Some Things To Consider About Afghanistan -- From Those Who've Been There

From 1988 to 1992, freelance photographer Patrick O'Donnell was based in Peshawar, Pakistan, and often traveled deep into Afghanistan -- frequently in the company of Australian journalist Anthony Davis, who remains a leading authority on Afghanistan, and photograher Robert Nickelsberg, who briefly returned to Afghanistan earlier this year. Another friend of O'Donnell's, David Dienstag, spent much of the 80s either lobbying in Washington for the Federation for American-Afghan Action or carrying a Kalashnikov with the mujahedin who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

I asked the four what advice they had for those now contemplating American military action in Afghanistan. They agreed on several points. Their warnings were echoed by other old hands, including the veteran American intelligence officer whose analysis of the situation was requested by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. His brief report (a copy of which was leaked to me) was delivered last week.

Their advice:

Consider Pakistan an ally in name only, and appreciate that all dealings with Pakistan are fraught with peril. By all appearances, General Pervez Musharraf is a military leader who deposed a civilian government and now rules Pakistan as a dictator. In reality, Musharraf has limited control over the country, and even less control over Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) -- often referred to as a "state within a state" -- whose recently reassigned chief, General Mir Aslam Beg, has praised the Taliban as having "resolutely stood to achieve dignity and freedom." Their "endurance," he has said, "is a rich tribute to human courage, which flows from Faith."

As far as America's newspapers of record are concerned, Pakistan may as well not have an intelligence service. Since September 11, The Washington Post has made one passing mention of ISI, and The New York Times has acknowledged it less than half a dozen times. Indeed, a line in a September 17 Times report had some old hands howling with laughter. It referred to ISI as an agency "thought to have unique intelligence on Mr. Bin Laden's operations in Afghanistan and his whereabouts" -- a remarkably circumspect characterization, given that ISI has personnel on the ground fighting with the Taliban. "Whatever Musharraf says, you can't expect Pakistan to be speaking with one voice, or acting coherently with regard to Afghanistan," says Dienstag. "Especially as ISI's former head is as much an independent Islamist romantic as the Taliban."

The private intelligence report submitted to the Secretary of Defense offers another explanation. Unhappy with the patchwork quilt of contentious factions that was Afghanistan in the early 90s, Pakistan's concern, the report says, "was to promote ethnic Pashtun control over the country, which was being run by Afghans hostile to Pashtun rule and Pakistani influence." (The Pashtun are the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan and constitute about 40 percent of the Afghan population.) On that score, the "active military support" that flowed from ISI to the group of students who became the Taliban seems to have been a success. The report characterizes the Taliban today as "amenable to Pakistani political influence although not totally subservient to it."

The Taliban have also been excellent proxies in the service of Pakistan's foreign policy of keeping its neighbors off balance. The report to the Secretary of Defense notes that ISI has "used its position and support to the Taliban to establish within Afghanistan a series of training camps for Kashmiri terrorists." The reference is, no doubt, to such hardcore Islamist groups as Harakat-ul-Ansar and Lashkar-e-Taiba. "ISI personnel are present, in mufti, to conduct the training," according to this report, which "allows Pakistan 'plausible denial' that it is promoting insurgency in Kashmir." Indeed, according to senior diplomatic and intelligence sources, the training camps in Afghanistan that were hit by U.S. cruise missiles in 1998 were not being used by Bin Laden's forces, but by ISI to train Kashmiris.

While many observers are agnostic about reports from the Northern Alliance that divisions of Pakistani regulars are seeing combat alongside the Taliban, no one doubts that ISI officers and cadre are working and fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. This may be less so under current ISI chief Mahmood Ahmed, a secular Muslim and close friend of Musharraf, but Davis and others say that ISI is not beyond subverting its own chief. "Some of [ISI's people] may decide not to share intelligence to begin with. A lot of information just isn't likely to be made available," he says. And whatever is made available, says a senior U.S. government operative who has worked with ISI, isn't likely to be of lasting value. Warns this official, who wishes to remain anonymous, "On very specific, short-term matters, they're ok, but on anything long-term, you've got a serious problem, because of the political agendas involved."

(In fact, the United States is likely to rely more on India for intelligence. Not only does India's Orwellianly-named Research and Analysis Wing have good operatives on the ground in Afghanistan; but, according to Indian press reports, Christina Rocca, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, cultivated good ties with the Indians in a previous professional life -- as the CIA officer in charge of tracking down the Stinger missiles that the United States gave ISI for the mujahedin. Many of the missiles ended up "missing," and Rocca's ire with ISI reached such heights that she got Pakistan designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993.)

But wariness of Pakistan should not be limited to matters of intelligence. "Putting U.S. troops into a place like Peshawar [the largest Pakistani city near the Afghan border] would be similar to [putting a] Marine barracks in Beirut," says Dienstag. "I do not share others' confidence that this is a workable partnership. Be prepared for Pakistan to implode. The cancer of extremism there has advanced to the terminal stage."

