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Afghanistan: Grading The Other War

13 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar

The war in Afghanistan has not gone as planned. One year ago, as the U.S. military prepared to retaliate for the worst terrorist attacks ever perpetrated on American soil, the Bush Administration warned Americans to brace for a long, bloody campaign. “This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion,” the President said in his address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001. Five days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that “it will not be an antiseptic war, I regret to say. It will be difficult. It will be dangerous. The likelihood is that more people may be lost.” Armchair generals filled the airwaves with frets about the coming quagmire, pointing out that Afghanistan’s forbidding terrain and wily guerrillas had sent two great powers packing in the past. This war, everyone said, would not be won easily.

Everyone was wrong. This week marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Today U.S. warplanes still patrol the skies over Kabul, and American troops are certain to stay in the country for months, even years to come. But the combat phase of the war appears to be over. America’s defeat of the Taliban was remarkable for its speed, precision and relative painlessness to Americans, judging by U.S. casualties. Beginning with the first U.S. bombing run on Oct. 7, American air power and a hodgepodge allied ground force–consisting of a few hundred U.S. and British special-ops commandos, a smattering of Western ground troops and 15,000 Northern Alliance fighters–routed an enemy army of 45,000 in slightly more than two months. During a single week in early November, the allies conquered 60% of the Taliban’s territory; they gobbled up the rest by the end of the month. Many military experts predicted that hundreds of U.S. soldiers could die fighting in the country’s fabled caves and redoubts; in the end, the U.S. suffered just 23 combat deaths, eight of them during Operation Anaconda in March, the war’s last major battle.

So what happened to the victory parades? The simple answer is that while the fighting is finished, the U.S. hasn’t won yet. Al-Qaeda’s network, while badly degraded, hasn’t folded. The biggest prize, Osama bin Laden, has remained maddeningly out of reach since the hunt for him began one year ago; U.S. commanders believe he is probably alive and holed up in Pakistan, perhaps in the northwest city of Peshawar. Afghan officials told Time that in November the U.S. allowed Pakistan to airlift hundreds of fighters, including some senior Taliban officials, out of the contested northern city of Kunduz. The task of stabilizing Afghanistan–let alone rebuilding it–has been hampered by lingering rivalries and suspicions. Just last week, a misunderstanding between U.S. troops guarding Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Afghan soldiers loyal to Karzai’s Defense Minister nearly ended in a shootout at the Presidential Palace in Kabul; after the Americans tried to detain an Afghan general, the two sides faced off with weapons drawn for several minutes, before Karzai’s aides separated them.

The U.S. strategy worked brilliantly on the battlefield, but its flaws became more glaring once the shooting stopped. And questions still remain about exactly what tactics America’s Afghan allies might have used to defeat the Taliban so handily. Pentagon strategists insist that the Afghan battle plan won’t serve as a template for any campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. But in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, U.S. forces will be tested on some of the same critical issues, and how well Washington learns the lessons of this war will help determine the outcome of the next one. Here’s how the U.S. has done so far:

REMOVING THE SANCTUARY

Ousting the Taliban from power became a central war aim after Bush declared that the U.S. would “pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism” and the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden. As ludicrous as it sounds now, the Taliban commanders, for at least a few weeks last fall, seriously believed they had a chance. “We’re waiting to fight the Americans–if they dare,” blustered a general in Kandahar in late October. When a month of U.S. air strikes failed to break the Taliban’s grip on power or kill its senior leaders, there was grumbling at home that the war was stalled. Pentagon officials counseled patience; in private, they say now, they felt the Taliban would soon collapse. The U.S. focused its early raids on pounding the Taliban’s reserve forces; when the front-line forces called for reinforcements, they found their backup thrashed.

