Taliban fight now looks long, slow
Rebel alliance admits misjudging a key attack, while the US says it underestimated Taliban resilience.
SALANG PASS, AFGHANISTAN
Any illusion that this would be a quick war in Afghanistan is being dashed by events on the ground this week. There are signs here - and in Washington - that this is a battle that will go beyond the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and into the fast-approaching Central Asian winter.
Just a week ago, the Pentagon and Northern Alliance strategy seemed to be in place. Officials predicted the likely fall of the strategic northern city of Mazar-e Sharif within days. A victory there would provide an important psychological boost for the rebels that might trigger more Taliban defections, and it could provide US forces with an airport on Afghan soil.
Next, the Salang Pass - the main north-south mountain artery that connects Mazar-e Sharif with Kabul - and could provide an all-season resupply route from rebel allies - would be opened. And finally, rebel fighters would advance and seize control of the capital, Kabul, from the Taliban.
But that order is already stalling at the first stage, as rebel officials admit to serious "mistakes" - that could take weeks to reverse - in their battle to capture Mazar-e Sharif. And the Pentagon made an unusual admission Wednesday about its surprise at Taliban resilience. The Taliban are "proving to be formidable opponents," said Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I'm a bit surprised at how doggedly they're hanging onto power."
The rubble that seals this strategic tunnel through the Salang Pass serves as a symbol of how the illusion of quick victory has not materialized, and of the challenges ahead.
While potentially critical to the war effort - especially as the approaching winter makes other resupply routes less tenable - not one stone has yet been moved to open this mile-long tunnel since one end was blown up by explosive charges four years ago.
"The problem is a disconnect between the big brush strokes of American strategy, and what the Northern Alliance is capable of doing," says Anthony Davis, an Afghanistan analyst for Jane's Defense Weekly who has visited repeatedly for two decades. "If the Taliban are seen to be defending heroically, it allows them to assume the mantle of fighting for Islam. It's a real danger."
Besides the risk of a drawn-out campaign - which over time may turn current Muslim allies of the US against the bombing - the root is a deeper miscalculation.
The result so far is that alliance commanders - spurred on by a promise of US military help - launched headlong into an offensive against Mazar-e Sharif last week. With "no planning," Mr. Davis says, they "fell flat on their face."
"If B-52s took out the front line north of Kabul, and the alliance went floundering in, they risk the same problem," Davis says. "They're not ready."
Though White House and military officials have publicly paved the way for a long conflict, Wednesday's comments were the first indication that the campaign in Afghanistan was not going according to plan. It also suggests a Pentagon miscalculation - despite examples in Iraq and Serbia, in which stubborn leaders outlasted far fiercer US air campaigns - that air power alone might have been enough to push the Taliban from power.
The alliance foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, says he does not agree with the Pentagon assessment, noting that at peak times during the Afghan civil war 2,000 rockets a day landed on Kabul. "So far, the level of pressure on the Taliban is not such to expect them to lay down their arms and run away," he says.
Still, there has been some US help on the ground. Rebel chiefs report that more than 15 Americans in civilian clothes have helped call in targets to US planes on the Mazar-e Sharif front. Gen. Abdulrashid Dostum on Tuesday told Reuters news agency that "American planes are attacking exactly where we request."
Other reports spoke of 35 Taliban soldiers dead and 140 captured during an alliance "advance." But the price has been high - 400 dead rebels, by one estimate - as one district was taken. The rebels operate in a difficult-to-resupply pocket, and complain of ammunition, food, and gas shortages.
And all the positive spin can't burnish the strategic problem that has emerged in Mazar-e Sharif. "Militarily, our mujahideen made a mistake," says Yunas Qanoni, one of the top three civilian leaders of the alliance. "While one unit launched an attack on the city, the other three were not serious. They told themselves the Taliban were weak. They didn't coordinate or negotiate with each other, and the Taliban counter-attacked."
Analysts say it may take weeks for the alliance to regroup on that front.
"America is in a real, invidious dilemma. There is no simple winning strategy," says Davis, of Jane's Defense Weekly. "The Americans failed to think this one through. They didn't do their homework on alliance capabilities as a military and political force."
A key problem, he says, is that the US reliance on Pakistan - as a staging ground for operations in Afghanistan, and intelligence about the Taliban, which Pakistan nurtured and backed - cuts into its ability to give the rebels a free hand.
That job may be left to Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, has vowed to beef up its support of the alliance. Afghan sources say that a team of Russian engineers with "analytical maps" and high-grade optics arrived Monday. They visited a new resupply airstrip being built near Golbahar, 40 miles north of Kabul, as well as the collapsed entrance of the Salang Pass tunnel.
But there will be a "high price" exacted of the US by the Russians, Davis says, in terms of Moscow's influence over the future government of Afghanistan. Russia wants to keep all Taliban elements out of it. Pakistan is lobbying for "moderate" Taliban members of the dominant Pashtun tribe to play a major role.
Seeking middle ground, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the House Foreign Relations committee on Wednesday: "It won't work if any one country dictates what the future of the government will look like."
Still, all sides are pushing for the end of the current hard-line regime in Kabul. But Kabul itself may be dropping on the list of priorities, despite four days this week of US pinprick bombing of Taliban front-line positions north of Kabul.
Dismissed by rebel commanders as only a taste of what will be required to open the front line to an alliance advance, the fact that several American targeters are rumored to be working from the control tower of the rebel-held Bagram airbase implies more.
"Presumably, if they are laser-painting targets, they are not aiming at farmhouses," says Davis. "The question is: Is it cosmetic, or will it increase in intensity?"
Rebel officials now take a longer view on Kabul, though on the eve of the start of the air campaign, they predicted a military advance "within days."
"We are not in a hurry to capture Kabul," says Mr. Qanoni, the alliance interior minister. "We should capture the northern provinces first," he adds. Before that, "agreements must be reached by political actors" to create an interim government.
Such strategic considerations weigh little at the Salang Pass. One end of the tunnel was blown up on orders given by the late alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Masood, to trap the Taliban in the north of the country as he retreated in 1997.
"This way is very important for us to get ammunition and arms from Uzbekistan, and Russia, and America," says Cmdr. Delagha Solangi, an alliance veteran fighter, speaking at a post on the approach road. "Yes, this is the best way for us to get to Kabul."
Today the broad tunnel, built by Soviet engineers in the early 1960s, presents an eerie hole in a rugged mountain side. Mounds of rubble block most of the entrance, and a cold wind from the far side, more than a mile away, sweeps through, past concrete work hanging from the ceiling by reinforcement rods, and black dank pools of dripping water.
Until the tunnel is reopened, traffic must negotiate a series of sharp, dirt switchbacks. The pass itself is more than 11,000 feet high - the tallest tunnel in the world - a 12-foot gap carved through immaculate granite, that is snowed in over the winter.
Three alliance tanks moved through there in the past two weeks - normal traffic to sight in on a Taliban tent high on a distant mountain, says Yar Mohamed, the sole alliance guard at his windswept post.