12 Mar 2002
By T. Sreedhar
In a situation like the one emerging in southern Afghanistan, America's present strategy is highly unlikely to succeed.
THE MUCH-AWAITED retaliation by the Taliban-Al-Qaeda combine appears to have started in right earnest on February 28/ March 1 in southern and eastern Afghanistan. By March 6 reports started appearing in the media to suggest that the combine's war has begun on all fronts in Paktia and Khost provinces with the U.S. installations coming under attack from small bands of fighters. In the first round, say March 1-5, the U.S. itself accepted that seven of its soldiers were killed and 40 wounded. On March 4, an U.S. helicopter, the first in the five-month-old war, was shot down in Zarmat, a second was destroyed between Sata Kundao and Mata Chana (Khost), while two more helicopters were reported to have been destroyed during a raid on Khost airport. The combine claimed that about 160 U.S., Afghan and allied soldiers have been killed in these incidents. The Taliban-Al-Qaeda casualties are believed to run into hundreds.
Fierce fighting has also erupted in Logar province adjacent to Kabul with different groups. These include fighters from Pakistan, the Taliban, Hizb-i-Islam and other factions, who came together after October 7, 2001, and took control of many areas. According to Asian Times, "the U.S.-led grand alliance forces came to the rescue of the pro-Karzai administration in Logar but the million dollar question is where to drop bombs as it is impossible to tell who is a friend and who is foe". There are also reports that the Taliban-Al-Qaeda have taken positions in Orguzan and Himand provinces in the south. The Karzai Government's administration is reluctant to take action against them because once the fighting begins in right earnest in southern Afghanistan, pockets of resistance are likely to arise all over and can create havoc. The combine's next target, according to initial reports coming from Pakistan, is Wardaz province, from where they will try to take control of Kunhar province. Before analysing the U.S. response to this new offensive, three developments must be noted. First, was it the locals or the Pakistanis who provided the intelligence for the U.S. attacks on southern Afghanistan in November 2001 — it was not complete. The fierce tribal loyalties worked, and Gilzai tribes on both sides of Durand Line (Pakistan-Afghanistan border) smuggled fighters from the war zone and provided them safe havens. The area from Shah Kot to Zarmat in Paktia province is riddled with hundred of caves and tunnels in the mountains and movement of people cannot be easily detected. In fact, after five months in the area, the U.S. does not have a clue about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.
Second, the Taliban-Al-Qaeda cleverly withdrew into these mountains with all their arms and ammunition. This was projected as a hasty retreat. Now, it is clear that the people who masterminded September 11 anticipated the U.S. response and made a tactical withdrawal. After the initial U.S. fury was over, they seem to have decided on hit-and-run tactics to demoralise a technically far superior enemy. The Taliban-Al-Qaeda appear to have drawn correct lessons from Operation Desert Storm of 1991, the U.S. war against Iraq. It is going to be a prolonged guerrilla war, with both the sides testing each other's resilience.
Lastly, any prolonged war of this nature is going to unleash a totally new set of socio-economic forces. The reports coming from Peshawar and Quetta indicate that the Taliban-Al-Qaeda leaders are going round to various mosques in Pakistan and Afghanistan asking people to join them in their fight against infidels (the U.S.). One of them was quoted by the Afghan Islamic press agency as having said that the "fight against America for the supremacy of Islam and defence of our country will continue until our last breath". If this appeal spread in the entire Islamic World, a repeat of the 1980s, volunteers from various countries may start coming to Afghanistan to fight against the U.S.
The U.S. response on the war front, Operation Anaconda, named after the snake that wraps itself around its prey and crushes it, is based the assumption that all the escape routes of the Taliban-Al-Qaeda can be sealed first and then the U.S. Air Force allowed to do the rest of the job. The American assessment is that it will be able to complete the campaign in three to four weeks and achieve the objectives of Operation Anaconda.
In a situation like the one emerging in southern Afghanistan, America's present strategy is highly unlikely to succeed. The 50,000-odd Al-Qaeda-Taliban fighters are scattered all over Afghanistan, and who is loyal to whom is not known. If such fighters move around in bands of 40 to 50 and open multiple fronts, the U.S. can do very little. Even in Paktia, people familiar with the terrain feel that other than carpet-bombing of the entire mountain ranges, which include parts of Pakistan, the U.S. cannot eliminate resistance groups in any other way. Can the U.S. undertake such an action without inviting serious problems for the rulers in Islamabad? U.S. intelligence, by this time, must have realised that the Al-Qaeda-Taliban top leaders and their families first moved to Pakistan, and from there to some safe havens. They hesitated to take any punitive action at that stage as it might have had an adverse impact on the rulers in Islamabad. Has the situation changed in any way now?In the next few days, a definitive U.S. strategy has to emerge, otherwise the interim Karzai Government's authority will be increasingly questioned by the local warlords and Taliban-Al-Qaeda fighters. Any U.S. carpet-bombing is bound to result in high civilian casualties. The question that arises is what will be the Al-Qaeda-Taliban's response to any U.S. bombing of Paktia province and its bordering areas in Pakistan.
In spite of all the available evidence showing that the Taliban-Al-Qaeda have not acquired any nuclear weapons, they can easily acquire chemical, biological and probably some radiation weapons. It is useless to search for them in the Afghan mountains. They must have been smuggled out of the region and preserved carefully with some sleeper agent. The Taliban-Al-Qaeda cannot be underestimated. Equally important, Taliban-Al-Qaeda in their fight against "infidels" can withstand any amount of casualties. Their leadership has successfully motivated them over the years. In addition, Taliban-Al-Qaeda have the patronage of the rich and influential across the Islamic world. These factors cannot be ignored at this stage of the war on terrorism.
Meanwhile, the Loya jirga that is going to meet after the return of King, Zahir Shah to Kabul on March 21 in all probability will extend the Karzai Government's term to begin with by another six months. But how to make it survive? Even the enlarged international peace keeping force sought by Hamid Karzai it appears will be drawn from the Islamic world. How many professional armies are there in the Islamic world, other than Pakistan, Jordan, Iran and Iraq?
(The writer is Senior Research Associate, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.)