The Difficulties of Firming Up Strategy in Afghanistan : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

The Difficulties of Firming Up Strategy in Afghanistan 1900 GMT, 011014

Over time, wars tend to take on a definable shape. Attack leads to shock; shock leads to plans. Plans are implemented. Implementation encounters frictions, and the enemy reshapes his own strategy in response. The war begins to coalesce into a recognizable form.

This war is different. It doesn't quite want to gel on the American side. The reason for this is that more than any other recent war, the geopolitical dimension keeps destabilizing the military dimension. To be more precise, the politics are so complex and uncertain that the United States cannot create a stable platform for military planning.

The United States has made its first response to the events of Sept. 11. The response was highly predictable, drawn from the core of American strategic doctrine. The response began with air attacks, designed to achieve command of the air so that other operations could take place unhindered. Then the attacks will move toward attacking the command and control facilities of the enemy. Finally, they turn to attacks on the enemy's ground forces.

The first phase was relatively short and effortless, given the Taliban's air defense capabilities. The second phase, now occurring, is more difficult, for the same reason that the first phase was relatively easy. The relative underdevelopment of Afghan infrastructure makes it difficult to degrade Afghan command and control capabilities. Apart from being hard to hit, the targets tend to recover fairly quickly. This has forced the United States to launch anti-army operations in parallel with counter-command and control operations.

In general, this is not a critical problem, but it does point out a peculiarity of this campaign. During both Desert Storm and Kosovo, a large part of the air campaign was carried out by ground-based tactical air power provided by the Air Force. Because of basing issues, that is not the case in this war. The Air Force's contribution is strategic air capabilities -- its bomber force -- flying extended missions from as far away as the United States. Tactical air power is being provided by the U.S. Navy, whose carriers are in the Arabian Sea.

The lack of Air Force tactical air limits the intensity of the attacks. The tempo of operations are limited by the number of sorties that can be flown at the distances involved, as well as by the relatively low number of strike aircraft that carriers can launch. Now, on a certain level, the effort produced is commensurate with the target set involved. The job is getting done. But the level of effort may not be commensurate with what is required in the next phase of the war.

The Northern Alliance is being primed for an assault on Kabul. It is not clear when or even if they will launch that offensive. There are many who would be very unhappy to see the Northern Alliance take Kabul. That includes the Pakistanis, but it also involves many Afghan elements that the United States is trying to draw into an anti-Taliban coalition. Moreover, it is not clear that the Northern Alliance, by itself, would be able to beat the Taliban. Certainly, they have not done particularly well in offensive operations in recent years. If the Northern Alliance was slaughtered on the way to Kabul, its leadership would lose its following. The leaders might not be particularly eager to take that chance.

Moreover, if an attack comes, the United States will be hard-pressed to provide the kind of close air support that the Northern Alliance might require. The strategic bombers can do an excellent job of bombing ground forces, but they are not particularly useful for close air support missions -- which require extremely rapid response, relatively small amounts of munitions and extreme precision. The Navy is a long way from the northern battlefield, and tactical mission requirements can dwarf the number of aircraft available. Even if Air Force aircraft are based in Oman, the distances involved make extended patrolling over a land battle difficult.

Therefore, the United States has two choices. Assuming -- as STRATFOR does -- that Pakistan is not a basing option for large numbers of tactical aircraft, the United States can ask to build up a tactical air force in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which would be a logistical nightmare, or it could ask the Russians to provide air support. The Russians might be willing, but the strategic price for the United States would be high. Higher still would be the political price inside Afghanistan, where Russian air power is not remembered fondly. Building a national anti-Taliban coalition around Russian air power is not going to work.

That means the Northern Alliance will have to attack without tactical close air support, but with strategic bombardment. The Taliban will be hurt and hurt badly by U.S. cluster bombs, but when the close-in fighting starts the Northern Alliance will be on its own, with whatever armor and artillery the Russians are able to provide.

All of this has slowed up the attack by the Northern Alliance. They are not sure they want to do it -- and if they do, they probably need more logistical support from the Russians than received to date. For political reasons, the United States is not sure it can afford to have the Northern Alliance be the ones to eliminate the Taliban and is therefore busy making the case to Afghans and Pakistanis alike that a victory in Kabul for the Northern Alliance would not mean a government of Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance. All of this is taking place as winter and Ramadan draw close.

The United States is hoping that the air campaign alone will break the back of the Taliban. The first hope is that the rest of the country, appalled at the air war, will hold the Taliban responsible for it and move from sullen submission to active hostility. The second hope is that the air campaign will split the Taliban itself. There is a certain logic to this hope. The Taliban fought very hard to take power, and its leadership enjoys holding power. If the leadership were to decide that they were in a hopeless position in the long run, some or many of them might decide that overthrowing Mullah Mohammed Omar and repudiating his policies is the best way to preserve their own position.

That hope in Washington has become a driving force in the air campaign. Unlike Desert Storm, in which the air campaign was the preface for a carefully planned ground offensive, there is no ground offensive in the offing here, unless you count the Northern Alliance. The air campaign therefore has a direct political purpose -- to break the Taliban now, before winter sets in. Failing that, it is meant to lay the groundwork for intense political activity among various Afghan tribes over the winter with an eye toward a spring offensive.

