In the space of 48 hours, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Arab fighters have ceded 90 percent of Afghanistan.
At breakneck speed, the conventional war has all but come to an end. The Taliban, as a ruling entity, is fading fast. But a messier guerrilla war may just be starting. And ousting bin Laden from the mountains north of Kandahar - or wherever his hideout may be - is likely to require a new US military strategy, one that may not include much help from the Northern Alliance.
"I find it very important that the Taliban retreated from Kabul with all of their personnel and military assets intact," says Rifaat Hussein, director of the Defense and Strategic Studies Department of Quaid I Azam University in Islamabad. "They are ceding the cities and now regrouping in Paktia and southern Afghanistan, and they hope they can make it very costly for the Northern Alliance to move into Pashtun areas. And guerrilla warfare is what they are good at anyway."
At press time, Taliban and Arab fighters were reportedly amassing 35 miles south of Kabul, either for retreat or for a further strike. Other Taliban forces have fled to the mountains surrounding Jalalabad. The Taliban had abandoned all but two of the major cities of Afghanistan, the northeastern city of Kunduz, near the Tajikistan border, and the southwestern stronghold of Kandahar. But even in Kandahar, longtime home of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, there are reports that the Taliban are heading for the hills north of the city.
The speed of the Taliban's fall and the Northern Alliance's rise took much of the Western world by surprise. Now the American-led coalition must change gears, political and military, and shift to the next - and perhaps more dangerous - part of the war.
Experts warn that it is this stage of "mopping up" that caught Soviet occupying forces in major urban areas, where guerrilla forces excelled at sabotage and hit-and-run warfare. If history repeats itself, the US will find its most difficult task in keeping the various factions that make up the Northern Alliance focused on consolidating control of the country, rather than on expanding their individual piece of the pie.
"Now that the Northern Alliance has captured Kabul, their minds are set on sharing power, not on hunting the Taliban, and certainly not on finding Osama Bin Laden," says Timothy Gusinov, a former Soviet special-forces officer in Afghanistan and now an Central Asian area specialist based in San Francisco. "Until the present, they were united by being against the Taliban. From now on, each leader has his own agenda, to get the biggest piece of the pie as possible."
In Peshawar, Pakistan, this positioning is already taking place. Across the street from the main offices of the UN Refugee Agency, yesterday scores of tribesmen gather around Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, whose efforts to retake eastern Afghanistan for his fellow Pashtun tribesmen are being greased with Western dollars and advice.
Many of Mr. Ghamsharik's would-be bounty hunters appear more interested in money than in the broader US goals of rooting out terrorism in Afghanistan.
Dost Mohammad, a short, burly "commander," says he is heading into Afghanistan Thursday morning to remove several hundred Arabs from the mountains around the city of Jalalabad. He wants Western journalists to pay $3,000 for a view of the action. He promises that if he captures an Arab alive, "interrogations will be extra."
The hunt for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network is already looking like a game of "show me the money." Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said this week that he hoped US dollars would "begin to talk." Part of the problem, however, is knowing whom to trust in an environment where Taliban and Al Qaeda loyalists can lurk over the next mountain pass or in the next mud hut.
"The Arab fighters are withdrawing to mountain redoubts just south of the city of Jalalabad, where they have stocks of supplies that can hold for weeks," says Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani, an ethnic Pashtun, who warns the US against trusting too many of his own former anti-Soviet fighting colleagues. A former reporter for the Kabul Times, now inside Afghanistan, said yesterday in a phone interview that Taliban and Arab fighters are massing near the Logar River about 35 miles south of Kabul.
The Taliban sources have seized increasing control of military operations inside Afghanistan as Pashtun support for Al Qaeda wavers (and crumbles), according to the Arabs in Al Qaeda, also known as "Arabans."
Just as worrisome to Pentagon planners, keen to bring Al Qaeda to bay, is the network's continued mobility. Until Wednesday morning, several hundred Arab fighters had been patrolling the streets of Jalalabad. "The trucks they were driving carried anti-aircraft guns on the backs of trucks covered by blankets," says a young student who crossed the border into Pakistan on Wednesday morning. "The Arabs are in a good mood and ready to fight."
Some military experts, such as Sajad Haider, a former Pakistani air commodore, say that US airstrikes are critical now. "Retreating troops have to be in the open day and night; they make great targets," says Commodore Haider. "The US has to make the best of this time, because when the Taliban get to Kandahar and mix with the civilian population, they will be very difficult to root out."
"There's going to be a very long war of attrition, with these people operating in areas which they know very well, with relatives and Pashtuns willing to get involved militarily," adds Haider. "And once again, Pakistan is in the middle of this, between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, and neither side approves of the role Pakistan has played in the coalition."
Hundreds of Pakistani and Afghan fighters have already poured across the border into Pakistan. The respected daily The News reported yesterday that Taliban forces intend to use Pakistan's lawless tribal areas as a "staging post for a prolonged guerrilla battle in Afghanistan."
Pakistani officials worry that such a war would be destabilizing. The already divided loyalties in Pakistan's mostly Pashtun tribal areas complicate the US and allied efforts to flush out Al Qaeda from eastern Afghanistan.
But one well-placed Pakistani military official says that the Taliban won't be able to carry on a long guerrilla war.
"The Taliban, under no circumstances, will be able to pull off a guerrilla war," says this official, who requests anonymity. "Because for guerrilla war, you need to have the support of friendly locals. Now you tell me, where are their friends? If you tell me the south, I say rubbish. Kandahar is now under siege. And in the Helmund Valley [south of Kandahar], it's all desert. If they think they are going to the mountains and the deserts, they'll die of thirst."
"It just shows [the Taliban] was a balloon, an artificial creation by some outside governments," adds the official. "The Pakistanis and the Saudis funded it, gave it money, and suddenly you had this big balloon looming over Afghanistan, and everyone was terrified by it. Then someone managed to prick it, and now it's deflated."