The war in Afghanistan: Swamps and alligators

The situation in Afghanistan after the dramatic fall of Kabul continues to give the British and Americans a headache. Washington is still trying to improvise a coherent strategy, making up its policy as it goes along. Writing from Washington in the Pakistan English language daily The News (November 17), Nusrat Javeed comments: "Though extremely pleased with the stunning rout of the Taliban, policy planners in the USA are utterly confused where to go next. 'Policy papers written in the morning are obsolete by the afternoon,' admitted a State Department official working on South Asian affairs." The confusion is so profound that Washington is still not certain whether the Taliban are running for their lives like "headless chickens" or abandoning the cities according to a pre-arranged plan, to prepare a guerrilla war.

The vacillations in Washington are the product of a growing perception that the war in Afghanistan is not over, and that America's problems are only just beginning. On the subject of the Taliban's losses, there are many estimates. But the subject of losses among American and British special forces who have been fighting alongside the Northern Alliance is strictly taboo. Washington is maintaining a complete news blackout on this question. Likewise, Moscow will say nothing about the persistent rumours of Russian spetznatz troops and Uzbek divisions fighting in Afghanistan. There are unofficial reports of such troops fighting in the battle for Mazar-e-Sharif and taking heavy casualties. But nobody will confirm this.

The basic problem is that, despite recent reverses, the Taliban has not been destroyed. The majority of the Taliban's 60,000 fighters are believed to have escaped from the bombing with low casualties, and have saved most of their weapons. Most analysts in Washington believe that not more than 900 Taliban fighters have been killed, and that their basic arsenal of between 250 and 300 Scud missiles are still intact. These can be used with deadly effect against the cities controlled by the Northern Alliance. Most of the casualties during the Northern Alliance's advance have been members of bin Laden's al-Qaida organisation - Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens, whom Mullah Omah very considerately ordered to stand and die, in order to protect his retreating forces. Despite these heavy losses, it is believed that bin Laden's primary fighting force ("Brigade 55") is still in existence, having retreated with their leader to safer territory.

The northern city of Kunduz continues to put up resistance, although it cannot hold out for long. And the Americans are continuing to subject Kandahar to heavy pounding. After the recent setbacks, the Taliban will require some time to regroup. Although they have not suffered heavy losses, two months of constant bombing will have had a psychological effect, the extent of which is hard to calculate. However, the abandonment of the cities by no means signifies a total collapse of the Taliban's military potential. As The Economist (November 17) points out: "They [the Taliban] had never much liked cities, but knew all about hit-and-run warfare from the hills."

According to a report in Afghan Islamic Press, Mullah Omar has ordered the Taliban militia to withdraw from Kandahar, and had reached an agreement to hand the city over to the control of two former mujahedeen commanders. According to AIP, the decision was taken to avoid more civilian casualties from daily US bombing. The violence of this bombing is such that the Pakistani authorities were obliged to deny rumours that some American bombs had fallen inside Pakistan (Kandahar is not far from the Pakistani frontier), although they admitted that "these bombs fell very near Pakistan's territory".

 

Bush decides to act

 

The tendency to substitute improvisation for a coherent policy has apparently led to some strange developments, including a tendency on the part of the president to make use of his powers to overrule his policy makers.

There are reports, originating from the WorldNet daily, alleging that Bush, while publicly opposing the entry of Northern Alliance forces into Kabul, had in fact arrived at a secret deal with Putin to allow this to happen. Quoting "intelligence sources", it says that moments before Bush was leaving to address the UN general assembly on November 7, Putin talked to him on the phone. The Russian leader allegedly urged Bush to "let the Northern Alliance off the leash and signal the attack on the key northern city of Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif."

According to WND, Putin was confident that the Northern Alliance could take the town "within hours of the USA giving the green light", and Kabul would only be a few days away. Such a proposal was completely contrary to the gradualist approach adopted by US military strategists, who envisaged that the bombing campaign would continue until April 2002. WND claims that Bush "responded with an on-the-spot decision to go with the Russian plan" without consulting his aides.