The mere presence of U.S. troops will inflame public opinion and political intrigue, adds O'Donnell. If there's any notion of using a city like Peshawar as a secure staging area for U.S. soldiers, particularly ground troops, forget it. The area, he says, is awash in all manner of small arms and artillery, as well as Taliban-style Islam. About a third of Taliban cadre were taught in madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province near Peshawar, and the madrassas have continued to send recruits. They also have entrenched Talibanism on the Pakistan side of the border, effectively erasing the border.

"Everything west of Peshawar to the border, going north and south, is called the 'Federally-Administered Tribal Area'. When we were there, we referred to it as the 'Tribally-Administered Federal Area,"' O'Donnell says. "The British could never control it; the best they could do is get a treaty that gave them jurisdiction over the roads. The Pakistani government inherited that agreement, and they don't go in there without troops, and they don't stay for long. If we try to go in overland from Pakistan, it's a logistical nightmare, and a tactical one as well. Taking any armor through the tribal areas would be ill-advised. And while we could get in with helicopters, troops would have a world of hurt waiting for them in Pakistan after they got back from a mission."

Appreciate that getting rid of Osama Bin Laden will not "win the war," and a war on Bin Laden's organization, Al Qaeda, means a war with the Taliban. The intelligence analysis submitted to the Secretary of Defense maintains that Bin Laden's "death would demoralize his followers although by itself [it] will not destroy his organization." Anthony Davis agrees with the last part but takes issues with the first. "Either the Taliban decides to hand him over, he gets snatched, or he gets killed," Davis says. "Paradoxically, any of these could be the worst options. He will become either a martyr or more of a cult figure than he already is. At the same time, his whole infrastructure will remain behind. And the Taliban will say, 'You've got what you wanted, but now you want more, so it's not about Bin Laden, but about Afghanistan and Islam.'"

Of course, the Taliban already sees things that way. And indeed, as Nickelsberg points out, look who's fighting on the Taliban's front lines to secure the "new Mecca" of Afghanistan. "The Afghans now rely on Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and Pakistanis as cannon fodder, " Nickelsberg says. The goal of these fighters, as Bin Laden has said, is to impose a new caliphate led by the Taliban's Mullah Omar on all the Muslim world. According to the report to the Defense Secretary, there's no way to separate out Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Afghan war: "Bin Laden's estimated 4,000 to 5,000 fighters are intertwined with the Taliban military, and Mullah Omar considers Bin Laden as his right hand." Over the past four years, the report emphasizes, "Bin Laden's men have fought with the Taliban against [Ahmand Shah] Massud, the recently assassinated leader of the Northern Alliance, and Bin Laden has suffered the losses of at least seven hundred men in the fighting, including one of his own sons a few months ago."

Current U.S. military doctrine is not suited to this kind of war and must be changed. Over the past decade, many military and defense analysts have argued that the threat most likely to menace America nowadays is an "asymmetric" one. It will not come from the kind of easily identifiable target for which the U.S. military is best prepared -- with big strategic, high-tech projectiles that can be launched from afar and win the day. Nor will it come from "rogue nations" equipped with ballistic missiles, the phantom menace that "Star Wars" is supposed to defend against.

Moreover, these analysts say, when faced with an enemy who's not really a state actor, is diffuse, highly mobile, low-tech, and fanatical, what's crucial for the American military to have is not a slew of bombs and missiles, but an entire force trained in maneuver warfare -- a style of fighting that relies on light material, fast tactics, and good intelligence. Soldiers and commanders must be trained to really understand the enemy in order to outthink him and stay one step ahead.

The culture of the U.S. Special Forces does embrace these notions, as I was recently reminded by Mark Lewis, a former U.S. Army Ranger now with the Institute for Defense Analysis. But Lewis says that Special Forces alone may not be enough in Afghanistan, and the United States has to take a hard look at the readiness of the rest of the military for this kind of warfare. "Part of the reason this war is going to take so long is that that there are a whole bunch of capabilities. . . we need that we don't have, and what we have isn't all that relevant," he says. "Your carrier battle groups are not particularly useful. Your F-22 isn't. Your armored divisions aren't either. You're gonna fight this by targeting specific groups of individuals, which means you need a whole bunch of different intelligence capabilities, and I'm not sure that a lot of conventional forces are suitable for this."

