Ground realities

Print edition : October 27, 2001

Even as the United States takes the war into a crucial phase, it is under no illusion about the post-Taliban situation in Afghanistan.

THE United States' anti-terrorism operations have moved into a crucial phase. Moderate numbers of the special forces and commandos are deep inside Afghanistan to carry out specific tasks such as going after the leaders of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. As if the hundreds of sorties by aircraft carrier- and land-based jets and planes were not enough, Washington inducted the low-flying AC-130s. The pilotless Predators carrying Hellfire missiles have been deployed to hit moving targets such as military convoys.

Even before launching the new phase, the U.S. made it clear that it was looking far beyond the goal of pulverising the Taliban machine. Indications are that the opposition to the Taliban militia is getting ready in and around Mazar-e-Sharif. Washington plans to give the Northern Alliance the much-needed air cover for its assault on elite Taliban forces.

Guided bombs for the strike aircraft aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt.-DAVID LONGSTREATH/ AP

But what is holding back the Northern Alliance even two weeks of aerial strikes? On the one hand, the anti-Taliban force is concerned that the U.S. and its allies have not been quite helpful in supplying the military hardware. On the other, there is a distinct impression that the Northern Alliance is studying the political equations before making the final push against the Taliban.

The aerial operations in and around Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad have softened the ground for the Northern Alliance, which is being helped in a variety of ways, including the supply of military hardware from Russia. The U.S. has not yet formally opened up its arsenal, but it is a matter of time before it does. After all, at this juncture no one appears to be looking at the longer-term implications of backing any one group in Afghanistan.

From a military point of view, special forces are being deployed through different means. For "operational" reasons, the Pentagon is tightlipped about the movement of forces. But it does not require a great deal of imagination to figure out how it is done. Basically, special forces and elite commandos have been sent into Afghanistan through neighbouring states such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan and through the high seas.

Out in the Indian Ocean waits the aircraft carrier, USS Kitty Hawk, whose decks are reportedly cleared of planes to make room for helicopters. Attack helicopters with night vision capabilities will be dropping off small teams of commandos deep inside Afghanistan.

From the beginning, senior officials in the George W. Bush administration have made it clear that Washington is not thinking in terms of a "conventional" warfare. The objective was to destroy the Taliban's fixed assets first and then to look for moving targets.

The Taliban may be taunting the Bush administration into sending in regular army units in large numbers, but it would be naive to believe that the Pentagon will fall for this ploy. The brass hats and civilian planners in the Defence Department are certain that the U.S. will not repeat the mistake of the Soviet Union in 1979.

It is not going to be a repeat of Yugoslavia either, where the campaign was largely confined to hammering Slobodan Milosevic from the air. Since the war is not going to be a conventional one, the possibility of "body bags" returning from the battlefield is not a major worrisome factor for the administration. Care has been taken to see that the loss of lives is minimal. From the very beginning the administration has been preparing the people for this. In fact, Vice-President Dick Cheney has argued that the war against terrorism is going to claim more casualties at home than abroad.

The U.S. established its mastery over the skies in a matter of days and there was serious talk of the U.S. military not finding enough targets in hapless Afghanistan. The military planners got around this problem by having fighters and planes "revisit" some targets that had been hit earlier. The refrain was that the U.S. did not intentionally go after civilian areas.

The political component of the anti-terrorism war is seen to be proceeding rather slowly. For a process that began along with the military operations, there is not much to indicate that anything substantial and long-lasting has been achieved politically.

Washington would like to have a "broad-based" government in Kabul, which would include some "moderate" elements in the Taliban, but many neighbours and powerful actors within Afghanistan are not amenable to this idea. Russia and Iran would have no truck with the Taliban. Similar is the stand of the Northern Alliance. But Pakistan is in favour of the Taliban and Washington, for obvious reasons, cannot get on the wrong side of Islamabad. Hence the "search" for "moderate" elements in the extremist outfit. Indications are that Washington will have its way in the matter of installing a broad-based and representative government in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration is certainly under no illusion about what is in store inside Afghanistan after getting rid of the Taliban militia, Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. The country has been ravaged by civil war in the past 20 years. Millions of people have fled to Pakistan and Iran and millions more are starving inside the country, thanks to the bankrupt policies of the Taliban.

The Republicans constantly derided the Clinton administration for getting into the mission of "nation building" in faraway lands, but the Bush administration is going to do exactly the same thing in Afghanistan. The only difference is that it will rely heavily on the United Nations for this. Rebuilding Afghanistan with fancy political models will be a disaster.

Diplomatically, this Republican administration has handled public relations with ease. It has successfully "convinced" the domestic audience of the kind of support it has received from its allies although none in the Arab and Islamic world is happy about the goings-on. The administration constantly reminds the public that it should not lose track of the larger picture and that this war may not unfold on television screens and may not have a time-frame.

A nation that is yet to recover fully from the horror of the September 11 attacks is now in the grip of a bio-terrorism scare. People at home and in offices live in constant fear of getting exposed to the anthrax bacterium, which is believed to be sent through mail. This has put the administration's resolve under test once again. It has to resist the immediate temptation of pointing the finger at a foreign source of bioterror - Iraq is the most likely suspect - until it ensures that it is not the handiwork of domestic hate groups who would want to exploit a difficult situation or of some mentally deranged persons.

So far there is no suspicion of the anthrax strains being spread through any weapon. But if there is any evidence of the involvement of weapons, it would spell trouble, for it would automatically raise doubts about state-sponsored bio-terrorism. As it is, the administration is under pressure from within. The hawks in the Pentagon and elsewhere want the U.S. to go after Saddam Hussein for the September 11 attacks.

Bush derives support not only from the public but from the Democrats as well. He has got an unusual degree of support from top Democrats who otherwise would have pilloried the government for the large number of spending bills before Congress. Now Congress is willing to give the President anything he wants, even twice as much. An anti-terrorism Bill - a domestic version of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 - has also materialised. In normal times any sweeping legal provision against terrorism would have brought the roof down on Capitol Hill.

Although the President has the weight of public opinion behind him, the people have set the parameters of the fight against terrorism. Almost two-thirds of the people surveyed in a TIME/CNN poll feel that the capture or death of Osama bin Laden is necessary to declare a victory in the war. More significantly, 81 per cent of them said that capturing or killing bin Laden is a "necessary" goal. This seems to be the politically troubling part of the present campaign.

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