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
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
- 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
- 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.