Afghanistan: December 9, 2001

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American navy and air force pilots flying combat missions into Afghanistan have been struck by the variety of terrain as they fly in from carriers or bases in the Persian Gulf. Coming in off the Indian ocean, you see miles and miles of desert (called the "Desert of Death" on many maps). This terrain reminds pilots of combat training areas in northern Nevada. Beyond the desert they see rolling hills and some modest (about 2,000 foot) mountain peaks. Those pilots that fly into central Afghanistan encounter mountains of some 13-14,000 feet. These snow capped peaks reminded pilots of similar hills near their training area around Fallon, Nevada. Pilots operating in northern Afghanistan that head for Tajikistan or Uzbekistan see fewer hills and more desert. Pilots are amazed how few (if any) trees they see. Off to the northeast they can see snow capped peaks (up to 25,000 feet) of the Hindu Kush range. Pilots also note how many abandoned villages (with a lot of roofless houses) are down there. The cities below are also remarkable in that they have so few tall buildings, most structures appear to be two stories. Also striking is how little farmland is seen. Indeed, from the air, Afghanistan appears to be a bunch of rocky hills bordered on the north, south and west by desert, and on the east by an even higher pile of rocks. The only signs of life are pickup trucks and SUVs running along the three main roads in the country, occasional anti-aircraft from frustrated (and out of range) Taliban gunners, and a few lights in towns at night. The rivers are not impressive from the air, it's just a lot of light brown and dark brown. Or, as some pilots put it, a rock pile in the desert.

The chaotic and tense stand off between feuding anti-Taliban forces in Kandahar has allowed Taliban leader mullah Omar to escape the city. Armed Americans were seen in the city looking for Omar, and U.S. marines were moving around outside the city seeking Omar and other Taliban leaders. While the Taliban would most likely flee east, towards the safety of pro-Taliban Pakistani Pushtuns, escape is possible is any direction if you know the territory. Omar and his key aides are from the region.

Foreign Taliban, mainly Arab, are putting up stiff resistance around Tora Bora (30 kilometers south of Jalalabad). But those who have been captured say that bin Laden is trapped in the area and is moving to caves further up the mountain as the anti-Taliban troops advance. The troops loyal to bin Laden can't hold out much longer. As soon as they make a stand, American troops spot where they are and call in a 2,000 bomb from warplanes above. Surrounded and with few opportunities to slip away, whoever is defending Tora Bora will die or surrender, and it will likely happen before the end of the year. Over 5,000 anti-Taliban Afghans are in the area and more are arriving. American psychological operations have turned this manhunt into a vast treasure hunt. Playing on Afghan's desire to snag some of the millions in rewards, as well as the dislike for the foreign Taliban troops, the assault on Tora Bora is turning into a great quest for the Afghans. However, the Afghans are also aware that once inside the caves, the American airpower they admire so much is of little help. 

The US Navy has increased patrols off the Pakistani and Somalia coast, inspecting ships and boats they suspect might be carrying al Qaeda members. Agents on the ground in Somalia have not found a lot of Al Qaeda activity, but there is a chaotic and mercenary atmosphere that would allow terrorists with cash to find sanctuary.

Outside Kabul, American troops have taken control of Bagram airbase. Hiring local labor to assist in repairs, the base is now landing large C-17 aircraft. Security is provided by troops of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division and British Royal Marines. But military control does not extend beyond the airbase. The Northern Alliance tolerates that, but not armed American or British troops outside the base. The only exception is the Russian guard detachment stationed downtown where the Russian embassy is being rebuilt and Russian humanitarian aid is being given out. 

Seven UN military officials have arrived in Kabul to work out details for a UN peacekeeping force in the city. There is more agreement for a peacekeeping force in Kabul than in Kandahar. Kabul has long been the capital of Afghanistan because it lies between Pushtun and non-Pushtun territory. It's rather like a neutral zone, where all Afghans can come to deal. Everyone feels like a minority in Kabul, which has a lot to do with the agreement on peacekeepers for Kabul. Kandahar, however, is deep in Pushtun territory and many Pushtun chiefs feel they have a current (because they have been fighting the Taliban) or past (an ancestor ruled Kandahar) right to a piece of the city.


 

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