Triumphal entry into Kabul a victory by default

 

Military commentators, like many journalists, have a very short memory. Thus, few of those who criticised the US-led military operations in Afghanistan, and who have suggested that air strikes are irrelevant, will now admit that they were wrong and that the Pentagon's military strategy has worked.

As so often in warfare, the significance of each military victory can be interpreted in various ways. Yet there is no doubt that what the US initially set out to do when it launched its offensive in Afghanistan has now been achieved and that Washington's war aims remains broadly on course.

In a curious way, the real snag for the US administration now is less military and more political: how to recalibrate a fast-changing strategic situation on the ground with a complicated political framework for the future of Afghanistan while continuing efforts to isolate and capture Osama bin Laden and his supporters.

Just like in Kosovo in 1999, the heavy use of air power has ultimately delivered the required result. True, just like in the Balkans, the air campaign took longer than anyone anticipated, and it had to be progressively escalated before its effects became clear. There were the usual mistakes in targeting and the predictable tragic loss of innocent lives.

But the result is real enough: the total collapse of the Taliban's control over major Afghan cities, including the capital, Kabul.

The Taliban clearly remain a military force to be reckoned with. In many respects, their withdrawal to the countryside would make the military operation much more vicious, if only because the Taliban have now fallen back on their core support in the Pashtun-populated areas of Afghanistan.

American military planners, many of whom supervised the offensive in the Balkans two years ago, knew all along that the Taliban would not disappear. The US plan was to remove the regime from power, force its supporters to concentrate in smaller parts of the country and thereby reduce the territory in which Osama bin Laden and his network can hide.

This has now been achieved and planners in the Pentagon can afford a well-earned smile. The options available to US forces have suddenly widened. But so have the risks.

It is an irony of this war that, before the operations began, Washington had a clear idea as to what sort of political settlement it wanted in Afghanistan, but was still divided on the military options, while now the military options are clear but the political process lags far behind. The reason for this discrepancy is simple: the political settlement which the US and its allies wanted to implement ultimately proved unachievable.

It was rather easy to agree that a future Afghan government should include all ethnic groups in the country and all political views. But no senior influential Pashtun leader abandoned the Taliban and no fresh Afghan government could be formed.

In the initial phase of the war the US air force deliberately refrained from hitting Taliban forces facing the Northern Alliance in order to prevent this rag-tag collection of various ethnic tribes and former guerrillas from overrunning the country before a new government was installed.

This tactic was based on one fundamental assumption: that the collapse of the Taliban would be swift. A whole web of secret arrangements between Washington and Moscow was also put in place, with the aim of persuading the Russians, hitherto the Northern Alliance's main paymasters, to keep their puppets under control. But the air campaign lasted longer than anticipated and with each passing week Washington progressively abandoned its reticence towards the Northern Alliance.

The result was a cat-and-mouse game from which the Moscow-sponsored rebels emerged as chief beneficiaries. At the start of the war, the Northern Alliance had to be persuaded not to launch an offensive; as the war progressed, Alliance leaders started spurning US appeals for a ground offensive, in the sure knowledge that Afghanistan would be delivered into their hands, courtesy of the US Air Force.

They were right: the Northern Alliance's triumphal entry into Kabul, with virtually no casualties among its fighters, was a victory by default, a success prised by the Northern Alliance from the West's failure to produce any other political alternative.

President George Bush and Britain's Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, his chief international ally, are predictably urging moderation on the Northern Alliance.

Various plans are currently being studied, from the declaration of Kabul as an "open city" under a neutral administration to the introduction of United Nations forces and the launching of a massive international aid programme. None of these plans are contradictory and some may well be implemented in the days to come.

Clearly, the Northern Alliance, although flush with victory at the moment, has no interest in annoying either the Russians or the Americans. The first Alliance detachments which entered Kabul yesterday were therefore described as mere "law-and-order elements", supposedly there just to fill the resulting government "void".

It is also obvious that the UN will soon return to Kabul. And it is also possible that, with the Taliban's rout now so evident, some Pashtun leaders may be persuaded to defect, thereby paving the way for the creation of a broad-based Afghan government.

Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Northern Alliance is merely playing for time and that it knows total victory is now within its grasp. Holding large swathes of the country, the Alliance can dictate the future make-up of any government. And the imperatives of the new phase in the war would tend to increase the Alliance's importance.

The US has no intention of stopping the campaign, either because of Ramadan or due to the onset of winter. Indeed, the current regrouping of the Taliban in the traditionally Pashtun southern provinces of Afghanistan makes the pursuit of the war an even greater necessity.

Any cessation of hostilities could enshrine an ethnic division of the country; the result would be a pocket still controlled by the Taliban, an area where bin Laden could hide just as effectively and a permanent cancer for the stability of Pakistan.

But in order to pursue the war with increasingly frequent and well-targeted ground operations, the US military will start relying on facilities based inside Afghanistan, in territory often controlled by the Northern Alliance. Washington will therefore not be in a position to put too much pressure on Alliance leaders; it needs them just as much as they need the Americans.

An international aid effort will begin in the territories "liberated" from the Taliban, partly in order to deflect Muslim criticism of the war and partly in order to facilitate some political consensus-building. But Washington will remain weary of a UN mandate, mainly because it suspects that Taliban leaders themselves will soon start talking to the UN in an attempt to save their skins and shatter the consensus of the international coalition confronting them.

So the outcome is already fairly obvious. Unless bin Laden and some of his key supporters are captured soon, Afghanistan will remain in the hands of the Northern Alliance, while the Pashtuns, together with Pakistan, their chief backer, will be the long-term losers.

Dr Jonathan Eyal is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London