"Had he done so," says WND, "Rumsfeld would have warned him the new proposal would place at risk all the military preparations, deals and understandings the United States had put together over the past weeks. Powell would have warned him that letting the Northern Alliance go would amount to ditching Washington's chief war ally, Pakistan...and damaging the special relations with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who was then in the USA."

There is no way of verifying the content of this report. But it seems to have the ring of truth about it. Bush's conduct since September 11 suggests that he has allowed the extravagant praise of the media to go to his head. He seems actually to believe all that stuff about being a great war leader. Maybe he has been talking too much with Tony Blair lately. Whatever the reason, this is a dangerous mental illness which bodes ill for the conduct of America's war in Afghanistan. If George W. Bush concludes that he can dispense with the services of his advisers (limited as they are), heaven help America!

The first effect of the entry of the Northern Alliance into Kabul was to offend President Musharraf. Evidently, Bush was convinced he could deal with that, ride out the storm and go forward to victory. Musharraf must learn to know his place. As for the Northern Alliance, they could be dealt with later.

 

Blair's blunder

 

Unfortunately for Bush, Tony Blair has complicated things by attempting to secure a leading role for Britain. For some time now, Blair has been itching to get British troops involved in Afghanistan. He is greedy for prestige and also for lucrative contracts in the region when the war is over. The French want to get their troops in soon for identical reasons. But Blair's hasty attempt to send 6,000 British soldiers to Afghanistan immediately hit problems. As a first instalment, he dispatched a force of 400 men to occupy the airfield at Bagram, which the Northern Alliance had recently recaptured from the Taliban. By what right the British government sends its army to a sovereign state to seize an airfield is not entirely clear. London claims (naturally) that it is for "humanitarian" purposes, and to make the airport "safe" - without specifying, safe for whom, and against whom. None of the aid agencies have ever requested troops from Britain or any other country, because they know quite well that the sight of foreign soldiers, especially from the West, does not go down well with the Afghans.

The Northern Alliance (also naturally) have demanded that Britain withdraw its troops forthwith. They know quite well that the purpose of the British troops is not humanitarianism, but to make the airfield and Kabul "safe" - for Britain and against the Northern Alliance. The British press makes no secret of the fact that Britain is opposed to letting the Northern Alliance take power in Kabul, and is - together with the USA - demanding a "broad-based government". (See my last article). This transparent manoeuvre has infuriated the Northern Alliance, which has stepped in to block them. The British troops remain camped in tents on the outskirts of Bagram airfield, while thousands of others are still in Britain - "all dressed up, with nowhere to go".

The resident of Number 10 Downing street seriously imagined that Britain could behave as it did in the good old days of the Empire and gunboat diplomacy. But the imperialists cannot behave as they did in the past - or rather they can do so only up to a certain point and they will pay a heavy price for it. Blair has tried to act like the American imperialists, but lacks the necessary clout to do so. He is utterly crude, and, to make matters worse, has no sense of proportion. The present leader of the Labour Party lacks even the understanding of right-wing Labour leaders like Wilson or Callaghan in the past. How could Britain even consider intervening in a place like Afghanistan where it has no support amongst the population? They must have known that not just the Northern Alliance, but the Afghan population as a whole, looks on foreigners with suspicion, yet they persisted in barging in where they were not wanted.

The British prime minister has even succeeded in antagonising the Americans. This is quite an achievement! Blair must have had the idea that he was doing Bush a favour by immediately intervening with British troops to keep the Northern Alliance under control and thus to create a position more favourable to America - and Britain. But the manoeuvre blew up in his face. Now the British are left out in the cold, while the Americans keep a discrete silence. The "special relationship" was not supposed to be like this! The problem is, of course, that this relationship was really no more special than the relationship between the Big Boss and his obedient lackey. Now as everyone knows, a lackey is not supposed to think for himself, and, though he may sometimes anticipate the Master's wishes, he can get into serious trouble if he gets the wrong message, as Blair has done on this occasion.

