- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Last weekend President Bush spoke buoyantly of our Afghan strategy: "Real-time intelligence, local allied forces, special forces and precision air power has taught us more about the future of our military than a decade of blue-ribbon panels and think-tank symposiums." While that strategy shows great promise, it's worth keeping in mind the codicil to the Bush strategy added earlier this week by Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College, London: "[The Bush strategy] is only as good as the local allies."

There's the rub. Our allies may yet frustrate our goals. The best description of our Afghan allies (and enemies) was written 225 years ago in the opening pages of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," wherein Edward Gibbon described the Britons of 2,000 years ago: "They possessed valour without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union. They took up arms with savage fierceness; they laid them down, or turned them against each other with wild inconstancy."

As the first, Afghan phase of the war on terrorism perches tantalizingly close to success, the advantages and disadvantages of our Afghan strategy are becoming ever-clearer. We were able to break the Taliban much faster, and with less American bloodshed (only one enemy-caused death, six from accidents or friendly fire) by a combination of U.S airpower and anti-Taliban warlords backed by U.S. and British special forces.

But the key to the quick collapse of the Taliban was the presence, for the first time on a major battlefield, of ample quantities of satellite phones. This permitted the local Afghan allies and enemies to bargain with each other, not face-to-face after a hard-to-arrange truce, but ear-to-ear in the middle of an ongoing battle. Agreements to defect, disperse or surrender were haggled out as each side could see its men falling.

Just as importantly, these decisions were not left to Taliban senior officers. Local warlords or their lieutenants in the middle of fire-fights could cut their deals to save their skins. This newfound ability of relatively small fighting units to negotiate the specific terms of their departure from the battlefield while fighting (and before surrendering) greatly degraded the Taliban's capacity and readiness to resist the allied forces.

Had we not had our Afghan allies, the warfare would have been much bloodier for both sides. Given our normal inclination to demand unconditional surrender of our enemies, if we had been fighting alone the enemy would have had little motive to surrender, and victory would have been a long, bloody process.

The other advantage of the Bush new-war strategy was that by keeping American and British presence to a minimum on the ground, the natural anti-foreigner sentiment of the locals shifted to the foreign al Qaeda forces, rather than focusing on our Western, Christian troops.

On the other hand, when you demand and finally get unconditional surrender, you win. After World War II the German and Japanese soldiers didn't head for the hills or switch sides. They obediently lined up to be processed and punished at the will of the victorious allied armies. Having millions of our soldiers occupying the enemies' lands, we could define how, and by whom, they were to be governed.

But today, because we don't have many of our men with guns on the ground, we are struggling to win the peace. That is, we can't get our allies to round up the remaining enemy. Indeed, we can't stop our allies from letting substantial elements of the enemy join the winning side.

According to sources in a Middle Eastern intelligence service, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's weekend discussions with Northern Alliance Army Chief of Staff (and designated interim Defense Minister) Mohammed Fahim were "correct but inconclusive." We want a "sterile" military buffer zone between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, in order to stop escaping al Qaeda forces from slipping over the borders and extending their terror regime. Particularly in Uzbekistan, which had pro-Taliban guerrillas before September 11, the danger is substantial.

However, Mr. Fahim is not currently inclined to cooperate. Not having the men on the ground to accomplish all our justifiable goals, we will be forced to bargain with the new interim regime by threatening to withhold humanitarian aid if they don't militarily cooperate.

While I have unbridled admiration for Mr. Rumsfeld, haggling with Afghans without a big gun in your hand has historically been a vastly frustrating experience.

After the fighting stops, even the closest allies-in-arms experience a divergence of interests. The French and the British spent almost four years after World War I disagreeing on the terms of the peace. We are less than a week into our divergence of interests with the Afghans.

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