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Afghanistan: Analysts Assess U.S. Military Strategy

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan is now in its fourth week, with aerial bombardment continuing on targets linked to the ruling Taliban. The Taliban, however, shows no evident sign of crumbling, and the time appears to be approaching when the U.S. and its allies will have to decide whether to deploy ground forces against them. So what has the bombing achieved so far, and what are the strategies open to the military in the coming weeks?

Prague, 29 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Bombing continues daily in Afghanistan as U.S. jets pound targets related to the ruling Taliban militia. But graying skies and cold winds herald the onset of winter, a season that means new complications for the United States and its allies in the antiterror coalition.

So far the bombing has gone on for more than three weeks, with initial successes, but apparently without changing the military situation definitively. Looking back at the experience of the NATO bombing in Kosovo in 1999, it's clear that air action alone is unable to produce a solution. For instance, in Kosovo, the Yugoslav army was able to march out of the province with its forces almost intact, despite 78 days of bombardments.

In Afghanistan, it's safe to say that Taliban air defenses have been degraded, and the Taliban front lines facing the opposition Northern Alliance forces have been harassed -- although not broken.

As military analyst Marc Houben of the Center for European Policy Studies puts it, results from the attacks on the front lines appear inconclusive.

"There were some stories in newspapers last week in which, for instance, local militia commanders were interviewed, and the information we got out of these interviews was pretty mixed. Some commanders were not very impressed. Others were impressed by the precision and the force with which the bombings were executed."

Winter, with its fog and snow, will hinder the bombing, reducing the number of raids and making accurate attacks more difficult. And therein lies a danger for the antiterrorism coalition. The risk of accidentally incurring higher civilian casualties from stray bombs will increase. As Houben says:

"The cause is just. That is absolutely true. But the issue of collateral damage has become politically so important that I would say there is a critical limit of collateral damage which can occur before the general public says, 'This is going in the wrong direction; we must think of something else.'"

Another senior military analyst, Charles Heyman of Jane's military publishing group, agrees on the danger posed by the growing number of civilian casualties. He says this is inevitably pushing the allies toward a new stage in the campaign. "The real problem with the bombing campaign now is civilian casualties, and they are beginning to raise a storm of protest across the world. And unless the allies start ground operations soon and reduce the number of civilian casualties from collateral damage, there is no doubt whatever that this campaign could run into some very, very serious hurdles."

The United States has so far not disclosed any plans for deployment of ground forces in Afghanistan beyond a relatively small recent incursion by U.S. special forces. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that larger deployments cannot be ruled out, and has spoken of a "long, long effort." But he said that Afghanistan will not be allowed to turn into a "quagmire" for the United States.

The path, however, will likely be a difficult one. As a former Soviet general, Viktor Yermatov, recalled in Moscow over the weekend, the Afghans make resolute, hardy, and wily soldiers. As a veteran of the unsuccessful Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Yermatov should know.

The question facing the American military planners is what level of ground force should be used. Analyst Houben, noting the difficulty of the terrain, foresees the use -- at least initially -- of compact teams of specially trained commandos. He says such commando teams would operate with a high degree of autonomy in their search for terrorist suspects, including chief suspect Osama bin Laden.

"The man on the ground -- who would be a sergeant or a lieutenant or a captain -- must make quite fundamental decisions on what to do if he gets into contact with, say, people belonging to the Osama bin Laden clan."

But analyst Heyman argues that commando raids will not be enough, in the long run, to finish the job.

"By and large, the Taliban military machine, certainly at personnel level, appears to be reasonably intact. You cannot take it apart with just a few commando pinprick raids. You really have to approach this from the point of view of big, joined-up military operations. All the generals know that the right way to do it is in overwhelming force, and they all know that the more you use, the less you lose."

At this point, Heyman sees deficiencies in the overall strategy, noting that no two Western politicians appear to see the aim of the military campaign in exactly the same way. He says clarity of aim is essential if the military campaign is to succeed. As he put it:

"I am beginning to get a feeling that the military are now starting to say [to the politicians]: 'What do you really want us to do? Once we really know what we have to do, we can do it.' But at this moment, I really feel that the military are beginning to look around and say 'What are we supposed to be doing here? What should be the aims of our operation?'"

Another looming difficulty is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, due to start on 17 November. Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf is among those who oppose the continuation of U.S. bombings during that period. Analysts say that the Muslim world would find the bombing of Afghanistan during Ramadan a bitter pill to swallow, and that it could contribute to a build-up of anti-American feeling.

Both Houben and Heyman urge greater emphasis on diplomacy to solve the crisis, as well as extra effort to win the hearts and minds of Muslims.

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