Mazar-i-Sharif’s fall set off a chain reaction, militarily untenable Provinces, east, west and south of Balkh, fell like dominoes. The speed of a sudden military collapse can always be disconcerting, what had charitably been labelled as a tactical withdrawal turned into a full-fledged self-inflicted rout after the hurried abandoning of Kabul. Except for the drive to Mazar which was led by their best combat commanders, the Alliance’s claim about battlefield “victories” should be taken with skepticism, yet they are now in possession of vital real estate because the Talibaan could not (or did not want to) defend them. Afghanistan is effectively divided into areas viz (1) controlled by the Talibaan (2) by the Northern Alliance and (3) by “tribal elders”, better known as warlords, acting independently of each other.
Like perception, possession is nine-tenths of the law and by Wednesday evening Northern Alliance shed off the fig-leaf of a broad-based government in Kabul and set about installing their own. As for the Talibaan, guerrilla armies are not be meant to fight conventional battles in constricted areas, or get their cadres pulverized from the air by making defence lines when they were not supposed to. Unconventional forces are not supposed to get bogged down in any area where they can be effectively attacked from the air or from where they cannot make a safe exit. The mystery of the hasty exit from Kabul can be explained by the local revolts that took place in Paktia, Nangarhar and Ghazni, all on the withdrawal route. Since the Talibaan happened to be the governmental authority of the day, some face-saving firefights in or around Kabul, the seat of government, was in order, if for psychological purposes alone. Giving up Mazar-i-Sharif was fairly painless when compared to giving up Kabul, the symbol of governing authority. The question will remain, should they have given at least a semblance of battle to uphold in the eyes of all Afghans the symbol of their authority over the country or beset with defections along their chosen line of retreat, should they have pulled out when they did, keeping to Mao Tse Tung’s dictum for guerilla armies to fade away and avoid pitched battle? The pounding that the US Air Force gave them must have been awesome, after that relentless drubbing did they have the heart to give battle? Was it then a withdrawal or was it a rout?
Kabul carries psychological connotations for all Afghans. Between 1992 and 1996, Rabbani’s Interim Government, located in Kabul (and still recognized by the UN and the world), had virtually no authority over the Provinces, each was ruled by a warlord e.g. Ismail Khan in Herat, Rashid Dostum in Mazar-i-Sharif, etc the militias ruled very much as they wanted, and all they wanted was to rape, loot and pillage. In a time-warp we seem to have returned to 1994, the year the Talibaan came into existence. Last Sunday US President Bush emphatically advised the Northern Alliance not to enter Kabul. Once the Northern Alliance was in Kabul in a 180 degree turnaround within 24-36 hours, both the White House and the Pentagon said they were pleased “with developments”. Does the US want to be seen to be partner with such forces as are hated by the Pashtun majority or will the US seek to make Kabul a demilitarized neutral city policed by UN Forces?
The Coalition have only partly achieved their war aims i.e (1) to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and (2) overthrow the Talibaan regime. The primary war aim is yet to be achieved and as for the secondary aim, it has been achieved but at what cost? One tyrannical regime being replaced by another? The Coalition will have to launch mopping up operations (1) to pin down and destroy Talibaan forces somewhere and (2) hold the Northern Alliance penchant for atrocities in check. Kandahar was reportedly a city in some turmoil but one does not expect Mullah Umar to run but Osama certainly will try and fade away. Still the Talibaan have the capacity to disrupt the Alliance’s Lines of Communication. The Talibaan hard-core (about 10% Talibs) can only be destroyed if they are forced to defend whatever they presently occupy, particularly Kandahar.