It is now clear to all the world that British imperialism has been boxing above its weight. They thought they would get the backing of the Americans, but things did not turn out like that. Cracks are clearly beginning to open up between Washington and London. In order to make the sending of British troops to Afghanistan palatable to the British people and Labour movement, the Labour leadership has had to stress the argument about "humanitarian" aid. On the other hand, Washington says next to nothing on this subject. Republican spokesmen have stated, with brutal clarity, that the Afghan people must look after themselves. The job of the USA is to crush the Taliban. So the USA cannot afford to offend the Northern Alliance just now.

In any case, the whole plan was stupid in the extreme. 400 troops are not nearly enough to make a difference, and they cannot send in the remaining 6,000 in the teeth of Afghan opposition. If Mr Blair is foolish enough to defy the Northern Alliance and send more troops in, they will have to fight their way in. This is a most uninviting prospect! In the end, instead of sending thousands of British troops to Kabul, it is quite likely that they will have to withdraw even the small number of troops they have sent. So in the end, Mr Blair will be left looking very foolish. This, unfortunately, is always the most likely outcome for a man who believes he can walk on water.

 

Bad nerves in Islamabad

 

As time goes on, the government of Pakistan is getting increasingly nervous. Last Friday Islamabad announced that it was putting troops on the borders with Afghanistan to prevent the retreating Taliban fighters from entering Pakistan. However, in practice, this will be impossible. The government in Islamabad has good reason to be nervous. Having stabbed Pakistan in the back over the Northern Alliance's entry into Kabul, Washington is now in the process of turning Pakistan into one big US military base (for "humanitarian" purposes, you understand). A few weeks ago, it was beginning to have doubts about Pakistan's viability as an ally, and it was cultivating relations with Uzbekistan as an alternative base. But the sudden fall of Kabul has changed the situation. The Americans see Pakistan as the most convenient base for their operations against the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan. But this opens up the unpleasant prospect of the war spilling over into Pakistan.

At a meeting of Musharraf with his joint chiefs of staff, the situation in Afghanistan was discussed, along with internal security. "Steps taken include putting assets on the borders", reported The News. A Pakistani general explained that by "assets" he meant heavy weapons. This underlines the fragility of the situation inside Pakistan and the anxiety of the regime, which is cracking down viciously on the workers' movement (see today's report from Quetta). The new fear is that elements from the Taliban and al-Qaida will link up with the extreme fundamentalists in Pakistan to spread chaos there: "There is increased border security, the reason being we do not want anyone to come without documents...No refugee will be allowed into Pakistan except for humanitarian reasons. Others will be proceeded against by law," a spokesperson said.

There are signs that, after treading on Pakistan's toes, Washington is anxious to smooth ruffled feathers in Islamabad. On returning from his fruitless visit to America, Musharraf told the press that "Pakistan was becoming the real opinion builder regarding Afghanistan." This implies that, having handed Kabul over to the Northern Alliance, Bush is offering the Pakistanis the possibility to reassert their influence in Afghanistan through the agency of a "broad government". By manoeuvring between allies with conflicting interests, Washington betrays first one, then the other, and is thus stoking the fires of future conflicts. But for the present, Pakistan will have to wait.

Right now the Americans are preoccupied with winning a quick victory over the Taliban, for which they require the services of the Northern Alliance. But the whole situation is fraught with difficulties and dangers. The Northern Alliance are not reliable allies. They are far more likely to follow the Russians, Iranians or even Indians than the Americans. But the Americans are acting on the well-known principle: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Therefore, riding roughshod over Pakistan's objections, Washington will continue to back the Northern Alliance - for the time being.

