Pakistan has weakened America’s war against the Taliban – and terrorism.

18 October 2001: When America went to war against the Taliban on Sunday, 7 October, no one believed that it would end soon. Historians spoke of British defeats in the Afghan wars in the years of the Empire. Soviet veterans who had fought and lost against the mujahideen between 1979-89 said that the US had little chance of winning the war.

The Associated Press quoted one of them, Lieutenant-General (retired) Ruslan Aushev, as saying, “You can occupy (Afghanistan), you can put troops there and keep bombing, but you cannot win.” Aushev was also scathing about American chances of grabbing Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 11 September terror attacks against America.

“It’s as easy to lose yourself in the mountains as in the jungles,” Aushev said. US forces, he continued, would find Bin Laden “only if they’re ready to go over 500,000 square kilometres rock by rock.”

And yet, the main argument against a likely US defeat, apart from its superpower status, was that America was not alone in fighting the Taliban. All the neighbours of Afghanistan, except Pakistan, were with the US against the Taliban.

And Pakistan had been railroaded into supporting the anti-Taliban alliance of the US.

But has the war since 7 October gone the US way? Is the Taliban’s resistance over? If the American public were to seek a cost-benefit analysis of the US war in the past 12 days, what could the Bush administration say?

Is the US close to winning?

Not in a while.

Consider the military campaign. The US has spearheaded some of the heaviest bombardment against Afghanistan from four carrier task forces against two deployed in the Gulf war against Iraq. It has also deployed two nuclear submarines from the Guam base in case the Taliban attack US ground troops with chemical and biological weapons. Nine missile frigates and eight guided-missile destroyers are part of the US force apart from the British armada anchored off the Gulf.

The US has fired 240 cruise missiles against Afghanistan since 7 October. Such US warplanes as B-1, B-2, B-52, F-117, F-14, F-15, F-16, F-18 and F-18 Eagle have conducted 750 sorties and dropped 2500 bombs and other weapons including bunker busters on Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharief, Khost, Herat, Shiberghan, Shindabad, and Kunduz.

What’s the damage?

Misguided missiles and bombs killed civilians, UN workers and deminers in Kabul, off Jalalabad, and in Kandahar. Their numbers are in dispute but the Taliban put them over 300.

What was the damage to the Taliban?

The US military claimed to have blasted the Taliban’s military and command headquarters in Jalalabad and Kandahar and military airfields across Afghanistan, flattened Osama Bin Laden’s chemical weapons factory in Kandahar and Al-Qaeda training camps, considerably degraded the Taliban air defence and communication systems, and destroyed a considerable part of the Taliban’s small airforce of MiG-21 and Su-22 fighters. It was also put out that several of the Taliban’s underground bunkers in southern and southeastern Afghanistan were destroyed by 5000-pound bunker busters.

But how has it been really?

Taliban soldiers were dancing on the streets of Jalalabad after a cruise missile hit their headquarters. Why were they dancing? Insiders have told this magazine that the headquarters had been emptied earlier on Pakistani advice. The US claim that Taliban command bunkers were exploded by bunker busters is exaggerated. Information coming out of Afghanistan suggests that a considerable majority of the 650 to 700 seven-12-kilometre-long bunkers hiding the Taliban hierarchy in southern and southeastern Afghanistan are intact.

Diplomats in Delhi say that the Taliban has also constructed huge sangers of boulders held up by logs and covered by sand in northwestern Afghanistan and hidden most of their airforce in them. The claimed degradation of Taliban’s air-defence system is also doubtful: Taliban has been firing surface-to-air missiles besides surface-to-surface missiles at the Northern Alliance and also anti-tank missiles.

Western military specialists say that the sunflower sparks lighting up Al-Jazeera’s cameras that the US claims to have neutralised could be no more than towed anti-aircraft gunfire or shoulder-fired Iglas. “The Taliban have taken most of their fixed air defence systems underground,” said a military specialist. “And no radar station was hit with anti-radiation missiles. So I doubt if all their communications are down.”

Also, US pilots admit that they have run out of targets. They are returning to base after expending only 20 per cent of their ammunitions because of a lack of targets. The British military realised this possibility after the first day of joint action with US forces and restricted itself to giving logistical and communications support to them thereafter. “The British were not sure of the air intelligence provided by Pakistan and withdrew from active campaign,” said a diplomat.