Alliance forces drove south from Bagram air base north north-east of Kabul. The Alliance had about a 50 é 60 old tanks of Soviet origin in this area. The Talibaan continued to occupy Koh-i-Safi, a mountain ridge that dominates Bagram, till the last, despite being regularly pounded by cluster bombs and fuel air explosives dropped by B-52s as well as the six-ton “daisy cutters” that burrow deep into caves and tunnels before exploding. Most Alliance troops in the Bagram area were late Ahmad Shah Masood’s Tajik “Panjsheeris” even though many new disparate recruits from different areas have been paraded around in the new uniforms, sometimes with weapons and sometimes sans. Entering Kabul, Alliance troops summarily executed captured prisoners, mostly Pakistanis. The Talibaan had about 15000-20000 troops in Kabul, among them 2000-3000 Pakistani volunteers and 1500 Arabs. “Foreign volunteers” would get no mercy from the Alliance militias, once cornered they are the ones most likely to be put to the death if they did not fight to the death. Lesser in number but more disciplined, Sayyaf’s forces moved south from their traditional Gulbahar-Charikar area but do not seem to have entered Kabul at all. The Shia Wahdat were expected along the road from Bamiyan from south south-west into Kabul even though the Paghman Range in-between is difficult mountainous territory and provides Kabul natural defence. Certainly they are nowhere near Kabul. The Talibaan were confident about Logar and Vardak Provinces as these were Pakhtun areas firmly in their grasp till the fall of Kabul, but when local Commanders who were not Talibs but part of the Talibaan Regime began to change sides, their whole existence as a functioning entity came into question. Starting from Sarobi eastwards is the Kabul gorge (for about 30 kms) along the Kabul River and easily defensible, but there seems to have been a revolt against the Talibaan in Jalalabad, local warlord Younis Khalis has also asked the Alliance to keep out. In Khost, the Talibaan “Commander-in-Chief” ex-Mujhahideen Haqqani has taken control on his own account.
The Talibaan had deployed virtually no troops inside Kabul, there being no military evidence at all that they were preparing to fight in built-up areas. One has to presume that ultimately they did want to evacuate Kabul and carry on classic guerilla warfare at which they are adjust. A hard-core of Talibs will remain faithful and almost certainly will certainly launch “hit and run” raids against the Alliance’s Lines of Communications (L of C), two major ones have already taken place last Wednesday. Are there “stay behind” Talibaan individual and sub-units in Kabul? This is bad news for Pakistan as the ultimate sanctuaries will be in our tribal territories, keeping them out will require some doing by our Forces.
Located at an altitude of 5900 ft in a triangular valley between the Asmai and Sherdarwaza mountain ranges, the city of Kabul is divided by the Kabul River. Old Kabul is on the right bank of the River. Most of modern Kabul, including all the government buildings, is on the left side. Mughal Emperor Babur who made Kabul his capital from 1504 to 1526, before he set out to conquer India, is buried at the base of the Koh-e-Sherdarwaza. Kabul became the capital, taking over from Kandahar, in the 18th century and has been the capital for Afghanistan since. North are the Provinces of Parvan and Kapisa, east is Nangarhar and south are Logar and Vardak Provinces. Kabul is at a crossroads of a number of passes, 90 é 100 kms north through the Hindu Kush at 11000 ft is the 1.5 miles Russian-built tunnel, south are the high mountain passes through to Ghazni and Gardez. To the east, 140 miles past Jalalabad, is the Khyber Pass in Pakistan. To the west is the Wunay Pass to Bamiyan.
To maintain law and order a United Nations Police Force is a must because the Northern Alliance étype governance has no chance of lasting. The currency market has already been looted in Kabul, it happened the night after the Talibaan pulled out. The Coalition have a duty to the people of Afghanistan, not to allow the Alliance ragtags free rein inside Kabul. The UN Police Force should set up strong blocks on all four major highways north, east, south and west to ensure no armed men, individually or in a group, can enter Kabul. The city must become totally de-militarized, its population has suffered enough at the hands of disparate rulers. For a peaceful Afghanistan that will accommodate the wishes and aspirations of all the Afghan races in the future, a neutral Kabul is the first need of the hour.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).