America Faces a Long, Harsh Winter in Afghanistan

The United States laid down two smokescreens last week in its military campaign in Afghanistan.
US secretary of state Colin Powell spoke of an aggressive move toward Kabul by the Northern Alliance, a rebel force which the United States knows has no chance of reaching the Afghan capital. What he really meant, debkafile‘s military sources say, was increased pressure by the rebel forces on the air base at Bagram, mid-distance between northern Afghanistan and Kabul, and on the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
US spokesmen also lauded the success of Friday’s dramatic Special Forces raid near Kandahar, an operation that was more of a shining example of American spin than military triumph.
When Powell made his remarks, he knew of the low estimate with which US strategy planners in the Pentagon and on the Afghan battlefield held theNorthern Alliance. They were certain that reaching Kabul was beyond them – or even breaking through Taliban lines around Bargam and Mazar-e-Sharif. Three teams of US officers that spent time last week in areas held by General Muhammad Kasim Fahim’s Northern Alliance conveyed this assessment to Washington. They were skeptical of the Alliance being able to launch the offensive without beingreinforced with armor, heavy artillery, armored personnel carriers and helicopters. As US chief of Staff Richard Myers put it: It was going to be a “long campaign – a very long campaign”.
According to debkafile‘s military sources, the qualified optimism marking U.S. military assessments last week dimmed as the results of the US Special Forces raid came in.
The operation’s key objective, aside from the destruction of ammunition dumps in the northern environs of Kandahar, was to find out if the Taliban still packed any real fighting punch after two weeks of constant aerial bombings and attacks on transportation routes and vehicles by small, intelligence-gathering special units from the United States, Britain and France.
Those results were less than encouraging. Despite official assurances that they went off without a hitch, several independent military sources reported the US troops took a number of casualties – some from friendly fire. Some of the raiders appear to have mistakenly opened fire on other Western ground and air forces in the area, accounting for the stubborn insistence by the Taliban that its forces caused the Americans a number of losses. The Taliban education minister, for example, said Afghan soldiers killed between 20 and 25 US troops.
The Americans also were shaken by the fighting ability of the Taliban and the heavy fire their fighters directed at the assault force. debkafile‘s military sources say that, immediately after the Taliban high command spotted US forces landing, it set up an artillery barrage aimed on the landing zone, rushed tanks carrying infantry to the area and opened up with anti-aircraft fire, which proved ineffective.
Two weeks of intensive bombers and missile strikes against military camps, command headquarters, airfields, helicopter landing pads, fuel and ammunition dumps and military convoys, failed to bring the Taliban war machine to collapse. Furthermore, morale remainedl high and the Taliban’s heavy weaponry remained intact.
Intelligence information suggests that the Taliban were able to keep most of their fighting strength and heavy arms safe and hidden in mountain caves.
US military chiefs had banked on the four main Afghan cities of Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Herat, falling into US hands with Taliban bases three weeks before the onset of heavy winter snows. That estimate has been revised. Now, the United States will have to do one of two things: pour fresh forces into the campaign, diverting them from other regions such as the Middle East, or else postpone the ground assault on the cities until the end of winter – or not before April.
debkafile ‘s military and intelligence experts also stress three further developments.
A. No progress has been made in locating Osama bin Laden. There is nothing to the reports that US intelligence has pinpointed a 20 square mile patch where he is hiding. Neither did anything come of the hope in Washington that Chinese president Jiang Zemin would bring new information on Bin Laden’s whereabouts to his meeting with US President George W. Bush at the APEC summit in Shanghai last week. Days before the summit, debkafile‘s sources in Hong Kong, which have close links with Beijing, warned that Zemin would offer nothing.
Several US military intelligence officials familiar with bin Laden’s modes of operation suspect the master-terrorist of keeping one or more tricks up his sleeve. Some suggest he is planning another grandstand public “appearance”. Others, that he may fake his own death. They would not put it past him to stage an event in which a lookalike body turns up on the battlefield. Investigators attempting to confirm his identity by taking DNA samples from his family will touch off fierce resistance in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. Bin Laden will take advantage of the uproar and make his escape from Afghanistan or melt deeper into hiding there. In the meantime, he will have set up all the arrangements for his terrorist campaign outside Afghanistan, including bioterror, to continue uninterrupted.
B. There is mounting concern for the personal safety of Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharraf and the fate of his government.
The pressure and threats against Musharraf and his administration are coming not only from the Pakistani street but also from the Pakistani armed forces and military intelligence. US officers posted in Pakistan praise Musharraf and his top aides for his courteous treatment and excellent cooperation, but they cannot say the same for the Pakistani officer corps. Sources tell debkafile that the fire that burned down the Pakistani general staff building in Rawalpindi on October 10 was not set by anti-American protesters, as first thought. Pakistani military intelligence officers set the blaze themselves, hoping to destroy evidence of intelligence cooperation – not only between Pakistan and the Taliban, but also between Pakistan and bin Laden himself.
That cooperation continued right up to the start of the US military campaign in Afghanistan. The big question now is how far are these Pakistani officers – who were in contact with bin Laden and his men – willing to go to cooperate with the Americans and Musharraf, and at what point will they decide that this “collaboration” jeopardizes their own lives.
C. This key point relates to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s moves in the field.
Putin arrived in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan after the APEC summit and immediately sat down with Tajikistan president Imomali Rakhmonov and Burhanuddin Rabbani, the last president of Afghanistan and the current head of the Northern Alliance, in another forum. The trio ended their conference by signing a statement declaring that the Afghan crisis must be settled through political means.
Northern Alliance supreme commander Fahim, who is of Tajiki descent, was present too. debkafile‘s military sources recall that Fahim, during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, served in Afghan intelligence. His loyalty to the KGB and Red Army intelligence officers is true blue. Because of his background, the Americans have avoided backing him openly or supplying his people with enough weapons to defeat the Taliban. They are even more suspicious of him than the Pakistanis, who are closer to the Taliban than to the Northern Alliance and regard Fahim as Moscow’s agent in Afghanistan.
Moreover, because of Moscow’s close military and economic relations with India, Pakistan does not even want to hear about the Northern Alliance playing a key role any post-war regime in Kabul.
President Putin appears to have persuaded President Bush when they met in Shanghai to revise his attitude toward the Northern Alliance, if he wants to win the war in Afghanistan. According to debkafile‘s sources in Hong Kong, Putin told Bush that Fahim’s Tajik ancestry guaranteed Tajikistan’s continued involvement in the Afghan campaign. Increasing numbers of Tajik soldiers have joined the Northern Alliance and Tajikistan has granted US and German forces almost unlimited facilities in its bases.
Putin personally vouched for the coordination of Northern Alliance military moves with Washington and promised to calm Pakistan’s suspicions the Alliance’s intentions.
But Pakistan can take little comfort from what transpired at the mini-summit in Dushanbe.
Several times during the conference, Rakhmonov called Rabbani the president of Afghanistan and Fahim its defense minister. Putin, who was present, did not demur or correct the Tajiki president, an occurrence that could exacerbate concerns in Islamabad and correspondingly influence the future military campaign in Afghanistan.

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