The Afghan Dilemma - Bombs, Butter and Psy-Ops! The Long War

By Webster  Brooks
Guest Contributor
Article Dated 10/23/2001

After 15 days of punishing bombing raids in Afghanistan, America is courting a public relations and political disaster unless it dramatically scales back the bombing of Afghanistan in quick order. Unlike the precision bombing campaign against the invading Iraqi Republican Guard eight years ago, the incessant bombing raids have now reached a point of diminishing return. Pictures of civilian casualties and mangled children from the western city of Herat, where 13 people were killed on Saturday have been flashed around the world by Al Jezeera News, and are undermining Bush's claim of a "just war" on the Arab Street and in European capitols. In particular, the bombings are igniting protests in Pakistan, and crippling the Pakistani government's strategic role in brokering a broad-based post-Taliban regime.

From the outset of "Operation Enduring Freedom," it was said only a limited number of Taliban and al Qaida military targets would be engaged in the mountainous and desolate terrain of Afghanistan. But the bombing of Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Jacobabad and Kunduz, have killed civilians and exacerbated a growing refugee crisis. Millions of people have been displaced and children in some areas have started digging in rat holes to find grain stored in the rat's nests to eat.

With the winter just weeks off, and the holy month of Ramadan starting in mid-November, a humanitarian crisis of epic dimensions is unfolding and poses a thorny dilemma for the United States. A shift in micro-strategy is clearly in order. On the Sunday talk show circuit, Powell addressed the urgency of the moment, saying he hoped Kabul would fall to the anti-Taliban coalition before winter sets in.

According to press reports, the most significant development this past week was a shift by the U.S. to the long anticipated ground war. On Friday night (Oct. 20), Special Forces units invaded Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's vacated command center near Kandahar. In the first U.S. casualties, two troops supporting the operation were killed in a helicopter crash just inside the southwestern Pakistani border. In truth, U.S. and British Special Forces units have been operating in various regions inside Afghanistan since the week of the September 11 bombings.

More telling than the length of time Special Forces have operated inside Afghanistan is what they are doing. While conducting reconnaissance missions and exploring Bin Laden's intricate network of underground caves and fortifications, their principal activity has been establishing contact with various warlords aligned with the Taliban. With offers of cold cash and promises of a seat at the table of a post-Taliban government, these Psy-Ops (psychological-operations) are not only designed to isolate bin Laden and the Taliban, but build a military and political counterweight to the rogue Northern Alliance, whom the United States doesn't trust and the Pakistani government will never accept. After all, it was the Pakistani's who supported the Taliban's rise to power and subsequent overthrow of the hated Northern Alliance in 1996. This is precisely the reason the U.S. has delayed Northern Alliance forces who are only 35 miles from Kabul, from advancing on the capitol city and proclaiming a new government.

Thus, it wasn't a slip of the tongue when Secretary of State Colin Powell stated last week during his visit to Pakistan that moderate members of the Taliban may be included in a newly constituted Afghan government. No sooner had Powell left the country than did the Commander-In-Chief of the Taliban military, Jaladdin Haqqani show up in Pakistan for secret talks with Pakistani officials, Afghan opposition group leaders and representatives of the 86-year old deposed Afghan King Zahir Shah, recently thawed out of cold storage in France.

The resurrected king, whom the press admits would be a figurehead leader of a national reconciliation government has one principal attribute-he, is a Pushtun ethnic. Pushtun's are the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the majority in Pakistan. If all this seems strangely reminiscent of the old Cold War cloak-and-dagger days of the CIA installing puppets, funding mercenaries and bribing armies with food and guns, it is.

As for Jaladdin Haqqani's not-so-secret, secret visit to Pakistan, it should be said that Taliban leader Mullah Omar just recently appointed him Commander-in-Chief of the Taliban military. Even more suspicious is the fact that the five areas under Haqqani's direct control in Southern Afghanistan have not been touched during the bombing raids. If all this seems a bit odd, it is in line with Powell's controversial statement concerning the inclusion of moderate Taliban elements in a new government. Powell's remarks were meant to deepen rifts within the Taliban and "peel off "dissident elements," but they were also a reflection of the practical realities of the moment.

Despite the United States awesome projection of military power and the intense bombings in Afghanistan, a ground war still must be fought. The more warlords the U.S. can buy-off and wavering Taliban sympathizers that can be persuaded to defect, the fewer forces the U.S. has to commit to the ground war. The Bush administration is doing everything it can to limit the number of U.S. troops coming home in body bags, but time is running out. U.S. military leaders are coming to grips with the fact that the Northern Alliance is not only a political liability, but are incompetent on the battlefield against the Taliban. Thus the bombing goes on as Taliban land forces are increasingly targeted in air attacks.

The timetable of the ground war in Afghanistan is now being accelerated, as Special Forces operations move into high gear. The U.S. is not only racing hard against the winter season and Ramadan, but their worse fear that the longer the Afghanistan struggle goes on, the more vulnerable the Musharraf government will become to losing control of the Pakistani street. The latest surveys done in Pakistan showed that 80% of the people support the Taliban in its war against the United States. During Powell's state visit a crowd of 100,000 protestors took to the streets of Peshewar, as the Pakistani government continues to place militant Muslim clerics under arrest without charges. Should a Muslim uprising come to Pakistan, such a scenario would be the equivalent of a political earthquake in an already turbulent Middle East.

Almost two-hundred years ago, in his famous book On War, German military officer Karl von Clausewitz stated that "War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means." If the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan is proving to be this difficult after one month, can any of us really imagine the political challenges the U.S. faces as it seeks to prosecute the war against international terrorism throughout the Middle East, where anti-U.S. sentiment is rent on the Arab Street and 65% of all Arabs are younger than the age of sixteen. In this, the Long War, the U.S. strategy of Bombs, Butter and Psy-Ops in Afghanistan is a vivid reminder of von Clausewitz's brilliant insight, and a harbinger of things to come.

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