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On Point

The Diplomacy of Battlefield Victory


by Austin Bay

With the substantial assistance of American airpower and allied ground advisers, Afghan opposition forces scored significant operational victories when they took in the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat. Two primary routes for military supplies, and humanitarian food and medical aid are now open.

Moreover, pro-Taliban militiamen fled, spreading panic -- and the politics of doubt - through Kabul and into the Pushtun-dominated south. The politics of doubt will, if the United States can restrain Northern Alliance victors from practicing the "usual tribal retribution," lead to further Pushtun defections from the Taliban.

For the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-i-Islami "zarbati" strike troops that led the opposition into Kabul, occupying the city is the campaign's grand strategic goal. Controlling Kabul is a mark of national prestige and a strong position from which to barter future power relationships inside Afghanistan. The same may be said for Herat, Afghanistan's wealthiest city, captured by Ismail Khan's Northern Alliance forces.

For the United States, however, Kabul is a useful headline, not a conclusion. Washington doesn't want to own, rent or lease one square centimeter of Afghanistan. Washington's long-range objective is to smash the nodes and networks that support global terrorists.

In achieving that goal, Kabul and Herat are waypoints and destroying the Taliban a phase.

In fact, Washington's limited aims in Afghanistan are a strategic strength. Unlike the "outside powers" of the past, the United States has no interest in occupation.

It does have an interest in sustaining victory, as an example for upcoming attacks on terrorist-harboring states. While achieving a "perfect balance" of Afghanistan's sectarian, tribal and ethnic elements is not possible, a focused American political and economic effort will help produce a more stable government. America has learned the hard way that anarchic nations, like the Taliban's Afghanistan and Somalia, are ideal havens and easy pickings for wealthy terrorist syndicates like Al Qaeda -- hence Secretary of State Colin Powell's insistence that the opposition victors and defecting Pushtun tribes agree to cooperate in forming a new Afghan government.

To set the stage for a post-Taliban settlement, restraint of the "usual victory celebrations" (like looting, tribal bloodletting and political murder), especially by the Tajik forces occupying Kabul, must be an American priority. No doubt that's the message special forces and CIA officers have been giving Afghan opposition fighters.

Though the Taliban are indeed unraveling (to appropriate Tony Blair's apt description), they are not finished. In Afghanistan's north, the Taliban forces' supply lines were vulnerable to air attack. As they retreat south, they fall back on supply dumps and cave networks. Taliban leaders assert that it is a strategic retreat -- a withdrawal to Afghanistan's southern "Pushtun tribal rim."

The core of Taliban fighting power, the "Arab mujahadeen" (Muslim internationalists loyal to Osama Bin Laden) won't surrender. As foreign storm trooper zealots, they can't go back to the local village. That means, at some point, more tough fighting.

However, with the politics of doubt in play, many of yesterday's Taliban Afghan tribal supporters are today's defectors.

This is how wars are won in Afghanistan.

The Afghan opposition's northern campaign provides several other insights:

  • Once on-the-ground advisers can be inserted, "forward air control" of bombing strikes improves and targeting becomes more effective.
  • The Taliban defeated several earlier Northern Alliance assaults because they were piecemeal and uncoordinated. The Taliban could defeat the opposition "in detail." With U.S. special forces advisers providing the "data link," coordination improved. The allies attacked on multiple fronts.
  • A tribal chieftain's power lies in his individual fighting men. A savvy chief never expends cousins and nephews in an offensive attack unless he's convinced of victory. Fighting strength is preserved until the moment when an enemy can be overwhelmed with a surprise thrust. Occasionally, British troops will refer to "the Oriental way of war" -- warfare by demonstration and then calculated waiting for that ripe moment. Probing attacks will occur, then the attacker will "posture from strength," waiting until the other side's morale withers (producing the optimum moment) or decides to withdraw.

In the month-long northern Afghanistan campaign, U.S. airpower and advisers helped create that optimum moment. Credit U.S. military planners at Central Command (CENTCOM) for adapting modern military operational capabilities to the realities of tribe and ethnic-based combat forces. Pray that as the war evolves, they will continue to be so adept at producing the diplomacy of battlefield victory.

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