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U.S.: Military May Face Long, Tough Battle in Afghanistan

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Western media attention has focused in recent days on efforts to build a post-Taliban Afghanistan, almost taking for granted a swift U.S.-led military victory there. But U.S. officials now warn it could be a long, difficult battle -- and that Osama bin Laden may never be caught.

Washington, 26 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States may be the globe's richest and most powerful country, but its leaders are acknowledging that toppling the Taliban -- the rulers of one of the world's poorest countries -- may not happen any time soon.

In recent days, as the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan has appeared to make significant progress, Western media have focused on efforts to build a post-Taliban government in the Central Asian country.

But nearly three weeks after bombs began to rain down on terrorist and military targets in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is pouring cold water on assumptions that U.S. success will come easy as military analysts begin to warn of a drawn-out battle lasting well through the winter.

At a news conference yesterday at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld had this to say: "I guess it's all a question of what your level of expectation was. But anyone I think who's watched the history in that country and seen the fact that the people who are still in that country and who still have power in that country, seem perfectly willing to spend year after year fighting each other. One ought not to be surprised -- at least I'm not surprised -- that they are good at that task: of fighting each other. And I guess my expectation was that -- that they would be determined -- and that we have to do what we can to assist the forces on the ground to defeat them."

The U.S.-led campaign was launched in retaliation at the 11 September terrorist attacks that killed more than 5,000 people in New York and Washington. U.S. officials blame those attacks on Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born militant whom the Taliban is said to be harboring in Afghanistan.

The campaign's initial aim was to bring bin Laden to justice as well as dismantle his Al-Qaeda terrorist network, and only later to also overthrow the Taliban for allowing him and his followers to flourish in Afghanistan.

But Rumsfeld now admits that capturing bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in the caves of rural, arid Afghanistan, may be beyond the reach of the world's sole superpower: "It's hard. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack. I suspect it's easier to change the Taliban leadership over time than necessarily to simultaneously, or before the fact, find a specific person. But we certainly intend to find him and we're doing everything humanly possible to do that."

Michael O'Hanlon is a military analyst at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank. He says that while it's true that expectations for a quick victory had grown in recent days, no one ever believed it would be easy to topple the Taliban forces, who are expert guerrilla fighters: "No one should be too surprised that Afghanistan is a tough place to win a war, even for a superpower."

Indeed, according to Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank, this could be a much longer battle than most Americans had braced for. Cordesman had this to say: "This war could go on through the winter and well into the spring."

"The New York Times" yesterday quoted a key British military official, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, as saying that the U.S.-led attacks will require raids by ground forces for weeks at a time in order to be successful.

But none of the analysts interviewed by RFE/RL believed that large numbers of U.S. or British troops would be deployed for long periods of time in Afghanistan.

Instead, they said special operations troops would continue to be used for quick strikes at clear targets, but the campaign's chief concern on the ground will be to train and supply the largely Uzbek and Tajik opposition Northern Alliance as well as enlist fighters from the southern Pashtun, the ethnic majority of Afghanistan from which the Taliban hail.

O'Hanlon had this to say: "I would expect that over time we can be successful. But it's going to hinge obviously on broadening the resistance to include more groups besides the Northern Alliance. I think it's going to hinge also on training and equipping the resistance, in addition to acting as its air force. It's going to be a bit of a struggle, I think, for the rest of the fall."

But where O'Hanlon sees a chance, others see a missed opportunity.

Edward Atkeson is a Washington military analyst and former army intelligence officer. He believes the U.S. made a key mistake by not immediately seeking to form a government in exile for Afghanistan prior to the military campaign. He also feels that an all-Islamic "liberation force" should have been formed among the millions of Afghan refugees living in the borderlands of Pakistan.

Atkeson says that failure has now left the U.S. with its hands tied: "We're in a position now that we don't have any instrument at hand for essentially occupying the country and putting it back together. All we've got are fractious tribal elements and it's not going very well."

Moreover, Atkeson believes that the longer the war carries on, the more difficult it will be to keep together the international coalition against terrorism that it is backing the battle as well as its American popular support.

"There's no question as foreign wars go on, people start to think, 'Isn't there some way out of this?' They forget what happened on 11 September. I mean, that sort of fades into the background -- they weren't directly involved."

To make sure its global partners "keep the faith," O'Hanlon believes the U.S. needs to step up its efforts to support the Afghan people by ensuring they have the basic necessities to survive the coming winter. The U.S. is already air-dropping thousands of packets of food and medicine daily on Afghanistan, but there is no proof that the people are receiving the aid.

Whatever the case, O'Hanlon evidently has company in high places. President George W. Bush embraced that very same view in a speech yesterday to an elementary school in the U.S. capital: "I think the best way to handle the attacks of 11 September is to fight fear with friendship, is to fight fear with hope."

Without offering a timetable, Bush stressed that ultimately the U.S.-led fight against terrorism will triumph.