Breakthrough - to a broader war?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
19 November 2001

Over the period 8-13 November, there was a radical change in the war in Afghanistan, with the Taliban retreating throughout the majority of the areas under their control. A week ago, there appeared to be three reasons for this. One was the intensity of the US bombing of Taliban positions (probably with numerous civilian casualties). A second was the equipping of the Northern Alliance with substantial armaments, provided by Russia but substantially financed by the United States. Finally the Taliban leaders appeared determined to withdraw from non-Pashtun areas, some of which had only been occupied by them for a couple of years.

On the basis of this probable analysis, and bearing in mind that the withdrawal from Kabul had been sufficiently efficient to minimise US air attacks on retreating forces, It looked likely that the Taliban intended to retreat to more dispersed rural areas that would be less amenable to air attack. An alternative view was that an almost total Taliban defeat was imminent.

Towards the end of the seventh week of the war, the latter view looked more likely, and it was expected that the remaining Taliban city of Kandahar would quickly be vacated, and that the isolated group holding on to Kunduz in the north would soon surrender.

Given that the United States will now concentrate a very heavy bombing campaign on these two target areas, it is probable that both will soon fall.In the process, and given the nature of the bombing, substantial civilian casualties are likely.

At the same time, the expected collapse of all significant Taliban groups has not yet happened and the unity of the Northern Alliance is questionable. While there is a general view that the war is close to its end, this is by no means certain. Furthermore, the experience of the last two weeks raises a range of relevant issues.

The US/Northern Alliance Coalition

Some three weeks into the war, the area bombing of Taliban forward positions was greatly intensified, and this was accompanied by a rapid re-arming of the Northern Alliance and the insertion of special forces to assist their advance. This amounted to a tacit policy of utilising the Northern Alliance as the ground troops against the Taliban regime, even though the Northern Alliance was of dubious stability and had elements with appalling human rights records.

The reason for the Bush Administration’s decision to take this “short cut” to attempt the defeat of the Taliban was almost certainly the great difficulty that would be involved in getting substantial US ground forces into the region, and the consequent likelihood that the war would continue through next year.

In the event, this military policy had its effect much earlier than had been anticipated, with the result that much of Afghanistan is now controlled by a range of warlords and factions, with a united and representative government rather difficult to envisage. It would be grossly unfair to blame those United Nations officials now trying to facilitate just such a government if they find themselves unable to do so – their task is difficult in the extreme.

It should also be expected that the United States itself will not have any great interest in the immediate future government of Afghanistan, even though its military strategy has been responsible for the current state of affairs. It will be much more concerned with further action against the Taliban and the al-Qaida network.

The Intensity of the Bombing

The US bombing strategy intensified dramatically at the beginning of November and by 18 November about 13,500 tons of ordnance had been used in the war, the great majority of it being unguided bombs dropped by B-52 and B-1B bombers in the past three weeks.

Particular use was made of the BLU-82 fuel-air bomb, a weapon originally developed during the Vietnam War. Although only two were used against Taliban positions around Mazar-e-Sharif, their effect was devastating.

The BLU-82 contains 12,600 lb of a mixture of ammonium nitrate and aluminium powder with a polystyrene soap binder. This disperses as a highly volatile fuel which is detonated to produce an effect equivalent to 30 tons of TNT. It is indiscriminate in its effect and is the largest bomb ever used in conventional warfare.

Russia’s Position

One of the most remarkable beneficiaries of the last two weeks has been President Putin’s Russia. Having long supported the Northern Alliance, it now finds itself arming the troops (with US funding) and advising and supporting the recent advances. There are indications that forces from Uzbekistan and possibly Tajikistan actually fought alongside Northern Alliance troops during the recent advances, a tactic that would only have been agreed by their respective governments with “approval” from Moscow, given the influence of Russia in both states.

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia now has considerable influence in Afghanistan, a substantial and unexpected bonus provided largely by the United States. Furthermore, its continuing support for the Northern Alliance allies it with groups of warlords while, at the same time, its own behaviour in Chechnya is unlikely to be subject to criticism from Washington.

US Judicial Developments

Two aspects of the domestic actions of the Bush administration are worth noting at this stage. The first is that large numbers of people of Middle Eastern origin have been detained in the United States. The total figure exceeds 1,000, and it has not always proved easy for their legal representatives to perform their professional functions effectively.

Related to this is the recent presidential directive that military courts be enabled to try those suspected of paramilitary activities. This directive, issued on 13 November, was reported to be the first since the Second World War. Such courts could convene in the United States or overseas, including in Afghanistan, and it would be within the power of Mr Bush to determine who should be so tried.

The trials could be held in private, would not need to involve juries and could give sentences up to and including life imprisonment or the death penalty. A White House spokesperson described the presidential order as “an additional tool to use as he sees fit to fight the war on terrorism and bring foreign terrorists to justice”.

The United States currently retains its objections to the establishment of a broadly based International Criminal Court.


The pursuit of the al-Qaida network may still take weeks or months, and it is certainly possible that Afghanistan may be entering a new phase in its interminable civil war, but the view from Washington is that the achievements of the past two weeks have been little short of spectacular. Given the hard-line nature of President Bush’s international security community (with just a few exceptions) it is highly likely that more attention will now be given to the possibility of taking action against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

This may not develop rapidly, and it is just possible that a coalition involving Russia, France and some regional states may be assembled to put indirect pressure on the regime. More likely is the development of plans for military action, with these primarily focussing on substantial and persistent air attacks to cripple the regime. While there would be serious misgivings in many European and Middle Eastern states, there would be very substantial domestic political support for such a policy.


The Bush Administration is clearly aware of the dangers posed by the government of Mr Sharon in Israel, and would want to maintain pressure on Mr Sharon to re-open meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. It is also worth remembering that it was in the aftermath of the Gulf War that the previous Bush administration recognised the need for movement on this front.

At the same time, the Sharon government is markedly extreme in its outlook and policies. It is therefore likely to see the events of the past two weeks as reducing the pressure that it was under to limit its action against Palestinian elements. As a consequence, it might be well to expect an escalation of the levels of violence in the occupied territories. The recent difficult reception afforded to a high level team from the European Union, is an indicator of current Israeli government opinion.


There is an assumption that the al-Qaida network has been hugely damaged by the recent Taliban collapse. This may be true, but only to a certain extent. It should be recalled that the network appears to be part of a coalition of groups stretching over many countries and drawing primarily on supporters in the western Gulf states and North Africa. It may also be the case that many key elements of the network have long since left Afghanistan.

It is likely that elements of the network, or other groups loosely associated with it, still have the capacity for further attacks such as those of 11 September. If so, the US action in Afghanistan may prompt such attacks in the near future.

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