New US-Afghan Offensive is an Eye Opener

The largest joint air-ground, US-Afghan offensive of the Afghanistan war on terror is now in its third day in the snow-clad, inaccessible mountains of Arma in the eastern Afghanistan province of Paktia. It was launched to pre-empt the regrouping of the al Qaeda and Taliban remnants sheltering there – estimated by debkafile‘s military sources as possibly 8,000 – for a counter-offensive when the spring thaw sets in.
On November 13, 2001, just before Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance, debkafilereported:
As for the current turbulence inside Afghanistan, debkafile‘s military experts note that only a fraction of the Taliban’s estimated 60,000 strong army was struck down in the latest round of fighting. Most fell back with their weapons – almost without firing a shot. Before abandoning Kabul, they emptied the banks. Even the 55th Brigade, the main military force commanded by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zuwehiri, remains pretty much unscathed. Intelligence reports describe the brigade as “melting away” from the battlefront, presumably to prepared hideouts in the mountains.
Taliban tactics are plain: Pulverized by US bombardment and disarrayed by the Northern Alliance’s momentum, Taliban and al Qaeda forces decided to husband their resources and take advantage of the heavy snows already blocking the mountain passes, in order to dig on for a long winter of guerrilla combat.
On Saturday, March 2, one American and three US-allied Afghans were killed when a US-led ground force of 1,500 Afghans, US Special Forces and 101st Airborne assault troops closed in on Taliban-al Qaeda hideouts in Arma.
Sunday’s assault consisted mostly of heavy air strikes.
US Air Force B-52 and B-1 bombers, F-15E fighters and AC-130 gunships blasted the caves around Gardez with laser- and satellite-guided bombs, as well as 2,000-pound suffocating “thermobaric” bombs.
The Russian Army used this type of bomb against Chechen insurgents in the nineties, to little effect. Moscow’s failure to put down the rebellion in seven years of fighting is partly responsible for the arrival of US Special Forces in neighboring Georgia in the last two weeks.
US and Afghan intelligence estimate that if thousands of enemy troops are allowed to return to the fray in early April, they will be capable of tipping the scales in Kabul, the capital, and the key city of Kandahar. Already, the Taliban and al Qaeda are reported sending advance parties out to extend their areas of control in the ZabolProvince in the east and Ghazni in the south, bribing local tribesmen with money and weapons.
debkafile‘s military sources report that the US-Afghan force appears to be facing a mainly Taliban force with a small – no more than 300-500-man – al Qaeda element, mostly Pakistanis, Yemenis and Chechens, who made it out of Kandahar and Tora Bora in earlier stages of the fighting.
The current offensive, which needs another week at least, has already been an eye-opener. The American-Afghan setback on Saturday demonstrated that the Taliban and its al Qaeda partners had studied the five-month battlefront – especially the Tora Bora campaign of mid-December – and drawn some lessons. They are in far better shape now than in the days of the Mazar- e-Sharif, Konduz and Tora Bora battles.
The Tora Bora engagement was for the Taliban and al Qaeda no more than a delaying maneuver to cover a rapid tactical withdrawal in the face of superior strength. Today, their objectives and style of combat are quite different. They have replaced their small, undisciplined bands and free-ranging chiefs with an organized central command at the head of a hierarchy, arming the revamped units with communications equipment and decent clothes. Their arsenal is substantial, containing such heavy weaponry as missiles, mortars and heavy machine guns, which they have learned to use economically. Seen against Afghan battlefield traditions, their food and ammunition supply systems are much enhanced, as are their facilities for caring for the wounded, including evacuation to hospital.
There are signs that they have developed a competent, real-time field intelligence capability; their units are also far more mobile and flexible, they time counter-attacks for the hours of dark, have learned to evade US bombing strikes by day and fortify their positions.
The Taliban also command a reserve force – not large but adequate – part of which is standing by across the border in West Pakistan.
Faced with enhanced and expanded Taliban-al Qaeda combat capabilities, US strategists will need to retool their assault plans accordingly. It must be scheduled for no later than March 15-20, before the receding winter snows open up the mountain passes to Taliban movement.
One other problem confronting US military planners is psychological: After declaring the Taliban and al Qaeda routed in Afghanistan and having installed a new democratic regime in Kabul, they must deal with the prospect of a lengthy American military presence to finish a job believed done. The Taliban were thrown out of Afghanistan’s cities, but withdrew to remote and mountainous country – and over the border to Pakistan – with their military strength unimpaired.
Al Qaeda too may have lost the use of its Afghan base, but this extremist group has likewise retained its strength, having sent its followers to safety in Pakistan, Iran, the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Syria and Lebanon.
The Taliban fighters, after resting up for the winter among friendly Pashtun tribal clans, are now reported by debkafile‘s military sources to be making their way back towards centers in Kandahar province, the Hindu Kush range north of Jalalabad, the Pamir panhandle wedged between Tajikistan, China and India, and Oruzgan. They intend to use those centers as springboards for a comeback in Kabul – but are quite capable of playing a waiting game until the American military has given up and gone home.

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