Serbia, Somalia and Iraq, will certainly do so. Thus, the bombing continues, arms pour into Northern Afghanistan and, at the very least, many ordinary people will get caught up in the conflict and will be killed, maimed or succumb to malnutrition and disease. As in so many recent wars “the young men do the fighting - the rest do the dying”.

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