Tomorrow the Americans will switch horses. In order to reduce the influence of the Northern Alliance, they will try to impose a government of their liking (a "broad" one, to use the current jargon) in Kabul. That will give Pakistan a chance to interfere once more in the internal affairs of Afghanistan - a prospect that can be dangled before Musharraf to keep him happy, since the USA also needs Pakistan. The Pentagon is considering the establishment of a separate military command in Pakistan. According to US officials, this would include military officials from a coalition of US allies. It would have in its hands a large quantity of money to rebuild roads (useful for food transportation and also for the movement of troops and tanks - therefore, not just humanitarian, but eminently practical too). Its other aims include the establishment of an Afghan national bank (so that the US will control not only the movement of food, but also of money) and a judicial system (i.e. the state). But before this can be done, it is first necessary to defeat the enemy on the field of battle.

 

Swamps and alligators

 

The priority of America is to capture or kill bin Laden and to crush al-Qaida and the Taliban. But all these objectives are as far away as ever. The Taliban and al-Qaida have melted away into the villages and mountains of the Pushtoon areas, from where they will prepare a series of counter-strokes when they are ready. It will not be easy even to find bin Laden, let alone capture him. The Americans have offered a huge reward, but so far there have been no takers. This is hardly surprising - in order to enjoy the reward, the first prerequisite is to stay in one piece. Traitors do not tend to live long in Afghanistan. This is a serious disincentive to anyone thinking of claiming the reward.

Despite this, it is an old Afghan tradition that people can change sides and convictions, depending on which side looks like winning. It is possible that the overwhelming military superiority of America may convince some former "fundamentalists" to exchange their beliefs for US dollars, despite the risks entailed. The author of a very good book on the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, sees a "very high" chance of bin Laden eventually being betrayed by some of his former allies in southern Afghanistan. Some of the defectors from the Taliban army may have information about his whereabouts which may be for sale if the price is right. But even if George W. Bush succeeds in getting his enemy delivered "dead or alive", this will not end the war. New conflicts are arising all the time.

The Americans and British have learned nothing form history. The British failed three times to conquer Afghanistan in the nineteenth century. Winston Churchill famously described the Afghans thus: "Valley against valley, and all against the foreigner." With all the might of its armed forces, the Soviet Union failed to force the Afghans to submit in a bloody war of attrition that lasted ten years. Yet it took the Russians just one week to overrun Afghanistan. Their initial advance was just as rapid as the one we see now. The problems began later.

The difference now is that Kabul has been taken not by foreigners but by Afghans. But here the problem for America begins. It will not be easy for them to bend the Northern Alliance to their will. Moreover, it is not clear that the Northern Alliance will want to continue their advance into the Pushtoon lands, where they will meet stiff resistance. From now on, the Americans will have to do some - perhaps the majority - of the fighting themselves. So the bombing campaign grinds on and on. The trouble is that soon they will run out of targets. "The bombing will become more and more focused," claims army General Tommy Franks. Focused on what? On Afghan mountain villages? But that is a sure recipe for more civilian victims ("collateral damage" in the official cynical jargon). This will cause a surge of bitterness against the Americans which will make it much harder for them to wage war on the ground when the time comes. And the time is fast arriving.

The latest statements from US military chiefs indicate that they are now preparing to dispatch ground troops to fight alongside the Alliance and special forces. They evidently believe that the enemy is on the run and that one last push will suffice to finish the job. But that is a delusion. To send ground troops into the Pushtoon areas is a very dangerous task. That is why Washington still needs the services of the Northern Alliance. But the Alliance itself is composed of Tajiks and Uzbeks and therefore will also be seen by the Pushtoons as foreign invaders. In the words of The Economist: "The energy with which Afghan forces fight with another is nothing with the fury with which they will turn on anyone from outside who is perceived as an occupier or invader."

President Bush, with his inimitable gift for striking phrases, has referred to the anti-terrorist campaign as "draining the swamp". Pursuing the analogy with military gusto, General Franks added that, now "we simply have more capacity to focus on the alligators." Yes, gentlemen. But do not forget that before you succeed in draining a swamp, it is always possible that you will sink in it - and also that alligators tend to bite.