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America's New War: A Progress Report
9 December 2001
What has the U.S. achieved after waging war for the past two months in Afghanistan?
* Afghanistan's de facto government, the Taliban, an Islamic religious movement with about 30,000 armed supporters, has been overthrown and scattered. After holding out for five weeks under massive U.S. bombardments, its leader, Mullah Omar, ordered his men to retreat to the mountains. Omar, who may be shortly captured or killed, claimed he ordered the retreat to spare civilians in Taliban-ruled areas from U.S. bombing.
To date, the U.S. has dropped 10,000 bombs on Afghanistan, killing sizable numbers of civilians - in the range of 1,500-2,000, according to Afghan sources. U.S. bombing of cities, towns and villages has driven over 160,000 people into refugee camps.
* On Dec. 3, 2000 - one year ago - this column said that overthrowing the Taliban would "pave the way for a second Russian occupation of Afghanistan." This has now happened. The Northern Alliance, armed and funded by Russia, directed by the Afghan Communist party and under the overall command of the chief of the Russian general staff, Marshall Viktor Kvashnin, deputy KGB director Viktor Komogorov, and a cadre of Russian advisers, seized Kabul and all of northern Afghanistan. U.S. President George Bush committed a colossal, inexcusable blunder. If this column could foresee Russian intervention, why didn't the White House?
* Last week's much-ballyhooed Afghan "unity" conference in Germany produced precisely what this column predicted: a sham "coalition" government run by the Northern Alliance. One of the CIA's Pashtun "assets," Hamid Karzai, who represents no one but himself, was named prime minister. There was no other real Pashtun representation, though they comprise half the population.
Of 30 cabinet seats, two-thirds went to Northern Alliance Tajiks, notably the power ministries of defence, the interior and foreign affairs. Two women were added for window dressing to please the West. The 87-year old deposed Afghan king, Zahir Shah, widely blamed for allowing the communists to infiltrate Afghanistan in the 1970s, was invited back as a figurehead monarch. In short, a communist-dominated regime, ruled by a king, whose strings are pulled by Moscow. Quite a bizarre creation.
The very next day, feuding broke out among Alliance members. Old communist stalwart Rashid Dostam, who had just finished massacring hundreds of Taliban prisoners with American and British help, threatened war if his Uzbeks did not get more spoils. My old friend, the Alliance's figurehead president, Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani, a respected Islamic scholar, was shoved aside by young communists.
* The Bush administration was apparently too preoccupied chasing Osama bin Laden to notice its new best friend, Russia, had broken its agreement to wait for formation of a pro-U.S., pro-Pakistani regime, and seized half of Afghanistan. Marshall Kvashnin rushed his men into Kabul, just as he outfoxed the Americans in 1999 in a similar coup de main in Kosovo.
* The hunt for bin Laden and his Al-Qaida continues. A few senior figures have been killed, likely including Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Egypt's Islamic Jihad. The net is closing around bin Laden's possible hiding places. Unless he has escaped Afghanistan, his capture or death appear imminent. This will be welcome news for the Bush administration. If bin Laden somehow escapes, or his body is never found, Bush will be accused of blowing apart Afghanistan, killing large numbers of civilians, and allowing the Russians to grab back the country, all for nothing.
* The late Pashtun leader Abdul Haq, whom I knew from my Peshawar days, warned the U.S. before his death that bombing Afghanistan was unnecessary and a grave mistake. Taliban control could be broken, where needed, by financing tribal uprisings - the standard form of Afghan warfare - without foreign intervention. Otherwise, he warned, the Northern Alliance would take over and bring in the Russians. He pleaded with Washington for restraint, but to no avail. Haq was captured by the Taliban during a bungled CIA operation and hanged.
But Haq was right. U.S. forces could have hunted bin Laden in southern Afghanistan with relative impunity, as they are now doing, without having to launch a total war against the Taliban. U.S. air power totally dominates barren Afghanistan. Taliban forces could not move or communicate. There were only a small number of Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan where bin Laden was hiding.
Bombing Afghan civilian centres was absolutely unnecessary. The only real military targets offered by the Taliban were its entrenched troops facing the Alliance. It was remarkable the Taliban managed to withstand five weeks of carpet bombing by U.S. B-52s - particularly, as one Pakistani writer wryly noted, after his nation gave in to the U.S. after only a threatening phone call from Washington.
The U.S. could have hunted bin Laden without allowing the Russians to recapture half of Afghanistan, a severe geopolitical defeat for American ambitions to use that nation as a gateway to Central Asian oil and gas. And without blasting to rubble what little remained of demolished Afghanistan, and without driving 160,000 civilians into terrified flight.
So, after eight weeks of war, the Taliban is out, the communists are in power in Kabul and the south is in chaos. The war has cost Washington US$60 billion to date. Afghanistan is a bloody mess. And Vladimir Putin is smiling.