In a quagmire

Print edition : November 10, 2001

A Hornet fighter aircraft making an approach to land on USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, as part of the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan.-US NAVY/ AP Photo: US NAVY / AP

Residents collect cans of cooking oil from the International Committee of the Red Cross warehouse in Wazirabad, which was bombed by U.S. jets.-SHAH MARAI/ AFP Photo: SHAH MARAI / AFP

A girl injured in the bombing, with her father in a Jalalabad hospital.-PETER RUDDEN/ REUTERS Photo: PETER RUDDEN / REUTERS

At a refugee camp near Kumkishlyak in northern Afghanistan.-VASILY FEDOSENKA/ REUTERS Photo: VASILY FEDOSENKA / REUTERS

Four weeks of air strikes having taken it nowhere near its military and political goals in Afghanistan, the United States steps up the destructive power of its campaign.

INTO its fourth week, the bombing campaign led by the United States in Afghanistan sharply changed gears, transgressing several moral thresholds in the process. The B-52 'Stratofortress' bomber made its debut over the Afghan skies, blanketing forward positions of the Taliban north of Kabul with heavy explosives. The cluster bomb - a weapon stigmatised by a record of indiscriminate killing and maiming - was brought in. And as the campaign entered its fifth week, the tempo was mounting. Proud claims about precision bombing had given way to the admission that the bad old days of carpet bombing had returned. The B-52, characterised by one acute observer as the "crude weapon of a frustrated bully", was reportedly taking a toll of the Taliban's forward positions. And cluster bombs - chillingly described by a U.S. naval officer as weapons that have, irrespective of where they are dropped, a "significant emotional impact" within an area of one square mile - were adding to the hidden hazards of a landscape sown with anti-personnel mines.

Behind these outward appearances is a story of strategic bungling and dissimulation, and an enforced political shift. The application of greater force and the overt disregard for civilian suffering, speak of a military operation that was badly conceived and poorly underwritten by political consensus across the countries with vital interests in Afghanistan. By the fifth week, images of an earlier fiasco for the U.S. military were recurring. In 1918, John Joseph Pershing, conqueror of the American frontier and the first U.S. Army officer to wear the General's coveted fifth star, set off on an expedition into the Mexican wilderness to capture a brigand who was causing endless harassment to the established political order on America's southern frontier. He succeeded in causing considerable disruption and devastation in the country, but retreated after months of futile pursuit, transforming the Mexican Pancho Villa into a folk legend.

Unlike that wasted effort, the quest for Osama bin Laden is not being mounted by U.S. expeditionary forces, but through the antiseptic military technique of applying explosive power from the air. The entire strategy is premised on the belief that air power will alter the political balance on the ground, inducing the overthrow of the Taliban regime. Whoever takes its place would be more amenable to U.S. interests and would presumably hand over bin Laden - "dead or alive" in the U.S. President's memorable characterisation.

The trouble with this strategy is that it depends on the psychological pressure that air power can exert by shredding the normal fabric of social existence. A sustained attack on urban civilian infrastructure, which is vulnerable to explosive power applied from a safe remove, might have been a feasible strategy in the two theatres where it was attempted in the last decade - Iraq and Yugoslavia. But in largely pastoral Afghanistan, where urban life is in a state of paralysis on account of two decades of war, there was little additional psychological pressure that could be exerted thus. At the same time, the odium of endlessly bombing cities and causing heavy civilian casualties was exacting a high price on the moral status that the Western alliance claimed.

Again, Iraq and Yugoslavia only indicated that even after weeks of bombing the final military objective would be achieved only with the mobilisation of ground forces. In Iraq the U.S. had its formidable armoured corps and infantry stationed in neighbouring Saudi Arabia for the final push, while in Kosovo, the forces of allied nations - not to mention the infamous guerilla bands of the Albanian separatists - were available.

The Afghan theatre presents the U.S. with a sticky dilemma. Pakistan, its most valuable forward-line ally in the war, continues to insist that the Northern Alliance, comprised mostly of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities - Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Shia Hazaras and Heratis - should not advance into the heartland of the Pashtun territory. Recent ethnic massacres are too fresh in memory and the upending of the Taliban regime, which is rooted in Pashtun ethnic loyalties in the south and east of Afghanistan, would have brought the Afghan fratricide to Pakistan's doorstep.

In seeming deference to these compulsions, the U.S.' initial strategy was to rely on dissident Pashtun elements from the south and east to rally together an anti-Taliban alliance. An alternative was to bring in U.S. and British special operations commandos to carry out raids under air cover. The two-fold objective would have been to undermine the Taliban regime psychologically and perhaps gather intelligence that could lead to the capture of bin Laden and the elimination of his network.

The first ground operations by U.S. Army Rangers were carried out in Kandahar on October 20. Initial briefings by U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Richard Myers indicated that the Rangers had met with little resistance when they parachuted into a vital command centre of the Taliban militia. They had then proceeded with ease to disarm an entire cache of explosives and capture intelligence documents.

