Means to an end

Shortly before the US launched the attack against Afghanistan, a Russian general who had served in the Soviet invasion of that country declared: “Before deploying 50,000 troops in the Afghan theatre of operations, the US should give very careful thought to how it is going to recover the corpses of those soldiers who die at the hands of the Afghan fighters.”

The history of war has taught us that the “theatre of operations” is that area in which contending armies engage in battle and come out either victorious or defeated. However, advances in weapons technology, target and strike mechanisms, and remote command and control systems have created a definition of the “theatre of operations” radically different from the notion the Russian general had in mind. In the US-led war on terrorism, the targets will not be purely military; there will be no set geographical boundaries and the parties involved in the conflict are of a different nature altogether.

This war began in New York and Washington, but it is difficult to predict what world capitals and citi es it will reach. On Sunday, at 4.00p.m. GMT, US and British missiles, airplanes and submarines launched their first wave of strikes against Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and other Afghan cities. No one knows when and where Bin Laden and the Taliban will strike back.

In his first televised interview since 11 September, Bin Laden swore that the US will never again know peace. His threat could well extend to the United Kingdom, Germany, France and other countries that have allied themselves with the US in its assault against Afghanistan. Observers from Washington to Kabul agree that the theatre of operations will be extensive. US President Bush and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld have declared that the operations will extend beyond the Taliban to reach anyone connected with what the US describes as terrorism.

The attacks on the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida bases are only the beginning of what will be a protracted war. No possibilities have been ruled out and already some US Congressmen have suggested Iraq as the next target. The Bush administration has also changed the definition of war, as a war waged by a state against an individual or set of individuals is not subsumed by the traditional definition of “war” in any military lexicon.

But then, when the operations are over, another concept will have changed: victory. “Victory” has always implied the achievement of a certain military objective. In the Gulf War, the allied forces claimed victory after having defeated the Iraqi forces and ended the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. In the current war, however, the US has pitted itself against a nebulous enemy: terrorism. Not only do many nations disagree with the American notion of what constitutes terrorism, but this enemy has no geographical demarcations. Its means and sources for finance, training and arms are variable — as are its hierarchical systems and organisational objectives. The US has set itself on the course of a war without end, and without victory in the accepted military sense.

The assault on Afghanistan began similarly to that of the Gulf War. Submarines and warships stationed in the Gulf fired tomahawk missiles and launched cruise missile-carrying B-2s and B- 52s. These were joined by F-14s and F-18s that took off from aircraft carriers anchored off the Pakistani port of Karachi. Their objective was to strike edifices that were believed to form the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida military base and support systems. Targets included airports, the Afghan military chief-of-staff building and other centres described by Washington as “strategic”.

In effect, the operation really began two or three days earlier, when the US launched several pilot-less reconnaissance planes in order to gauge the Taliban’s defence capabilities and assess the speed with which the US could respond to the Taliban’s US- made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Regardless of this detail, however, it is believed that the strikes will continue for several days, after which the results will be assessed and alternatives will be considered for realising the aim of bringing a new government to power in Afghanistan.

The timing of the assault was based on calculations of the potential costs of further delay. US military strategists were faced with several fundamental considerations. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is just over a month away. To launch a major military operation against an Islamic country during this month would be certain to inflame the anger of the Muslim people. During his tenure, President Clinton was forced to suspend military operations against Iraq during Ramadan for this very reason.

Also, the notoriously harsh Afghan winter is around the corner. Western military experts say that in the winter, mountain passes become impassable, temperatures fall 20 degrees below zero and violent blizzards obstruct all visibility. War against the Taliban under such conditions would be a military nightmare. Winter in Afghanistan lasts until April, which means that during this five- to six-month period it would be virtually impossible to take effective military action against Taliban and Al-Qa’ida strongholds, whether by air or by landed guerrilla or commando forces.

Also significant in the US calculations was the meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), held in Doha, Qatar, this week. It was felt that the OIC would issue resolutions that could weaken the resolve of Islamic nations to cooperate with the US-led alliance. The US-British strike intentionally pre-empted this meeting, putting the Islamic world — already faced with strong international support or the strike — before a fait accompli.

