Ragtag militia vs. a superpower

US holds vast military superiority, while Taliban's hopes rest on popular support.

As President Bush weighs strikes against Afghanistan's defiant Taliban regime, few doubt the superiority of US forces - even in a limited deployment against foes with a long record of survival in their mountainous home turf.

The conflict would pit the world's most advanced fighting forces against a highly factional 40,000-strong militia armed with grenades, assault rifles, about 600 tanks, and some Stinger surface-to-air missiles.

The sheer balance of forces, however, may ultimately mean little in how the United States fares in the first phase of its war on terrorism - aimed at Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and his supporters. Far more important are how skillfully Washington targets any attacks, what forces it uses, and how well it anticipates the complex military and political repercussions of US strikes on Afghanistan.

"You have to look beyond the military action [to political consequences]," says Ali Ahmad Jalali, a military analyst and former Afghanistan Army colonel.

This is not to say that America can expect to get out of a conflict without potentially serious loss of life. But the risks lie more in the shifting dynamics of popular support for the Taliban than in weaponry or even the rugged, landmine-littered terrain.

Above all, the US must carefully focus any airstrikes on the Taliban's remaining strategic assets, while averting civilian casualties that could lead Afghans to rally behind the radical Islamic regime, analysts warn.

"If the attack takes place on population centers and people suffer, many people will support the Taliban," says Mr. Jalali. "There will be a national backlash."

In one sign of anti-American sentiment Wednesday, Taliban supporters set fire to the abandoned US Embassy in Kabul.

In contrast, US aerial bombing aimed at destroying Taliban airports and runways, its few Scud missiles, tanks, broadcast facilities, and limited supplies of imported fuel could weaken Taliban forces, causing defections from their ranks, experts say.

"Only the core elements around the leaders, not more than 10,000 or 15,000 people, will fight, and the rest will flee," predicts Jalali, who served as a military planner for the Afghan resistance during the 1979 to 1989 Soviet occupation. The Taliban militia, which gets around in pickup trucks, is not a professional, disciplined army, he says, but is made up of Afghans and foreigners attracted to the Taliban's radical Islamic dogma.

Anti-Taliban opposition fighters are likely to try to take advantage of any US strikes aimed at weakening the Taliban, which came to power in 1996 and is headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar.

"The war machine of the Taliban will be subdued," says Amin Tarzi, a scholar at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. "Then you let the Afghan civil war take over."

Indeed, the Bush administration has encouraged Afghans who oppose the Taliban, while stopping short of making the overthrow of the regime a formal policy. On Tuesday, for example, President Bush asked pointedly for cooperation from Afghans "tired" of Taliban rule and of bin Laden.

In recent days, US officials have also stepped up their contacts with the main Afghan rebel group, a 12,000-strong coalition of ethnic minorities known as the Northern Alliance, and other anti-Taliban elements among the predominant Pashtun tribes in the south.

A US envoy met with the exiled former king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, in Rome on Wednesday to discuss the situation.

But a helter-skelter downfall of the Taliban could also complicate Washington's antiterrorist war and its search for bin Laden by unleashing a new wave of prolonged fighting between the nation's rival ethnic, religious, and tribal militias. Moreover, Pakistan, a key ally in the US campaign, opposes the overthrow of the Taliban.

"If you infuse enough support and arms into the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban, there will be warlords and chaos," says John Damis, a Middle East expert at Portland State University.

Several experts stress that America has a strong interest in using its influence to promote a broad-based, stable, and representative government in Afghanistan - one that would likely be more sympathetic to US efforts to "smoke out" terrorists such as bin Laden.

"One reason that [Taliban leader] Omar is there, is because we left a vacuum" after helping drive Soviet occupation forces from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, says David Isby, a senior analyst at SPARTA in Arlington, Va. and author of "The War In Afghanistan."

"If the Taliban goes away, the US would have to make an Afghan government," he says.

Earlier this week, however, Mr. Bush stated flatly that Washington is not interested in "nation-building."

Experts also urge the United States to improve its image by increasing aid to Afghan refugees, as well as by helping to rebuild the economy for the nation's 22-million-strong population, mainly impoverished farmers and herders now struggling amid a three-year drought.

"There is a pending humanitarian disaster," says Mr. Isby, "If we could feed people, it would greatly help things. If we don't, it would reinforce Osama's claim that we are against Islam." He added that support for the terrorist leader is shallow among Afghan militiamen. "No one feels like going out in a blaze of glory to defend Osama."

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