And the clinching failure related to US special forces dropped into Afghanistan from 13 September, two days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, to locate and destroy Osama Bin Laden and key Al-Qaeda terrorists. There were suggestions in the US press that the dreaded Delta force could be in Afghanistan: except that Osama Bin Laden could not be captured. And in northern Afghanistan, a Special Air Services team prowling for Bin Laden skirmished with the Taliban because of misleading or outdated Pakistani intelligence that blew their cover.

Today, after 12 days of superpower bombing of a military pipsqueak, Bush told reporters at a California airforce base on his way to China, “The enemy’s air force and air defences are being demolished.” And his Afghan adversary, the Taliban supremo, Mullah Mohammad Omar, sent a message to his followers that he was well and the campaign against America would continue.

Why has the US war against Afghanistan been as ineffective?

Some reasons are obvious. Afghanistan had far fewer built-up military structures than Iraq or Bosnia. It was inevitable that the Taliban would use the caves and bunkers built from the time of Alexander and expanded in the Soviet occupation during air attacks and secret most of their crucial military equipment within them.

The US could get at them with accurate air intelligence that the Pakistanis did not have or did not provide. Intelligence sources said that Pakistan created delays in the US military operations that allowed the Taliban to regroup and safeguard its military assets. “Pakistan taught the Taliban the lessons of the Gulf war where Saddam Hussain erected dummy structures to entice US warplanes to bomb them,“ said an official.

That is not all. Officials estimate that some 2500 Pakistani officers and soldiers could be fighting with the Taliban and giving new ideas of resistance. They see a Pakistani hand in the Taliban’s effective information warfare: the shepherding of international journalists to the site of civilian killings in Kadam village, 40 kilometres west off Jalalabad, is similar to Pakistani media management during the May 1999 Kargil war with India.

Indian officials also see a Pakistan design in the minimal US bombing of Kabul and the heavy bombardment of Jalalabad. They also say that Pakistan give intelligence of targets in Kandahar but left out the suburbs where the Al-Qaeda had its real networks. The areas were bombarded much later after the networks had been vacated.

“Pakistan,” said an official, “has been insincere to the US goal from the beginning.”

“Pakistan is giving the impression that the US cannot win the war.”

Pakistan’s interest is to retain control over Afghanistan since it gives it strategic depth against India. Pakistan wants to save the Taliban since the alternative, the Burhanuddin Rabbani-led Northern Alliance, is implacably opposed to it. An US-aided ground offensive by the Northern Alliance would put the Taliban in a pincer against US-backed Pakistani troops in southern and southeastern Afghanistan. But Pakistan is opposed to any US backing to the Northern Alliance that is supported by India, Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian republics.

Consequently, the pincer is not developing in Afghanistan. The Taliban is not being squeezed.

And Pakistan has led up the US to a garden-path bombing of Afghanistan.

And now, there is more deception coming US’s way. Pakistan says that a “moderate” section of the Taliban will overcome Mullah Omar’s hardline forces and deliver Osama Bin Laden dead or alive to the US. While the world is unsure of what the term “moderate” Taliban means, the US seems to be going along with the Pakistan line.

We reported yesterday in our Intelligence section (“Interim partition of Afghanistan soon,” 17 October 2001) that the US, Russia, India, Iran and Pakistan had secretly agreed to the interim division of the Afghanistan into three parts. Northwestern Afghanistan will be controlled by the Northern Alliance, Kabul by the UN, and southeastern Afghanistan by the “moderate” Taliban.

All three areas have to be sanitised off the Taliban before the Loya Jirga or Afghan grand assembly sets up an interim government there ahead of multi-party elections. But while the Northern Alliance and the UN backed by the US will cleanse their areas of the Taliban, what is the guarantee that the “moderate” Taliban will do the same in its part? Pakistan will have to egg them on against Mullah Omar’s men. But will Pakistan?

What is the surety that Pakistan won’t let Mullah Omar, Osama Bin Laden, and the Al-Qaeda terrorists escape? What is the guarantee that Pakistan’s “moderate” Taliban are not the hardliners waiting for their main chance? What is to prevent the interim government from collapsing from Pakistani machinations like Pakistan’s sabotage of America’s war against Afghanistan?

Clearly, America’s war against terror is threatened by Pakistan. Pakistan is gradually making the US powerless to act against the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda while reducing Afghanistan to powder. America cannot embrace a “moderate” Taliban and still claim to be avenging the death of 7000 people on 11 September.