Taliban soldiers who had thoughts of fighting on were quickly dissuaded by the ruthless force and pinpoint precision of U.S. air power. The Pentagon’s most celebrated tactic was its deployment of small groups of special-ops commandos to ride horseback with Northern Alliance forces and call in air strikes using handheld lasers and target-spotting binoculars. The combination of high-tech gadgetry, battlefield savvy and an increased use of precision-guided munitions made American power irresistible. “The bombs had a big effect,” says Wahid Ahmed, 18, a Pakistani who fought with the Taliban in Kunduz and now languishes in a jail in Sheberghan, northern Afghanistan. “We couldn’t gather in large groups because that made a target. We were waiting for our comrades to tell us what to do, but there was nothing to do but hide.”

In numerical terms, the Taliban has been savaged. The U.S. and its Afghan allies killed at least 5,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, wounded twice that number and took 7,000 prisoner. The bulk of Taliban conscripts who survived the war shaved, took off their black turbans and faded into the background. At the same time, only four of the top 50 Taliban commanders surrendered or were captured; those four are now held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has not been found, and is most probably hiding in Uruzgan province, shielded by true believers. But while the new government in Kabul has struggled to maintain order, Afghan officials and Western diplomats agree: the Taliban is virtually incapable of staging a comeback. Though hardly free from fear, the people of Afghanistan are, at least, free from tyranny–a liberation that would not have been possible without the aid of the U.S. military.

CATCHING THE BIG FISH

The military defeat of the Taliban dealt a punishing blow to al-Qaeda’s infrastructure, thinned its ranks and reduced the network’s ability to coordinate large-scale attacks. “Afghanistan is no longer a training camp for terrorists,” Rumsfeld says. “The al-Qaeda that were there are either dead or captured or on the run.” Before the war, bin Laden was believed to have amassed in Afghanistan a force of 12,000 foreign fighters drawn from the Middle East, Central Asia and Pakistan who would battle the invading Americans to the death. Today, U.S. and Afghan intelligence officials believe only a few hundred hard-core al-Qaeda operatives remain alive in Afghanistan, with a similar number hiding across the border in Pakistan. The rest were captured or killed or forced to flee, in smaller numbers, to places like Indonesia, Yemen, Iran and Iraq.

Among those believed to be in hiding, of course, is the man the U.S. wants most. Bin Laden is “not just a cog in a machine that can be easily replaced,” says a Pentagon official. “If he’s gone, it could lead to al-Qaeda crumbling.” The Pentagon’s best chance to nab bin Laden came last December, when he was thought to be cornered in the craggy valleys of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. The American strategy was to enlist Afghan proxies to search the caves for bin Laden while U.S. warplanes pummeled possible sanctuaries from overhead. The scheme failed miserably. The Afghans were poorly trained and ill equipped and lacked their opponents’ to-the-death fighting spirit. Officials with the U.S. military’s Central Command maintain that they did not have enough troops on the ground to mount an assault on Tora Bora; but U.S. commanders resisted dispatching even the 1,000 Marines in Afghanistan at the time to find bin Laden. Some officers now say that instead of trying to finish the job quickly and with minimal risks last year, the U.S. should have tried to surround bin Laden’s lair, deploy troops to seal off the Pakistani border and wait until spring to attack. Even then, Pentagon officials say, bin Laden might still have slipped through their grasp.

The twist to the military’s success in driving al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan is that bin Laden and his top henchmen are now more elusive than ever. If they have relocated to a teeming urban setting like Peshawar, surrounded by innocent civilians, the U.S. would not be able to use its massive firepower to get them. That said, antiterrorism efforts in Pakistan have scored two big hits: the March capture of al-Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah and last month’s arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni accused of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Afghan officials in Kunduz interviewed by Time say the U.S. committed another major blunder in late November, when American commanders, according to these sources, agreed to allow Pakistan to airlift a “limited number” of Pakistani intelligence agents out of Afghanistan. Witnesses say that when the transport planes and helicopters arrived in Kunduz, hundreds of Taliban and foreign al-Qaeda fighters jostled for space on the flights. Locals believe that as many as 1,000 boarded the flights to Pakistan; according to Kunduz’s deputy governor, Saeed Abra, the passengers included several al-Qaeda leaders and the staff and families of a number of top Taliban commanders. The Pentagon has repeatedly denied it cut any deal with Pakistan.