In parallel briefings the Taliban claimed that a helicopter had been brought down. As evidence was displayed the undercarriage of an aircraft, with the manufacturers' stamp. The U.S. Defence Department, while admitting that a helicopter had been lost in a sandstorm in Pakistan during routine manoeuvres, denied that any losses had been suffered in offensive operations within Afghanistan.

As the fog of war was partially dispelled, a reasonably credible picture began to emerge. Mainstream newspapers in the U.S. chose to play down the events, confining themselves to the report that the commando raids had yielded little of military or intelligence value. Still later it was considered safe to report that a team from the U.S. Army's Delta Force, the commando unit, had undertaken a concurrent raid on the premises of the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and faced fierce resistance. Another piece in the puzzle fell in place when it was reported that the retreat had been so chaotic that one of the helicopters used in troop evacuation lost its undercarriage while setting down. And a reasonably complete picture emerged with the report by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker that the Delta Force faced heavy gunfire from Taliban defences and 12 commandos were injured.

This reconstruction of the course of the U.S.' first ground operations endows the shift in strategy with a deeper meaning. Week Three of the air campaign began with strikes against forward positions of the Taliban north of Kabul, seemingly to clear the path for the incursion of the Northern Alliance towards the capital. Operations were also undertaken in the Mazar-e-Sharief area in order to enable the Northern Alliance forces under the command of Uzbek warlord Abdur Rashid Dostum to break the stalemate that had set in after some early battlefield successes. The purpose of taking Mazar was to establish a logistics link with U.S. forces stationed in Uzbekistan, which would have permitted the replenishment of the Northern Alliance's diminishing stocks of military equipment and morale. Neither operation had moved into a decisive stage, though there was talk at the beginning of Week Five that special forces from the U.S. and the United Kingdom had been planted in key positions in the command centres of the Northern Alliance in readiness for a major ground offensive.

The centrality of the Northern Alliance essentially means that the early deference shown towards Pakistani sensibilities has been reversed. Secretary of State Colin Powell, relatively the most conciliatory figure within the U.S. administration, seemed to indicate as much when he said on October 25 that Pakistan had not been delegated the authority to nominate the next Afghan government. Another key Pakistan demand, for a pause in the bombing during the Ramzan month of penance, seems also to have been given short shrift by the U.S. administration.

It may be more than a coincidence that the shift in the U.S. mood with regard to Pakistan occurred just around the time when a key gambit to recruit Pashtun support in southern Afghanistan unravelled. Launched by Abdul Haq, a veteran warrior in U.S. interests from the years of the Soviet days in Afghanistan, the covert operation ended in disaster. Haq reportedly made some early progress, especially amidst his own sub-group in Pashtun tribal affiliations, the Ahmedzai, which has been resentful of the dominance of the Durrani element in the Taliban regime. But within a week of his entry into Afghanistan, he was cornered by the Taliban militia. Desperate calls for external assistance elicited no more than a cursory response from the U.S. Haq was captured and executed along with his nephew and a few others on October 26.

This was a low point in the U.S. military campaign and engendered murmurs about a pro-Taliban fifth columnist group within Pakistan that had undone Haq's operation. A similar operation led by Hamid Karzai - who like Haq is a scion of the erstwhile Pashtun aristocracy, this time from the Popalzai sub-group - was also aborted in November. Karzai was reportedly cornered in the village he had chosen as his operational base and had to be evacuated by U.S. helicopters. Many members of his group were reportedly executed.

A key factor that cements Pashtun loyalties around the Taliban is the air offensive. Days before he died, Abdul Haq is known to have made a strong case for ceasing the bombing operations so that he could work on winning over some disaffected elements. But the U.S. and the U.K., inured to the exclusive use of the coercive idiom, are reluctant to cease the bombing. Having rapidly scaled up the effort, they seemingly have nowhere to go but further up the ladder.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis continues to mount and the catalogue of war crimes multiplies. A hospital in Herat was bombed late in October, causing, according to the Taliban regime, 100 fatalities. Around the same time an old people's home in Herat was hit by bombing. The bombing of a warehouse of the International Committee of the Red Cross in mid-October was compounded later in the month with direct hits on the warehouses of the World Food Programme, used to store essential relief material. More than five million Afghan citizens now require humanitarian assistance to survive, including 3.8 million who were prior to the hostilities entirely dependent on U.N.-delivered food.

Another controversy is over the use of cluster bombs. These weapons constitute a violation of Article 35 of the Geneva Protocol of 1979 which stipulates that "in any armed conflict the right of the Parties to the conflict to choose methods or means or warfare is not unlimited" and that it "is prohibited to employ weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering".

British Prime Minister Tony Blair chooses repeatedly to remind his people why the war is being fought. Blair's tour of West Asia, designed to give the Palestine peace process new life, was a diplomatic disaster. He was scheduled to visit Washington early in November and brief the U.S. President in preparation for a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But Sharon has called off his trip, citing as the reason the security situation in Israel. The immediate priority of the "peace process", it now seems, would be to repair the frayed relations between the belligerent Israeli Prime Minister and his conscience-stricken and endlessly tormented Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres. Perhaps never before has U.S. foreign policy faced a crisis of legitimacy quite as profound.

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