O'Donnell and his friends aren't optimistic either. They say Special Forces may be up to the task, but if regular army forces are deployed, they will be in over their heads. "I think the U.S. military has evolved," says O'Donnell, "but not enough to handle this." Dienstag sneers: "They say we're in this for the long haul? Really? With aircraft carriers, against a landlocked country that's been bombed before, with a people who can withstand punishment and know the terrain? I hope when I hear people saying 'We don't need to do this overnight,' that means we're willing to do this incrementally, rather than hit hard with too much force. Use food. Feed civilians. Bin Laden will fight this as classically guerilla as he can, but the key battleground may well be in the minds of his recruits and potential recruits; that's how you'll 'drain the swamp.'"

Know the enemy and the environment, and apply lessons learned from everyone's past mistakes. The upside for the U.S. military is that its Special Forces are trained for maneuver warfare, and they do place a premium on understanding where they're going. "Before we went to the Balkans, we studied the history, because we knew everyone we'd talk to would bring it up and we knew we'd lose respect in their eyes if we didn't know it, and they were surprised when NCOs could fire back with that knowledge," says one Army Special Forces officer. "We like to say if we cannot blend in with the indigenous surroundings, at least we can understand them. And believe me, there are a lot of guys studying everything they can about Afghanistan right now."

The officer concedes that this is a belated catch-up effort, which until this month the nation's war colleges offered little on Afghanistan and the Soviet experience there. ("We got an interesting guest lecture from a Russian officer once," another officer says, "but that's about it.") For example, though it's dated, one of the best books on fighting in Afghanistan is Olivier Roy's Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, a succinct but detailed 1986 study of the various factions of mujahedin and the evolution of their strategy and tactics, as well as those of the Soviets. It appears not to be on any required or recommended reading lists at the war colleges. And while Lt. Col. Lester Grau's The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan, a translation of a critical Soviet military analysis, was praised by military reviewers as "outstanding" and "a valuable learning tool," the U.S. military stopped publishing it years ago. A quick check with the military college libraries suggests that Grau's sequel, The Other Side of the Mountain: Muhjahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War, published last year, also hasn't cropped up in many classrooms.

Still, it seems that Grau's counsel is now being sought by U.S. military planners. Last week, he was not at his office in the Foreign Military Studies section at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, but away on temporary duty at an undisclosed location, and he is now under orders not to talk to the media about anything. If true, it's good to know he's being listened to.

The reason to attend to this history is not that U.S. forces will necessarily suffer the same defeats the Soviets did. There are, after all, differences between the Soviet forces then and U.S. forces now. The Soviets were beset by a largely conscripted army, bad relations between officers and non-commissioned officers, a glaring lack of coordination between conventional forces and KGB-run secret police, and strategy changes with each new Soviet leader. It also suffered form an over-centralized command structure, and armor that was too heavy to be of any use. While the U.S. has no shortage of useless-in-this-case armor, it does, by contrast, have an all-volunteer force that's well trained and led.

But however well trained U.S. forces may be, the Soviet experience gives a good idea of what they'll be up against. So American planners should heed, for instance, Olivier Roy's assessment of the Soviets in his 1986 study: "Even if the Russians get better at moving around quickly in search-and-destroy operations," he wrote, "they will not succeed in surrounding and wiping out the Mujahedin in significant numbers. The very flimsiness of the military infrastructure┬ůmeans there are no military objectives."

Or O'Donnell's assessment: "The Soviet Spetznaz, the elite heliborne assault unit, almost always won every engagement decisively when they would decide to move in some place," he says. "But they were incapable of holding anyplace. Because the Afghans would just retreat into the hills, and strike back when they wanted to. Basically, the Aghans didn't win any battles against the Russians. Instead, they just wore them down. The Afghan ability to absorb punishment should not be underestimated by anyone. They can't dish it out well, but boy, can they take it."

And while the mujahedin were not so great at offensive action, O'Donnell remembers only too well the zeal with which Bin Laden's imported Arabs went looking for a fight. "I had tea and dinner with them a number of times," he says. "They were lunatics. We called them the Foreign Legion, a collection of maybe 500 hardcore Islamist expats from the Middle East and North Africa, even China and Malaysia. Very, very hostile to foreigners, and Americans in particular. For journalists, they were the people to go see, because they loved shooting at communists and were always fighting. But they made it clear they didn't like us, by spitting at us, pointing guns at us, telling me they wanted to shoot me."

The analysis sent to the Secretary of Defense suggests not much has changed since then: "Bin Laden is protected by a core of several hundred fanatic guards who are willing to die to protect him from seizure. Several Bin Laden fighters, captured by the Northern Alliance, have committed suicide while in custody, " the author reports. "The Taliban itself will defend against any foreign attempt to seize Bin Laden and will not cooperate in any effort to destroy the training camps. As fierce battle proven fighters, Taliban soldiers are courageous and will not flee."

