On Point: The Diplomacy of Battlefield Victory


by Austin Bay

In war, the best diplomacy is victory.

With the substantial assistance of American airpower and alliedground advisers, Afghan opposition forces scored significant operationalvictories when they took in the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat. Twoprimary routes for military supplies, and humanitarian food and medical aidare now open.

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

For the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-i-Islami "zarbati" strike troopsthat led the opposition into Kabul, occupying the city is the campaign'sgrand strategic goal. Controlling Kabul is a mark of national prestige and astrong position from which to barter future power relationships insideAfghanistan. 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, nota conclusion. Washington doesn't want to own, rent or lease one squarecentimeter of Afghanistan. Washington's long-range objective is to smash thenodes and networks that support global terrorists.

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

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

It does have an interest in sustaining victory, as an examplefor upcoming attacks on terrorist-harboring states. While achieving a"perfect balance" of Afghanistan's sectarian, tribal and ethnic elements isnot possible, a focused American political and economic effort will helpproduce a more stable government. America has learned the hard way thatanarchic nations, like the Taliban's Afghanistan and Somalia, are idealhavens and easy pickings for wealthy terrorist syndicates like Al Qaeda --hence Secretary of State Colin Powell's insistence that the oppositionvictors and defecting Pushtun tribes agree to cooperate in forming a newAfghan government.

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

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

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

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

This is how wars are won in Afghanistan.

The Afghan opposition's northern campaign provides several otherinsights:

  • Once on-the-ground advisers can be inserted, "forward aircontrol" of bombing strikes improves and targeting becomes more effective.
  • The Taliban defeated several earlier Northern Allianceassaults because they were piecemeal and uncoordinated. The Taliban coulddefeat the opposition "in detail." With U.S. special forces advisersproviding the "data link," coordination improved. The allies attacked onmultiple fronts.
  • A tribal chieftain's power lies in his individual fightingmen. A savvy chief never expends cousins and nephews in an offensive attackunless he's convinced of victory. Fighting strength is preserved until themoment 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. airpowerand advisers helped create that optimum moment. Credit U.S. militaryplanners at Central Command (CENTCOM) for adapting modern militaryoperational capabilities to the realities of tribe and ethnic-based combatforces. Pray that as the war evolves, they will continue to be so adept atproducing the diplomacy of battlefield victory.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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