War Not Going Quite As Planned

By Jim  Lobe
Article Dated 10/22/2001

WASHINGTON, (IPS) - Two weeks into Washington's military campaign in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush's ''war'' against terrorism does not appear to be going as well as planned.

While U.S. and British leaders are trying to project an air of determination and confidence, concern about the lack of progress on a range of fronts is growing both here and in Europe, where a rising chorus of relief agencies is calling for a quick end to the bombing.

It did not help that U.S. warplanes have missed or mistaken targets, in one case devastating a village located near a former training camp; in another, destroying a Red Cross supply depot whose roof was marked with a large red cross.

Militarily, the Taliban movement is proving to be harder to crack than expected; diplomatically, efforts to forge a post-Taliban coalition also have been frustrated by the contradictory demands of different factions and external powers.

''While there's still hope the Taliban will fall apart over the next few days, they seem to be hanging on better than we expected,'' said one official here. ''And the longer they hang on, the more difficult it is to get the job done.''

Additionally, already-overworked U.S. diplomats are scrambling to deal with sharply rising tensions between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India - where New Delhi this week moved warplanes closer to their border - and between the Palestinian Authority and Israel - where a far-right government minister was assassinated Wednesday.

Armed conflict in South Asia or a dramatic escalation of Israeli- Palestinian violence will almost certainly inflame anti-Western sentiment throughout the Islamic world at the precise moment when the Bush administration is trying to convince Muslims that his war is being waged against terrorism, not Islam.

''We really have more crises than we can deal with at the moment,'' said a Congressional aide. ''People in the State Department feel like a fire brigade.''

The military front has been particularly disappointing. Washington had clearly hoped that the first week of its bombing campaign would prove so devastating to the Taliban's infrastructure and morale that the regime would suffer large-scale defections, leading to its effective collapse by the end of the month.

Earlier this week, top Pentagon officials, encouraged by the desertion of about 3,000 Taliban troops in the north, insisted that the bombing had indeed ''eviscerated'' the Taliban's combat capacity.

But in a clear setback Wednesday, Taliban forces successfully repulsed advancing Northern Alliance rebels around Mazar-i-Sharif. The strategic northern city is considered critical to Washington's game plan.

Mazar-i-Sharif's capture essentially would evict the Taliban from all but Kabul in the northern part of the country and open the way westward to Herat. Pentagon planners also wanted to use its airport - so far spared U.S. bombing - as a staging base for ground forces, many of which are currently deployed just across the border in Uzbekistan.

Even rebel commanders admit that it may take weeks before they can gather sufficient strength to the take the city.

The delay compounds an already difficult political situation.

Washington had hoped, by now, to have the makings of a post- Taliban governing coalition in place.

Such a coalition would be convened under a loya jirga, or traditional tribal council, convened under the authority of the exiled king, Zahir Shah. It would consist primarily of the ethnic factions that make up the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban Pashtuns, many of whose leaders live in western Pakistan. Pashtuns account for some 40 percent of Afghanistan's population and constitute the Taliban's ethnic base.

Because ethnic enmities run so deep, U.S. policymakers wanted to ensure that the Northern Alliance - consisting of Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara forces - did not storm the capital before a broader coalition was in place. That is why, to the growing frustration of Alliance commanders, U.S. warplanes have not yet unleashed their power against Taliban defenses just 60 kilometres north of Kabul.

The same commanders are even more frustrated in the wake of Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit this week with Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff, who insisted that ''moderate'' Taliban leaders be given a prominent role in any post-Taliban government as a guarantor of Pashtun and Pakistani interests.

Powell's apparent agreement to this demand adds new complications to the quest for a workable coalition that could replace the Taliban.

Northern Alliance leaders, fearful of being marginalised, have begun hinting they may be less inclined to cooperate with U.S. strategy. Anti-Taliban Pashtuns wooed by Washington before this week also have expressed dismay.

The endorsement of a coalition that includes Taliban elements risks undermining the credibility of Washington's anti-terrorist aims, as noted by Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. He called the phrase ''moderate Taliban'' an oxymoron.

In addition to increasing political tensions among the parties, adding a new element to the coalition also will take time, particularly given the slow progress so far in persuading Taliban military forces to defect.

There are still other complications. Washington has operated under the assumption that, once a new government is installed in Kabul, the United Nations will take responsibility both for peacekeeping and ''nation building.''

But the U.N. Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, has hinted that he has other ideas. Although he expressed optimism that a coalition government could be put together, Brahimi, who spent the late 1990s trying to get all parties to sit down together, cautioned against quick fixes or a U.N. peacekeeping role.

''Afghanistan is a very difficult country; it is a very proud people and they don't like to be ordered around by foreigners,'' he said. ''They don't like to see foreigners, especially in military uniform.''

Such observations cannot be reassuring to the Bush administration as it prepares the ground phase of its operations.

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