Northern Alliance in Fast-moving Victory Advance
The Northern Alliance’s surprise rout of the Taliban in its most formidable Northern fortress of Konduz Monday completed the Afghan opposition’s control of northern Afghanistan. The almost simultaneous fall of the northwestern town of Herat offers the Northern Alliance the military option of continuing its victorious march all the way to the capital, Kabul, by means of a pincer movement from the south and the east.
According to debkafile‘s military sources, the Northern Alliance may have gone too far and fast for the Americans to stop, despite their preference for the opposition army to defer its entry to Kabul until a post-Taliban government is put together, to avoid the civil bloodshed that is bound to ensue.
The speed of events on the ground has put President George W. Bush, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the US general command in somewhat of a dilemma over how to proceed with the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign. Should US and British Special Forces units let themselves be carried along with the North Alliance’s drive towards Kabul, or try and hold it back? Should US aerial strikes against Taliban lines go on at full intensity or be cut back?
Keeping up the strikes would drive Taliban forces into continued retreat and open the way for the Northern Alliance to take Kabul – prematurely, as far as Washington is concerned.
Since most of the Northern Alliance troops advancing on the capital are Uzbek like their commander, General Abdul Rashid Dostum (a minority group in Afghanistan), their capture of Kabul could draw the larger tribes into rallying round the Taliban and mounting a serious counter-offensive that would reverse opposition gains.
For Washington, the ideal outcome in Afghanistan would be a limited Northern Alliance victory, without Kabul, so as to leave US free to proclaim a Taliban defeat at the end of the first round of the war and provide good reason for calling a halt on US bombing attacks over the 30-day Muslim Ramadan festival, starting November 17.
Some of debkafile‘s sources believe the decision may have already been taken out of Washington’s hands. The Taliban’s retreat from seven northern provinces was too precipitate and the Northern Alliance’s progress to rapid for a halt to be called on its troops’ entry to Kabul, with or without continued air strikes.
The stunning Northern Alliance victories do not necessarily mean the Taliban has finally and completely collapsed. Their speedy retreat will have encouraged Northern Alliance forces to lengthen their lines, making them vulnerable to a Taliban counter-offensive. US bombers will not be able to operate in those circumstances for fear of striking at Northern Alliance forces by mistake.
The rapid and unexpected fall of the well-fortified Taliban city of Konduz is partly explained by the radio messages the Northern Alliance broadcast to the defenders, calling on Taliban commanders to change sides and turn over the foreign Arab, Pakistani and Chechen volunteers carrying the brunt of combat. According to some reports, many Taliban commanders did in fact go over to the Northern Alliance. Some, however, may be feigning, only to attack the opposition camp from within.
Even if they refrain from a counter-offensive, the Taliban retain control of their strongholds in Kandahar, Jalalabad and the Hindu Kush range, whence their fighters can prosecute a prolonged guerrilla war throughout the winter.