SPARING CIVILIANS

From last October through the battle of Shah-i-Kot in March, the U.S. dropped around 20,000 bombs on Afghanistan. Pentagon officials privately acknowledge that the bombings probably killed hundreds of Afghan civilians; Afghan officials and U.S. aid workers in Kabul claim as many as 3,000 civilians died. Many ordinary Afghans were willing to live with the air strikes during the war, knowing that they were aimed at defeating a hated regime and its terrorist guests. But much of the goodwill the U.S. built up by liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban’s rule has been dissipated by mistakes made after the fighting died down. U.S. forces allowed themselves to be duped by local bandits in eastern Afghanistan who called in American air strikes on their tribal enemies, pretending that they were al-Qaeda fighters on the run. Overzealous U.S. forces wiped out a wedding party and twice hit gatherings of Karzai supporters.

Hundreds of families of Afghans killed by errant bombs are demanding compensation for the loss of their loved ones, and the U.S. government has made some payments. Apart from their outrage at U.S. mistakes, Afghan civilians are frustrated by the plodding pace of the international relief effort. Washington has committed $280 million to Afghanistan this year–more than any other donor country–but aside from the yellow food packets dropped by allied warplanes during the war, ordinary Afghans have seen few tangible signs of the anticipated U.S. assistance. Because the Pentagon wants to maintain the combat readiness of American forces in order to launch search-and-destroy missions against remnant enemy targets, U.S. soldiers don’t mix much with the civilian population. The U.S. has devoted just $16 million over two years to civilian projects such as school reconstruction and well digging, and most American troops are instructed to stay at the large U.S. bases rather than venture into Afghan villages.

KEEPING THE PEACE

From the start, the U.S. never had much interest in maintaining a large presence in Afghanistan. The longer the U.S. stays, propping up embattled President Hamid Karzai while continuing to stage the dangerously scattershot hunt for bin Laden, the more Afghans will grow to resent the Americans. But with reconstruction efforts stalled and various warlords stirring up opposition to the Kabul government, the alternative is a return to chaos. And so in recent weeks the U.S. military has assumed the kind of peacekeeping duties that the Bush Administration has sought to hand off to the 5,000-person International Security Assistance Force. Last month Lieut. General Dan McNeill, the commander of U.S.-led forces in the country, spent an afternoon mediating a border-tax dispute between rival warlords from Kandahar and Herat. After an hour of discussions at a house overlooking Herat, the trio emerged and broke into a round of hugs. “We’ve been drawn into this nation-building process reluctantly,” says a U.S. official in Kabul. “But this is what we have to do if we want to make this place work.”

It isn’t working yet. The U.S.’s chief security interest lies in shoring up the Kabul government and helping set up a national army that can solidify the central administration’s authority in the lawless countryside. But to accomplish those tasks, the U.S. will have to navigate a thicket of ethnic rivalries and blood feuds–and there is reason to doubt that the U.S. is committed to doing the dirty work. Western diplomats in Kabul say protecting Karzai, a member of the majority Pashtuns, should remain the top priority for U.S. forces; but the military is preparing to take special-ops troops off Karzai’s security detail and turn the task over to a private U.S. security firm. At the same time, the fledgling U.S. effort to arm and train a multiethnic army that reports to Karzai has started to irritate leaders of the Northern Alliance, who view the new force as a potential threat to their hard-won power.

With a new war looming, the temptation will only increase for the U.S. to allow the bickering Afghan warlords to settle scores on their own. But the risks of walking away now are huge. If the U.S. does, says British Colonel Nick Parker, a military planner in Afghanistan, “we’ll all be back here in five years fighting another terrorist organization.” If America hopes to rally the world to help rebuild a post-Saddam Iraq, finishing the job in Afghanistan is a test it still must prove it can pass. –Reported by Tim McGirk/Islamabad, Alex Perry/Kunduz, Simon Robinson and Michael Ware/Kabul and Mark Thompson/Washington

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