Now that the zero hour is past, what size of ground forces will be needed in order to achieve “victory”? Drawing on the experience of the Gulf War, one imagines nine divisions totalling some 527,000 soldiers; supplies including simple equipment to the tune of 6.5 million tons; and at least four million tons of water and eight million tons of petrol. During the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia furnished the allied forces with water and petrol; it is not clear where these vital requirements will come from in the present war.

Russian experts have sounded a sobering caution on this matter. Because of the rugged, inhospitable Afghan terrain, virtual chaos prevailed in bringing medication, food and water to the Soviet troops during the invasion. Of equal, if not more importance, the Gulf War cost $100 billion — three-quarters of which was footed by the Gulf countries and the rest by Japan, Germany and South Korea. Who is going to foot the bill of a protracted war ultimately being waged against an unidentified enemy?

According to experts writing for the British military periodical Janes, if Washington is planning on invading Afghanistan, there is only one practical course of action, regardless of the modern weapons systems at its disposal. US forces, they say, should confine their action to a single operation and, by all means, not be drawn into a protracted ground war in that country. Moscow’s Afghan engagement, they cautioned, came at the cost of 10,000 soviet soldiers’ lives between 1970 and 1989.

But, if the ultimate aim of the operation is to put an end to terrorism and recover the US’s international prestige, can a military campaign accomplish these objectives with minimal loss of life? Pentagon officials have declared that they have targeted the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida’s vital military capacities. But Afghanistan’s topographical and rudimentary infrastructure seem to defy this claim. All of the Taliban command and control centres are located in naturally fortified caves in the mountains and cannot easily be reached by aircraft or missiles. Communications networks — a prime target in any war — are virtually nonexistent. Communications between the Taliban bases are primitive. Whether due to lack of resources or fear of satellite detection, they consist of little more than ground telephone lines and messages carried by personal messengers or even homing pigeons.

If Afghanistan’s rugged terrain makes it difficult to hold on to a piece of land once it is seized, the country’s demographic circumstances also seem to work against the US’s military objectives. Afghanistan is a patchwork of semi-autonomous ethnic-religious groupings that conduct their own affairs, including defence, within the framework of a loose-knit leadership agreement with the central authorities in Kabul or Kandahar. The central authority can thus remain intact even if it loses control over certain regions, which it will seek to regain in later counter- assaults.

In fact, this has always been the primary characteristic of the attack-and-retreat war being waged between rival Afghan groupings over the past 10 years. Russian experts, well placed to caution against a drawn-out engagement in Afghanistan thanks to the Soviet Union’s own bitter experience in that country, suggest that the wisest course for the US to take is to confine its assault to limited televised strikes. These would achieve its most immediate objectives, which include satisfying US public opinion and recovering some of the international prestige lost on 11 September attacks.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country, bordered to the north by the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, to the east by China, to the south by Pakistan and to the west by Iran. Because of various political circumstances in these countries, Afghanistan is largely inaccessible. Iran refuses to grant its airspace to US forces in order strike targets in Afghanistan, as does China, if for different reasons. Uzbekistan has offered its airspace only for the purposes of assisting humanitarian relief. Pakistan’s airspace has thus proved the only option — but still the most preferable, as US planes taking off from the aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean only have to traverse 600 kilometres before entering Afghan airspace.

An aerial assault is one thing. A ground war is quite another. The hostile theatre of operations, combined with the famous tenaciousness of Afghan fighters, militate against a drawn-out land engagement such as the US experienced in Somalia at the cost of dozens of marines’ lives. Observers anticipate, therefore, that the operation will be confined to air and missile strikes and perhaps some airborne commando operations to accomplish certain missions and then return as quickly as possible to base.

Contrary to most projections, I believe that the US will offer full support to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, the forces closest at hand to engage in land operations and spearhead an insurrection striking at the heart of Taliban-controlled areas. If US forces do take part in a ground assault, this will take place in the form of US special forces fighting alongside Northern Alliance forces, who are familiar with the terrain and the tactics of the enemy. This is perhaps the “secret element” to which Pentagon leaders have alluded.