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Afghanistan: After Kabul, What Next For Military Campaign?

Northern Alliance troops are settling into Kabul today, one day after Taliban troops made their quiet retreat. The quick capture of the capital -- with little military resistance -- signals the end of the first phase of the military campaign. Will the Taliban now be driven from Kandahar? What's next for the militia that has ruled Afghanistan for the past five years?

Prague, 14 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Fighting continued today in cities across Afghanistan as the Northern Alliance sought to capitalize on its recent gains in Kabul and the northern regions while the Taliban regrouped to retain control of areas in southern Afghanistan.

CNN cites U.S. officials today as saying fighting had begun in Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban, and that the city was close to falling. Northern Alliance leaders say the city has fallen into the hands of oppositionist tribal leaders, but Reuters quotes local leaders in Kandahar as saying the city is still under Taliban control.

Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunis Qanuni said earlier today that the Taliban now controls less than 20 percent of Afghan territory. Qanuni said the Taliban lost control of the northeastern provinces of Laghman, Logar, Kunar, and Nangahar after local residents there revolted. Qanuni's claims could not be independently confirmed.

There are also new reports that the Taliban has retreated from the eastern city of Jalalabad after it fell to a local warlord. The fight for control of northern Kunduz is continuing for a second day, with thousands of Taliban fighters reportedly trapped around the town.

This week's rapid-fire gains by Northern Alliance rebels provide the United States with important new opportunities in pressing its war against terrorism in Afghanistan. Although the U.S. administration initially urged the alliance not to take Kabul, American officials have since cast yesterday's events in a positive light.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking today in New York, welcomed the celebratory atmosphere in Kabul following the Taliban withdrawal: "The sights of music and welcome [in Kabul] are certainly gratifying. It says something about how repressive and how vicious the Taliban rule and the Al-Qaeda rule have been."

He added, however, that the primary objectives of the military campaign -- the ousting of the Taliban and Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network -- are still far from guaranteed.

"It is, needless to say, gratifying to see the Taliban fleeing and the people of Afghanistan getting their country back. On the other hand, our task is to find the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership and we still have that ahead of us."

With the overall collapse of Taliban rule in northern Afghanistan, U.S. forces acquire critical land routes and airfields to resupply the alliance rebels, deliver humanitarian aid, and launch intensified air and ground attacks. The recent progress would allow insertion of more coalition forces and supplies on the ground, using a land bridge from Uzbekistan as well as northern Afghan and Tajik air bases.

But despite these significant military successes, analysts say a more difficult chapter is opening in the war against the Taliban, who have harbored bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network. Now U.S. commanders and opposition fighters must face the difficult challenge of transforming tactical success in the north into a strategic victory in the south.

The Taliban has said it is regrouping in the south after what the militia calls a "tactical withdrawal" from the north and Kabul.

Sohail Shaheen, the Taliban deputy ambassador to Pakistan, said today the Taliban is already formulating a new military strategy: "There is new regrouping and, of course, there will be a new program worked out."

Christopher Langton, chief defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the Taliban retreat south was a predictable military strategy: "That would be normal military activity. I think that the speed of the withdrawal, which may have been a withdrawal rather than a collapse, indicated that they were trying to conserve their force for some future action."

Langton says the Taliban has already spelled out its future military strategy. He says they will stick to the south and disperse into small groups operating from the hills. The south is dominated by the ethnic Pashtun majority, which also form the core of the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, which comprises mainly ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, is generally expected to face much greater resistance than it did in the north. Langton said the Taliban strategy in the south was likely to follow a traditional formula.

"If you look at the statement of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader -- some weeks ago, in fact -- he said quite clearly that he accepted that Kabul might fall and his regime might be toppled, [but] the Afghan people would do what they've always done throughout history, which is to melt away into the hills and conduct guerrilla warfare from the hills."

U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld today said that strategy would make the next stage of the military campaign more difficult than the first: "The Taliban, some pieces of it, are melting into the countryside. Part of it is because they may have decided to toss in the towel; in other cases they may simply be waiting to counterattack at some later time. And I think one ought not to assume that anything is necessarily permanent at this point. Until that country stabilizes, things could move back and forth."

Rumsfeld said yesterday that U.S. Special Forces were in southern Afghanistan and Kabul, as well as in teams helping target the Taliban in the north.

U.S. forces will face a new kind of resistance in the Pashtun-dominated south and will need new strategies for coping there.

The Taliban's bloodless withdrawal from Kabul may show the effectiveness of the U.S. strategy of combining an escalating bombing campaign with tactical advice from American and British special forces to the Northern Alliance. But Langton says the lack of real targets in the south -- coupled with minimal ground forces with which to coordinate air strikes -- will limit bombing campaigns to very specific targets in the region.

Using the Northern Alliance to push south beyond Kabul appears out of the question. The loosely grouped alliance is on familiar ground in the north. But Langton says those forces may have difficulty staging an effective attack in the south.

"They have really reached the limit of their traditional operating area, with maybe some exceptions in the west. So whether we would expect to see them moving further -- I think it's unlikely because they would move into very uncomfortable territory largely occupied by Pashtun people, where they would not be welcome."

The most likely scenario for a Taliban defeat in the south would be if an uprising were to occur among local Pashtun leaders and breakaway Taliban commanders. Opposition leaders and local people fleeing into Pakistan from southern Afghanistan say the local population has already begun to rise up against the fundamentalist militia. If reports of a Taliban rout in Kandahar are accurate, it could spur further anti-Taliban revolts that already appear to be gathering steam in the south. This, in turn, could make it more likely that bin Laden will be handed over to the West.