The US-British assault on the Taliban and Usama bin Ladin in Afghanistan does not appear to be going well, despite the use of ground troops on October 20 after two weeks of aerial attacks. Despite American expectations to the contrary, the Taliban have not disintegrated, the Northern Alliance have not made the gains they were expected to make, and the anti-Taliban coalition that is being cobbled together is just not taking shape according to plan. Worse, American casualties have occurred, even if these did not result directly from clashes with the Taliban. After three weeks of intense bombing, the US has achieved little except killing some 400 civilians (200 in the village of Khurram alone). True, the US has achieved mastery in the air over Afghanistan, but the Taliban have no airforce to speak of, so that is not much of an achievement. The strength of the Taliban lies in guerrilla warfare, and that is how they are likely to hurt the US.
The unease of one crucial coalition partner, Pakistan, is also beginning to appear as the onslaught becomes a stalemate. Pakistani president general Pervez Musharraf reflected this apprehension when he told visiting US secretary of state Colin Powell on October 15 that the campaign should be “short and focused.” This wish is not likely to be fulfilled. Musharraf knows too well that anger in Pakistan is increasing over the attacks on Afghanistan; as they continue, the casualties will mount, leading to greater public anger, thus threatening his already tenuous hold on power. On October 20 there was an explosion at Islamabad airport; this is an ominous development.
Despite intense aerial bombardment since October 7, neither the Taliban’s military capability nor their support among the tribes has been weakened. On the contrary, many tribes, hitherto sitting on the sidelines, have joined the Taliban because they regard the US-British attacks as an assault on their honour. Even some commanders from the much-touted Northern Alliance have reportedly defected to the Taliban. On October 18 a six-member delegation of tribal elders visited one of the Northern Alliance’s senior commanders, asking him to join the Taliban to defend the homeland in the best tradition of the Afghans. Buoyed up by American promises of help and reward, the Alliance as such is not likely to do so, but some of its supporters are perturbed by the western onslaught on their country. Similar reports have emerged from Pakistan as well, where former Mujahideen commanders have condemned the attacks and admitted that US/British strikes have made the prospect of anyone else replacing the Taliban more unlikely.
When the Americans began their attacks Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, declared a jihad and called upon Muslims worldwide to help their brethren to fight off the “infidels.” This call was also supported by the ulama in Pakistan, interestingly not all of them linked to the Taliban. Similarly, calls for jihad have been issued in other places, such as Indonesia and the Arab heartland, including Iraq. Whatever one’s opinion of the Taliban, there is a simple factor at work: Muslim anger at American arrogance and highhandedness is rising. According to the most conservative estimates, the Taliban ranks have swelled from 40,000 to 60,000 fighters; other estimates put their numbers at 300,000. A measure of the Taliban’s confidence is the fact that they turned back about 20,000 volunteers from the tribal belt of Pakistan who wanted to join them. Similarly, American claims that their “command and control centres” had been destroyed is just so much media hype. The Taliban have no such infrastructure; they use portable walkie-talkie sets that go with them wherever they go.
Although the military assault cannot dislodge the Taliban so easily, bribing tribal elders and commanders might have worked better: that opportunity has now been lost. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the agency most familiar with the Afghan situation, has been working overtime since the removal of its chief, Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed, to buy off some Taliban commanders, but with little success. Most of the tribes that straddle the Pak-Afghan border — Mohmand, Shinwari, Wazir, Masud, Zadran and Tanai, to name but a few — have remained steadfast. Most Afghans set aside their differences when confronted by external aggression, only to resume fighting among themselves once the foreigners have been driven out. Only a few former commanders — Dr Abdullah, Dr Abdul-Rahman, Abdul-Haq and Bismillah — have indicated their willingness to join the anti-Taliban campaign, after being bribed and promised positions in a post-Taliban dispensation. But it is doubtful that they will be able to match the commitment of the Taliban defending Kabul and Qandahar. Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, by contrast, is behind the Taliban and has promised to help them with men and material. The Taliban’s strategy is clear: they have already moved the bulk of their forces into the mountains, awaiting the entry of enemy forces into the cities before descending upon them. The crucial battles will be for control of Kabul and Qandahar.
The Northern so-called Alliance is really made up of disparate factions, united only in their enmity to the Taliban and Pakistan. The NA factions are also demoralized by the assassination of their top commander, Ahmed Shah Masoud, in early September. Left leaderless (the only other leader who comes close to Masoud’s stature is Mullah Faheem, but he does not have 20 years’ promotion by the western media behind him), the Alliance is drifting. Their lacklustre performance in and around Mazar-i Shareef indicates that they are not in a position to take on the Taliban. General Abdul-Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord and hoodlum, an important part of the Alliance, is a wild card. He has been switching sides faster than changing clothes. The Alliance’s hope — forlorn in the circumstances — is to ride American tanks into Kabul in the manner of Babrak Karmal’s ride on a Russian tank in December 1979. This looks like a fools’ wish-list: the Americans are hoping to march behind Alliance soldiers into Kabul; the Alliance hope the Americans will facilitate their installation in power.
Even if the Taliban are dislodged from Kabul and Qandahar, it will not mean the end of the fighting. Any government installed there would have to contend with constant attacks from the Taliban descending from the mountains. This must all be achieved within the next four weeks, before the winter snows blanket the country. The Afghans are accustomed to such harsh weather; American soldiers with their easy lifestyle can hardly survive such unwelcoming conditions. The temptation may be greater to get out of there, rather than to be stuck in a hell-hole with a people who show little mercy to their own, much less to murderous foreigners whom they regard as infidels.
George Bush may yet rue his decision to venture into Afghanistan. It is clear that his ultimate objective is uninterrupted access to oil and gas in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, yet this can only be realised by swimming in the blood of tens of thousands of people, many of them Americans.
Are the Americans prepared to pay costs reckoned in body bags? And if so, how many and for how long?