Alliance of Convenience
By MICHAEL R. GORDON - The NY Times
WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 - The United States decision to support the Northern Alliance is part of a calculated strategy to accelerate the collapse of the Taliban by striking at it from all sides.
The American military has already tried to bomb the Taliban's leaders. And United States Special Operations forces demonstrated that American troops were prepared to mix it up on the ground by conducting a dramatic evening raid.
But that may not be enough to topple the Taliban, which has been a crucial target from the start because of its role in providing a sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.
So now the United States is trying to take advantage of the only real ally it has on the ground: the loose coalition of ethnic groups that fight under the banner of Northern Alliance and that have been battling the Taliban for years.
While not all the elements of the new strategy have fallen into place, it was evident on Sunday and today when American aircraft finally began striking the Taliban front-line troops that had faced off with the Northern Alliance north of Kabul.
Certainly, there are sound military reasons to work more closely with the Northern Alliance. In terms of geography, helping the alliance enables the United States to keep the pressure on the Taliban from the north while American Special Forces keep the heat on in the southern part of the country, especially Kandahar, the Taliban's political base.
Washington's cooperation with the Northern Alliance also reflects a distressing fact. The group is the only credible military ally the United States has on the ground. There is no "Southern Alliance" or coalition of Pashtun tribes in the south that is prepared to take on the Taliban, despite the White House's decision to have the Central Intelligence Agency organize a Pashtun resistance.
"There is not that kind of coordination as yet in the south," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week. "We do not have the kinds of interaction with some elements in the south that I would have to have to see progress."
In terms of military tactics, as well, the Northern Alliance plays a useful role. By threatening to attack west toward Mazar-i-Sharif and south toward Kabul, the alliance has tied down the Taliban's troops in the north and prompted Taliban leaders to send in reinforcements. The troops include Arab and foreign fighters recruited by Mr. bin Laden.
And so on the tactical level the Northern Alliance is playing much the same role as the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnical Albanian guerrilla group, during NATO's war with Yugoslavia. During the Yugoslav conflict, the K.L.A. forays into Kosovo prompted the Serbs to mass their forces, making them inviting targets for NATO warplanes.
Or as Mr. Rumsfeld put it today : "The reason for the air attacks on Taliban and Al Qaeda forces is to destroy Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. It happens that they are arrayed against, for the most part, Northern Alliance forces north of Kabul and in the northwest portion of the country."
Further, the success in anti-Taliban groups in weakening Taliban forces or encouraging defections will make it that much easier for American and allied forces to operate.
"It is going to be a lot easier, in my view, to try to persuade a number of them to oppose the Taliban and to oppose Al Qaeda and to help defeat them than it is to in fact defeat them," Mr. Rumsfeld said last week. Far from depicting the Taliban as a house of cards that was about to topple, he cast the Taliban forces as hardy "survivors."
The Bush administration's decision to work more closely with the Northern Alliance follows weeks of contradictory signals. It resolved much of the confusion in its own ranks when its National Security Council completed a secret review two weeks ago that called for efforts to expedite a Taliban overthrow.
That review elevated the importance of the anti-Taliban resistance in Washington's strategy. In a vow that has only now become clear, Mr. Bush said shortly before he left for China last week that the United States would use airstrikes to pave the way for "friendly troops on the ground" to defeat the Taliban.
Still, the Bush administration's relationship with the Northern Alliance is more of a temporary marriage of convenience than a deep strategic partnership. And it presents problems, as well as opportunities.
The Northern Alliance is dominated by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, who make up a minority of Afghanistan's population. In that sense, the Northern Alliance differs fundamentally from the K.L.A. during the Kosovo conflict. The alliance can, at best, be an element of a new post-Taliban leadership in Kabul that includes Pashtuns and other groups.
That demographic fact initially led the Bush administration to shy away from bombing a path toward Kabul for the Northern Alliance. The fear was the alliance could do Washington more harm than good if it rushed into the Afghan capital, since many Pashtuns might then rally around the only other force in the country that resists them, the Taliban.
Those fears have abated somewhat since the Northern Alliance has offered the Bush administration an assurance that its fighters will advance to the gates of Kabul but stop short of entering the city.
But the United States is now presented with vexing questions. The Northern Alliance says it will keep its fighters outside the city but expects Pakistan-supported groups within Afghanistan to do the same. But if the Northern Alliance does not occupy Kabul, which security force will bring order to the city? Afghanistan's neighbors - Pakistan, Iran, Indian and Russia - all have competing agendas and sympathies. Arab states may be reluctant to contribute troops for an Islamic security force because that might be seen as an endorsement for the American military campaign.
The United States is looking to avoid a long-term troop presence in Afghanistan. And if there is a role for the United Nations it is still unclear. The United Nations is likely to be reluctant to fill a vacuum in Kabul if fighting is still raging in the rest of the country. Another option is to create and train a security force of Afghans from within the country, but that is easier said than done.
With winter coming and the Bush administration striving to inflict the maximum damage on the Taliban before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, starting in mid-November, the political worries appear to be taking a back seat to raw military considerations. Stability in Afghanistan, however, is the ultimate goal. As the bombs rain down on the Taliban, the politics of Afghanistan can wait - but not for long.
|Back to News Archirves of 2001|
Disclaimer: This news site is mostly a compilation of publicly accessible articles on the Web in the form of a link or saved news item. The news articles and commentaries/editorials are protected under international copyright laws. All credit goes to the original respective source(s).