September 5, 2010:
In November, 2001, we published the following item on myths about the war in Afghanistan. It's informative to read it again, because it highlights many of the basic realities of Afghanistan, especially things that cannot be changed quickly, no matter how much you would want to.
* American Ground Troops are Needed to Win in Afghanistan - Up to a point. But there are two problems with this. For one, there is logistics. There are no railroads in Afghanistan, so all supplies must move by truck over a poor road network. The Russians ran into this problem and, as a result, never were able to maintain more than 150,000 troops in the country. American soldiers require more supplies per man; thus even fewer (perhaps 100,000) troops can be supplied.
But that's not the worst problem. If a lot of American troops enter Afghanistan, more Afghans will resist. That's a national custom we don't want to trigger. Many Pushtuns are dodging service in the Taliban armed forces. This would change if most of the soldiers on the other side were American.
* The Taliban Has an Army - Sort of. But most of the best Taliban troops are foreigners (until last week, about 14,000 Pakistanis, mostly Pushtuns, and 6,000 bin Laden troops, who are largely Arabs.) The Taliban Afghan troops are reluctant warriors, weary from twenty years of war. There is resentment among Afghans against the foreign troops. As long as the enemy on the ground is Northern Alliance Afghans, most Taliban Afghans will be tempted to switch sides. Soon, nearly all of the Taliban army will be foreigners. Afghans traditionally fight fiercely against foreigners. We have seen this in the ferocity with which the Northern Alliance treats the foreign Taliban troops.
* The Northern Alliance Has an Army - Not an army in the traditional sense. The Northern Alliance is truly an alliance. But the various factions contribute bands of warriors, not soldiers. American Special Forces troops can train some Northern Alliance warriors as soldiers. But American generals have to get used to working with warriors rather than better-disciplined and more reliable soldiers. Moreover, the Afghan way of war puts great emphasis on fighting that produces low casualties. If they are in the mood, warriors can be fierce. But you can't order them around like soldiers. So the Northern Alliance has what can best be called a feudal levy. American commanders had best brush up on how medieval warlords used their troops.
* This is a Military Operation -. In part, the war in Afghanistan is military, but mostly it's diplomatic. The road to victory is marked by the number of Taliban tribes that can be persuaded to switch sides and work with us, as well as the Northern Alliance. This involves a lot of talk and well-placed gifts. Some of the booty can be cash, but a lot of the loot desired is political and, more immediately, things like food and weapons. A place in a future government, assurances of future support (as we have already offered to Uzbekistan) and maybe a few green cards. There's also the Information War. Crafting a convincing message about why we are there and what we are doing goes a long way towards attracting popular, political and military support.
* We're Fighting Afghanistan - We're actually fighting one faction of a nine-year-old civil war. Much of Afghanistan is inclined to be on our side. Winning more of that support is not a traditional war, but victory comes to whoever ends up with the support of the most Afghans.
* A Northern Alliance Victory will End Terrorism in Afghanistan - This is not guaranteed. A Northern Alliance victory will probably leave many parts of Afghanistan out of their control. Moreover, the Pushtuns, who are the main support of the Taliban, have most of their population in Pakistan. Many bin Laden terrorists operate out of Northern Pakistan. If the Taliban lose control of Afghanistan, they will still have a lot of support in Pakistan. Crushing the Taliban in Afghanistan is a plus, but it will not totally eliminate terrorist operations in the region.
* Russia Lost the War in Afghanistan - The Russians lost 15,000 troops, while 1.5 million Afghans died. Russia and their pro-Russian Afghan government still controlled most of Afghanistan when the Russians left in 1989. The Russians gave the pro-Russian government some $300 million a year until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. After that, the payments stopped, and the pro-Russian government fell in 1992. The Russians have been supporting the Northern Alliance for the last few years and may end up with another pro-Russian government running Afghanistan.
* Winter Helps the Taliban - Afghans prefer not to fight in winter. The winters are brutal, the roads largely impassable and Afghans never developed equipment or techniques for spending a lot of time outside in this season. With all the Taliban aircraft destroyed, the only way to move troops is by truck. Going cross country is risky and often impractical because of snow and freezing cold. Many of the roads going through high mountain passes are closed during the winter. Meanwhile, American troops do have air transport and do regularly practice operating in the winter. American troops can move; Taliban troops cannot. Moreover, the heat sensors on American satellites and aircraft work better in the winter. And if bin Laden and his hundreds of bodyguards are located in an isolated area, he will be easier to take. In warmer weather, additional Taliban troops can come to bin Laden's aid (despite air attacks) via roads and cross country. This is much less likely in the winter. For the American forces, winter is an ally.
* Afghanistan is a Country - Afghanistan has, for most of its history, been a region, not a country. Various local empires (Iranian, Indian, Mongol, etc.) grabbed portions of Afghanistan for centuries at a time. In the last few centuries, most of the local powers lost interest in Afghanistan, except to go in and punish the Afghan tribes if the tribal raids got out of hand. Sometimes, the local empires found it cheaper just to pay protection money to the stronger tribes, to keep the Afghans out of civilized territory. Over the last two hundred years, the many tribes of Afghanistan worked out a deal where the leader of one of the stronger Pushtun tribes would be recognized as "king." But the king of Afghanistan's job was mainly to deal with foreigners (keep them out) and arbitrate disputes between the Afghan tribes.
* You Can See Everything That's Going On - While the bombs and bombers make great visuals, as do the Northern Alliance parades and training exercises, the most important parts of the campaign are not seen. The most important military operation is the logistics buildup. While we've called this the "FedEx War," most of the vital supplies are coming in by ship. The material is being landed in the Persian Gulf, Pakistan and the island of Diego Garcia. Trainloads of stuff are crossing Russia by rail. Large ground forces cannot enter the battle until the mountain of supplies reaches a certain point, and that could take weeks or months. Another, and more vital, part of the campaign is the diplomacy going on with Pushtun leaders in Pakistan and just across the border in Afghanistan. These discussions, more than anything else, will determine how quickly the Taliban are defeated.
* Afghanistan Has Never Been Conquered - Over the centuries, Afghanistan has been conquered many times. Few conquerors bothered to subdue all of what is now Afghanistan. The region is poor, and all the great conquerors have a sense of what is worth fighting for, and what is not. The Afghan tribes always were considered formidable warriors, but they were seen as more of a nuisance than anything else. The Afghan tribes liked to raid their wealthier neighbors, and this often brought savage retribution by more numerous, and equally ferocious fighters. The invaders would kill women and children, burn villages and crops and take herds. With the Afghans more poverty stricken than before, the avenging armies would leave with their loot. Afghans don't like to dwell on this aspect of their military history. They weren't conquered because they weren't worth conquering.