When American warplanes began bombing Afghanistan on
October 7, 2001, the Pentagon and the press cautioned that victory would not come
quickly. The fabled Taliban warriors were battle-tested, schooled in guerrilla
warfare, and uniquely familiar with Afghanistan's rugged terrain. They also
fielded some 45,000 troops, versus the Northern Alliance's 12,000--a sure recipe
for a Vietnam-style quagmire, claimed pundits, noting that no foreign army had
successfully conquered Afghanistan since Alexander the Great.
Fast-forward 10 weeks. The forces opposing the United
States have been routed, from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul, from Kandahar to Tora
Bora. Milton Bearden, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in
Pakistan, predicts that the Taliban is politically and militarily finished and
that its remaining elements will fold back into Afghanistan's tribal structure.
"They had their turn and they squandered it," says Bearden. "They're like those
dot-com kids who became millionaires and then had to move back in with their
Bearden brings some bona fides to back up his assessment: He helped direct the
CIA's covert program to back mujahideen rebels fighting Soviet troops in the
1980s. The Soviets, too, had seized control of most major Afghan cities within
two weeks of their 1979 invasion. Afterward, they were bled so badly--some 12,000
casualties in 10 years--that they ultimately withdrew. Is America's Afghan war
really over--and if so, why so fast? The Prospect ran the question by a number of
Cold War-era Afghan hands, including CIA officials, gunrunners, and Green Berets.
Some answers don't take an expert to figure: the complete mismatch of opposing
forces, for example, particularly given the United States' total control of the
air. According to Andrew Gembara, a former U.S. Special Forces officer, American
technological superiority has been a factor since as early as late September,
when army special-forces units began conducting strategic reconnaissance against
the Taliban. Using night-vision equipment for round-the-clock surveillance of
suspected enemy hideouts, these units could also guide in troops or call for air
strikes with handheld equipment. Many Taliban soldiers were likely killed without
even knowing they were in the sights of enemy fire.
Technology, of course, was supposed to avail American soldiers little against
a fearsome guerrilla army. One ex-CIA official recalls a discussion he had in the
1980s with the mujahideen commander Abdul Haq (who was captured and executed by
the Taliban on October 26 of last year). Asked if he was worried about the
dreaded Russian special forces known as Spetsnaz and popularly portrayed as
unstoppable superwarriors, Haq replied: "Why should we be afraid of the Spetsnaz?
They train for a few years in the mountains, they learn to carry heavy weights
across long distances, and they [operate] in bad weather and with bad food. So
what? That's our life." But the CIA official notes that the Taliban is not itself
a battle-hardened force. Most of the original mujahideen fought on the side of
the Northern Alliance. In fact, the Taliban's 1996 victory owed more to
negotiation than to military might. Pakistani intelligence also helped the
Taliban substantially--and that tie was officially severed at the start of this
So, seemingly, were the Taliban's ties to its own people, many of whom had
come to revile the theocratic regime. "It wasn't clear until the war started how
little support they had," says Andrew Eiva, a former Green Beret who helped
train the mujahideen in air defense. "That made it easier for the United States
to peel Pashtuns away from the regime." That goal was achieved through a variety
of means, including cash payments and other inducements offered to tribal
"We have bought, negotiated, and conquered local people to our side," says
Frank Anderson, a former CIA station chief who played a central role in running
the agency's Afghan operation.
Some current and past Afghan experts, however, admonish that it is too soon
to declare the campaign triumphant. Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, they fear,
could still regroup in the mountains in order to launch a guerrilla war on the
new government and U.S. forces. At a December 19 Pentagon news conference,
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld cautioned: "It would be a mistake to say
that the al-Qaeda is finished in Afghanistan at this stage." About a week earlier,
General Tommy Franks, head of the central command, voiced similar concerns about
"pockets of resistance" in remote parts of Afghanistan.
But it will be hugely difficult for the dwindling remnants of the Taliban and
al-Qaeda to mount any serious military challenge to the United States. Melvin
Goodman, a former senior analyst at the CIA who monitored the Afghan-Soviet war,
believes that the bombing campaign caused considerable confusion and panic among
forces loyal to the former government. "At this point, who could even lead or
organize a guerrilla campaign?" asks Goodman. "You might have very small groups
of resistance, but most [potential fighters] have probably cut and run."
