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Afghanistan: Analysts Say Pentagon Surprised By Sudden Taliban Retreat

  • Andrew Tully

Prior to the events of this week, U.S. defense officials had openly expressed disbelief and some frustration that the Taliban had refused to give up the Afghan capital Kabul. So many people were surprised when Kabul fell -- with little apparent resistance -- on 13 November. Was the Pentagon being candid in its statements about the Taliban's tenacity? Or did it, too, fail to anticipate so early a retreat from Kabul? RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke with defense analysts in Washington and filed this report.

Washington, 15 November 2001 (RFE?RL) -- Military analysts say the U.S. Defense Department may have been as surprised as the rest of the world at the abrupt fall of Kabul on 13 November.

In the weeks leading up to the Taliban's flight from the Afghan capital, the Pentagon gave no public indication that it expected the city to fall into the hands of the opposition Northern Alliance. But then, American military officials have been careful about discussing operations.

Three independent military analysts, however, told RFE/RL they believe the Pentagon could not have anticipated the Taliban's sudden retreat.

One, James Phillips, who studies national security for the Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington, says the Northern Alliance, from its vantage point on the front lines, might not have been able to give Americans thorough and accurate estimates of damage caused by the bombing.

A second analyst agrees. He is Ivan Eland, the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, another Washington policy foundation. Eland adds that American forces' own damage assessments, conducted from aircraft, were probably even less reliable than those provided by the anti-Taliban forces. He says such aerial surveys have always been less than informative: "I think sometimes the government does get surprised about this, because -- I mean, you can pound the Taliban forces from the air, but bomb-damage assessment is sort of an art rather than a science, you know, especially if you're hitting moving targets."

A third analyst, James Lindsay, said the Pentagon's surprise is due more to a miscalculation of time than to anything else. Lindsay, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution, another Washington-based policy center, says U.S. military officials simply believed that the bombing would force the Taliban to give up much sooner than it eventually did: "The military strategy appears to be working, but it didn't work according to the schedule they themselves had anticipated."

In fact, Lindsay says that until recently there was concern among senior military and civilian U.S. officials that the strategy might be failing altogether. Now, he says, they must feel great relief that their plan has proved viable.

The sudden shift in control of Kabul and much of the rest of northern Afghanistan also raises the possibility that the U.S. and Britain may be able to reduce the intensity of bombing in Afghanistan. Many Muslim leaders have urged a slowdown or even a halt in the bombing during Islam's holiest month, which begins in several days.

But none of the analysts believes that would happen. Phillips, of the Heritage Foundation, says now is the time to intensify the bombing because the retreating Taliban make such appealing targets.

"This is the time when you really want to pour on the bombing because they're scurrying around, they're out in the open, they haven't gone to ground yet -- at least a lot of them that are still retreating from Kabul. That's when air power can be really effective, catching them out in the open."

Eland of the Cato Institute agrees. He adds that the best way to ensure the defeat of the Taliban is to make sure they have no time to rest: "I think we need to do what we need to do to get it [the war] done. And [it's] all the better not to give the enemy a pause because if you give the enemy a pause, they may regroup. That may be just what they need."

Lindsay of the Brookings Institution points out that the bombing probably will proceed without much letup unless the Taliban's resolve erodes further and they finally decide to surrender Osama bin Laden, whom the U.S. blames for the 11 September attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

And Lindsay says further bombing is likely to be conducted against more remote areas, to which the Taliban is now retreating. According to Lindsay, that means bombing during this next phase of the war will not be near civilian areas.

The U.S. has been criticized over uncorroborated reports that its bombing campaign has caused hundreds of civilian casualties. Many of these reports were carried by Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite television network that broadcasts to much of the Middle East. Al-Jazeera said on 13 November that its own offices in Kabul had been bombed by U.S. warplanes and its staff had left the Afghan capital and the southern city of Kandahar.

Repeatedly, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said it is unfair to assume that allied bombing is solely to blame for civilian casualties. He says they could also be caused by either the Taliban or the Northern Alliance.

Phillips of the Heritage Foundation says he finds it difficult to put much stock in the Al-Jazeera reports, because he says the network has been getting casualty figures from the Taliban and reports them uncritically. Eland of the Cato Institute is even more critical of Al-Jazeera, saying the network is emphatically partisan to the Taliban.

Lindsay, of the Brookings Institution, notes that few Western news organizations have been reluctant to disseminate reports of civilian casualties, although they took pains to emphasize that these accounts could not be independently verified. And he says that when journalists from these same Western news organizations entered Kabul with the Northern Alliance on 13 November, they found no immediate evidence of civilian casualties to report.

"It appears, given some of the early reports coming out of Kabul from journalists, ones that got into the city, that they found actually very little bombing -- evidence of bombing -- in civilian areas, and that, at least in the first [tour of the city], much of the bombing seems to have been as the Pentagon said it was: of government buildings and walled compounds."

In fact, Lindsay says, there is further evidence that civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been lower than some reports suggest. He notes that the people of Kabul welcomed American journalists as well as Northern Alliance soldiers, and limited their comments to denunciations of the Taliban.

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