Afghan War at Critical Juncture
Fierce fighting raged around the strategic North Afghanistan town of Konduz Friday, as anti-Taliban forces hammered the Taliban-al Qaeda defenders with rockets, heavy artillery and tank fire. US B-52’s pounded nearby Khanabad, where 1000 “foreign” fighters of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network were reported holed up.
The last 13 days of the Afghan conflict were studded with a succession of lightning opposition victories, helped along by the heavy US aerial bombardments of Taleban and al Qaeda positions and front lines and supported by US, Russian and Uzbek special forces – as debkafile has been reporting from its military sources. Opposition forces scooped up the towns of Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, and Kabul, the capital.
Yet this triumphal progression does not alter the first assessment published bydebkafile‘s military experts a fortnight ago that the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance was far from being a spent force. Reports averring that they have are on the point of collapse having lost three quarters of the country should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt.
Still to be decided is the fate not only of Kahandar and four southern provinces, but also of the key Taliban northern strongholds at Konduz, Khanabad and the village of Chuba, which commands the routes to both. The outcome of that battle, in the next two or three days, will determine whether the Taliban and al Qaeda retain control of northern Afghanistan or lose it to the rebel forces, together with the gateway to the Hindu Kush mountain range.
A second pivotal battle in progress in the last 48 hours centers further south on Maidan Shahr, 20 miles west of Kabul. So far, the Northern Alliance has failed to dislodge the Taliban and “foreign” forces holding the town. If they manage to hang on and extend their hold, the defenders will have won a base for striking at and then shelling the southern outskirts of Kabul.
The agreed Northern Alliance-US-Russian tactic till now, as read by debkafile ‘s military experts, consisted of stages, starting with rapid advances under total US air bomber and fighter cover, followed by the seizure of towns and large swaths of territory. The advancing forces circled round the Taliban-al Qaeda positions en route. The Americans intended the Northern Alliance to double back in the next stage of the combat and mop up pockets of resistance remaining in captured territory. Those pockets were meant to be mowed under this second strike maneuver or be wiped out from the air.
This was not how the plan worked out. According to debkafile‘s military sources, the advance was swifter than planned, while the enemy’s responses were wide of intelligence forecasts. The Taliban and their allies, who seemed at first to be scattering in disarray in the face of the rebel advance, quickly regrouped, with their heavy weapons intact, in five places: Konduz and Khanabad in the north, Maidan Shahr in the south, Uruzgan northeast of Kabul on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway, Kandahar and four outlying provinces and most parts of the Hindu Kush range and Pamir.
Jalalabad and the tribal areas controlled by Pashtun, both pro- and anti-Taliban, wre never captured by the opposition.
As to the mass Taliban defections predicted – no more than a few hundred Taliban crossed over in the course of the fighting, far less than the thousands reported. Sometimes, the attempt to buy defectors backfired. Northern alliance commanders handed over millions of dollars to bribe Taliban battalion and company commanders to change sides. The money was accepted, but for the most part, the bribed Taliban officers went back to their units and ordered the men to use the cash for more fuel and ammo to carry on the fighting.
The number of foreign fighters, largely Arab and Muslim, was likewise underestimated in intelligence reports. At Konduz alone, some 10,000 non-Afghans are fighting in Taliban ranks, plus another 2-3,000 imported al Qaeda troops.
As for the immediate future, debkafile‘s military sources discern to major difficulties facing US and Northern Alliance commanders:
1. The United States and opposition Afghan leaders are divided over both war objectives and field tactics. The top American priority was from the start the capture or death of top Taliban and al Qaeda chiefs, starting with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omer. The Northern Alliance’s first aim is to take over Kabul from which to rule the country – hence its precipitate dash for Kabul, in breach of its deal with Washington. Weakening the Taliban and bin Laden’s army may be desirable but opposition leaders do not regard it as feasible at this stage.
These differing perceptions show up in the ground action in the last few days. While US air bombardments over Konduz and Khanabad focus on the Arab and Muslim soldiers of al Qaeda and the Taliban, Northern Alliance commanders are concentrating on the Taliban, though dividing their efforts between pounding them and seeking a negotiated handover of the embattled areas, which the US opposes.
2. Since the fall of Kabul, cracks on tribal lines are widening in the high command of the Northern Alliance. The Uzbeks under General Rashid Dostum, who hold the western front against Konduz, bitterly resent the fact that although they bear the brunt of the fighting, Tajik elements of the alliance headed by former president Burhanuddin Rabbani strolled into Kabul after its fall and have taken over. His lieutenant, Abdallah Abdallah has moreover stepped forward to represent the entire Northern Alliance in negotiations for a post-Taliban administration. The Shiite Hazara tribal militia leaders, led by Ismail Khan, who control the southern city of Heart, are no better satisfied.
Even amid the combat on the northern battlefield, Northern Alliance General Dostum, who commands the western front of Konduz, and General Daoud, on the eastern front, turned their attention away from the fierce fighting long enough to bicker over who would enter the city first – that is if and when it falls.