The Taliban understands this. Right now, it is occupying the major cities and other clearly defined bases. It is being pounded by U.S. air power. It has two options.

First, Taliban leaders can decide to send non-combatants across the border to Pakistan and disperse its forces in the countryside, immune from strategic air power. It would leave a covering force in and in front of Kabul to raise the price of an attack by the Northern Alliance, but the bulk of its forces would be saved and ready to fight in the spring.

The second, parallel option is to stage strategic attacks in the United States. The Taliban understands that the more extreme the American anger, the more frustrated the United States will be with questionable allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Just as the United States wants to create an anti-Taliban coalition inside of Afghanistan, the Taliban wants to create an anti-American coalition outside of Afghanistan. For this, it needs American help. It needs the United States to force its aircraft and troops into Pakistan and to create a crisis with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. That isn't happening at the moment.

It follows, therefore, that a combined strategy of dispersing Taliban troops, combined with another round of attacks in the United States, might force Washington to overextend its position and create the political conditions the Taliban badly needs. Thus, the current movements we see inside of Afghanistan may be part of a Taliban plan, and the current FBI warnings of imminent danger of attack might be serious indeed. The Taliban has every reason to stage an attack, and quickly.

Thus, two factors keep the United States from creating a stable military plan. One is the incredible complexity of the reality on the ground. The second is that the United States is dealing with an enemy that has options. Unlike the Serbs or the Iraqis, who were in the position of hold or capitulate, the Taliban has a more nuanced set of options available. The air attacks are designed to break the Taliban before they can implement new plans. If that doesn't work, the Taliban can create an even more complex situation for the United States than ever before.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 16, 2001


I can't quite go along with all of the options the crazy Talibans are supposed to have. I think Rumsfeld is right when he says the combined intelligence of many countries in identifying targets in Afghanistan is getting better every day, and night-time, special forces action will--eventually--yield good results, without the need for big ground forces, or occupying forces afterward.

-- JackW (, October 16, 2001.

People do not want to hear the truth.......

-- Salah Al (, October 16, 2001.

The 'law of diminishing returns' is setting in on the air war. So is the increasing marginal political cost. And time is running out.

Hyperlink: story=99699

'Taliban have not become weaker... they hide, only the civilians suffer'

By Peter Popham in Peshawar, 16 October 2001

The predicted refugee crisis has begun. Humayun, a grocer from Jalalabad who arrived in Pakistan on Sunday, said: "Anybody who is able to come is coming now." They have seen the effect of America's bombs and missiles, both the ones that hit their targets and the ones that go astray, and they are not hanging around to see any more. These are people who have known little but war all their lives. But the impact of American weaponry is a revelation to them. "The bang was so loud it made the earth shake," said a young man whose home is a few hundred metres from Jalalabad's airport.

Pakistan has refused to open its borders to new arrivals, except for the injured and women and children. But countless thousands are finding a way into Pakistan through other, informal routes, swelling a refugee population that already numbers more than 2.5 million. The only thing that checks the numbers is that by Afghan standards it is an expensive operation. "I came with 10 members of my family," said Humayun, "including three of my brothers, my three sons aged five, three and one, and my father. We rented a car from our home in Jalalabad to take us to the vicinity of the pass, which cost 1,500 rupees [17]. Then we had to pay 2,500 rupees [27] to get over the mountain, including the cost of donkeys for the children and the old people, because it is a very hard trail." He decided they had to leave after seeing two separate American airstrikes that went wrong. The village of Karam, bombed last Friday night, was only a 15-minute drive from his home. "We heard the bomb blasts during the night. Next morning I went in my car with two cousins to see what had happened. We found more than 100 people injured; many were trapped under the rubble."

He went on: "Then yesterday I saw the damage that resulted from the bombing of Khushkam Bhat. This is a residential district between Jalalabad airport and a military area. On Saturday night, the Americans bombed the airport and they only hit military targets. But then the Taliban tried to fly one of their helicopters from the airport to a hiding place under trees in the military zone nearby. The Americans saw it flying and tried to shoot it down, but instead the missile hit the residential district that's in the middle. We arrived at 10.30 on Sunday morning. There was nothing we could do to help 160 people had already been taken to hospital, I don't know how many of them died. More than 100 houses had been either damaged or flattened."

On 7 October, Jawadullah, an Afghan in his early 20s who had been visiting relatives in Pakistan, went back home to his village of Kariz Kabir near Jalalabad. "I arrived home at 10 pm," he told The Independent. "Soon after arriving I saw what looked like lightning in the sky, then there were three enormous explosions: the airport radar had been hit. The runway is only 500 metres from my home, and I could see the flames and hear people screaming. Only one person was injured the radar operator, who had superficial burns on his hands. "He said that he had been warned of the attack over the radio, in English, and ran away but could not get far enough to save himself entirely." Jawadullah has just returned to Pakistan with some members of his family. "Tomorrow I'm going back to get the rest of them, 25 altogether including six women and three children. About 85 per cent of the people of Kariz Kabir have already left," he said.

"After one week of attacks, the Taliban have not become weaker, not at all. They don't need the airports. They hide, they move to other places. It's only the civilians who suffer."

Copyright Independent Digital (UK) Ltd., Fair Use for Educational and Research Use Only

-- Robert Riggs (, October 16, 2001.

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