All military operations should be coordinated with, and in support of, the Northern Alliance. The old hands have different takes on whether U.S. combat troops would inspire the average Afghan to rise up against the Taliban. Davis thinks not. While the regime is hardly beloved by the majority (especially in the south, where farmers have been forbidden to grow poppy, a major cash crop), Davis says it's important to remember that Afghanistan 2001 is not Afghanistan 1979. "The popular reaction to invasion would be very different," he says, "and would not necessarily generate a popular uprising. You have to bear in mind that 4 million people are potentially about to starve due to famine, and people there are weary."

Dienstag disagrees, contending that if given supplies, average Afghans would fight, because they're sick of Bin Laden's Arabs and the Taliban's doctrines. "Those Wahaibis are so obnoxious it's astonishing," he says. "They don't have popular support. Give an Afghan a gun and ammo and he'll do it."

Nickelsberg takes a third position. "After 20 years of war, then civil war, then famine," he says, "a lot of people are beyond resisting anymore. They just mutter and go on about their ways." While an Afghan "could be very much against the Taliban and willing to fight him," he says, "as soon as someone else comes into the territory, that's another enemy. There's a great suspicion of strangers, and people may not react the way foreign soldiers expect, even though they have the best intentions." Besides, he adds, alliances between fighting factions in Afghanistan tend to hold up only as long as the money does. "Different military commanders who hold different pieces of territory are bought off quite often by either the [Northern] Alliance or the Taliban, and those allegiances are very fickle," he says. "Factor in the very suspicions nature towards outsiders and it becomes very unpredictable."

What all of them do agree on, however, is the assessment that the Northern Alliance is only too happy to fight -- and that U.S. military should give the Alliance whatever it needs in supplies, arms, training, and then combat support. This is the right thing to do: Because he was an ethnic Tajik, the Alliance's leader Massud got none of the goodies the United States shipped to ISI for disbursement to mujahedin during the struggle against the Soviets. It is also the sensible thing to do, given the experience and topographical knowledge of Massud's men. "My personal assessment is that we can do this without significant use of ground forces," says a senior State Department official with extensive Pakistan/Afghanistan experience. "If we can help the Taliban opponents get rid of the Taliban, then they can take care of the terrorists, because they hate them even more than we do."

According to the report presented to the Secretary of Defense, there has, in fact, been limited liaising with the Alliance for some time, in the form of a previously-unrevealed secret eavesdropping operation. "A network of electronic collection posts already inside the country, supported by Northern Alliance personnel, will assist in any American military operation," the report says. It also reveals -- as The New York Times did Sunday -- that "the Alliance has provided intelligence and other support to the U.S., [and] Special Forces and CIA personnel have been afforded access inside Afghanistan by Alliance forces." That said, the report acknowledges that, in the past, "the U.S. appears to have missed an opportunity to strengthen the opposition to the Taliban by providing lethal assistance to the Alliance."

To be sure, the Northern Alliance is not the most cohesive group when it comes to politics, and some of its members have a history of turning on each other (as do most tribes and political factions in Afghanistan). And like every combatant group that's fought in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, the Alliance has a dreadful record of human rights abuses and war crimes. (That it's treated civilians in its territories less onerously than the Taliban have is the best one can say for the Alliance on this score.) For these reasons, some commentators have warned against the United States having anything to do with the Alliance, lest we repeat a common American foreign policy mistake -- allying with someone who's just as problematic, now or later, as the enemy du jour.

But others say that the U.S. decision to walk away from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and to let Pakistan do as it pleased there with tacit U.S. support was what got us where we are now and is not a policy to be repeated.

The civil component of any intervention in Afghanistan is crucial. Dienstag and Nickelsberg argue that in simple atonement for that past mistake, the U.S. should now be helping to get rid of the Taliban and also making an effort to set up civil administration wherever possible in Afghanistan. "There haven't been things like schools and hospitals there, either, and I think it would be good to help build those, too," Dienstag says. "And those are areas that allies who want to help [the United States] but don't want to do it militarily could take a role."

O'Donnell believes that a high priority should be the establishment of militarily protected safe havens, not unlike the enclaves that were set up to protect imperiled refugees from Iraqi troops after their failed uprising in 1991. "I hope that, if anything, this makes George W. do what George Senior should have done for the Afghans ten years ago," he says. But according to the officials I've spoken to in both the Pentagon and the State Department, that is wishful thinking; at this point, they say, military planners in particular are almost exclusively preoccupied with pure combat operations.

Another critical job for diplomats is to encourage the "Rome Process," in which Zahir Shah, the deposed King of Afghanistan who now lives in Italy, has been endeavoring to establish a constitutional government-in-exile. Diplomats should be fostering ties between the King's crowd, professionals in the Afghan diaspora, and other leaders still in Afghanistan.

"We have to acknowledge that this so-called 'war' is pointless unless we aid the process of rebuilding the country now," says a senior intelligence official. "But in situations like this, this is always the hardest thing to do, or the thing that gets lost in the shuffle."