What fighters remain would be completely isolated, Bearden points out. No
outside power is prepared to lend Taliban fighters the kind of support the CIA
channeled to the mujahideen throughout the 1980s. At the peak of its operation,
the agency was funneling 60,000 tons of military equipment and supplies to
rebels annually. The CIA also backed the mujahideen with critical intelligence
and operational support the likes of which would not be forthcoming to a
guerrilla force today.
Nonetheless, potential problems still lurk down the road. Gembara says that
the trickiest phase of the current campaign is just about to begin: closing down
the guerrilla forces the United States helped create. "This is a dangerous point
where various dissident groups might emerge and become the new bad guys,"
according to Gembara. And Afghanistan is flush with weapons, since outside
powers, including the United States, have pumped in an estimated $8 billion worth
over the last two decades.
Perhaps most likely, however, is an eruption of the tribal hostilities that
the past two decades of continuous fighting have stoked. But even on this score,
there have been some encouraging signs. With the exception of the Northern
Alliance's occupation of Kabul, the various anti-Taliban factions have largely
confined themselves to their own ethnic turf. If the Northern Alliance doesn't try
to move into Pashtun areas in other parts of the country--and if it refrains from
carrying out large-scale atrocities in Kabul, as it did when it controlled the
city between 1992 and 1996--peace may stand a significantly better chance.
The promise of billions of dollars in foreign aid furnishes a powerful
incentive for the various factions to keep the peace--but it is also a potential
source of friction. "There's not going to be an armed struggle, but there will be
a struggle over who gets what slice of the foreign-aid pie," surmises Vincent
Cannistraro, chief of counterterrorism operations at the CIA during the last few
years of the Afghan war. He predicts infighting among the leaders of the new
government, ministerial resignations, and threats of violence; but he believes
that the new government will last three to six months. Beyond that, neither he
nor others the Prospect interviewed were confident venturing a guess.
Despite all this uncertainty, some U.S. hard-liners have not just
declared victory: They've recommended extending the Afghan war's methods to Iraq.
The argument from this camp--led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz,
former CIA Director James Woolsey, and Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard
Perle--is that a combination of air strikes and special-forces actions will
prompt a popular uprising and mass desertions from the Iraqi army. Few American
forces will then be needed to topple Saddam Hussein, because the Iraqi National
Congress (INC), which musters Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiites in the south,
will carry out the bulk of the fighting.
Former Afghan hands find this scenario highly dubious. They
suspect that in order to topple Hussein, far more than the 10,000 or so U.S.
troops that were sent to Afghanistan would be needed. The Iraqi army is much
better equipped and trained than the Taliban. More important, the opposition does
not have a reliable fighting force comparable to the Northern Alliance. "The INC
is worthless," says Goodman. "The Kurds are split down the middle with some of
them cutting deals with Saddam, and the Shiites are not well organized."
The military prospects are further complicated by geopolitical considerations.
Given the lack of clear evidence that Hussein was involved in the September 11
attacks or the anthrax incidents, even the closest U.S. allies are unlikely to
follow the Bush administration into Iraq. Furthermore, few Islamic governments
truly cared much about Afghanistan, but a war on Iraq would be a different
matter. That means that even if the hard-liners are right about the possibility
of painlessly overthrowing Hussein, the United States alone would need to occupy
Iraq afterward. A retired intelligence officer confides that the United States
doesn't have the resources to handle that task: "We've already got troops in
Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and now these people want to start another war,"
he says. "At some point, the rubber band is going to snap."
Goodman believes that invading Iraq is not only undesirable but unnecessary.
He notes that the Afghan war's success has already led governments in Yemen and
Sudan, both of which have provided support to al-Qaeda in the past, to offer at
least partial cooperation with the United States. "The effectiveness of our
weapons, and our willingness to use them, have made an impression on Hussein,"
he adds. "We've delivered a message and he got it."