LONDON The collapse of Taliban resistance in northern Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul may stand as one of the most remarkable reversals of military fortune since Kitchener’s victory at Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898.
Then, another Islamic fundamentalist army, led by the Khalifa, a charismatic religious figure, was swept away on the battlefield and the capital recaptured.
Success it cannot yet be called a victory of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan comes after only a month of campaigning and has been achieved by an irregular army, supported by American air power.
The collapse of the Taliban has much to do with the movement’s unperceived political, religious and military weaknesses. Whereas the Khalifa drew his support from a popular form of Islam, which looked to him as the successor of Muhammad and was rooted in Sudanese life, the Taliban is a foreign import, formed in the religious schools of northwest Pakistan and imposed on the easygoing Muslims of Afghanistan with puritanical zeal. Far from converting the Afghans, particularly those outside the Pashto-speaking south, to its way of thought, the Taliban succeeded in making itself deeply unpopular in a very short space of time. Lacking popular support, it has collapsed quickly in the non-Pashto areas, which look to the Northern Alliance, formed from its tribal brothers, as liberators.
The Taliban was not only religiously oppressive, it also neglected to use the political forms to which Afghans are accustomed, particularly the village gathering, or jirga, a meeting of tribal elders at which village affairs are decided. The Taliban turned itself into a dictatorship from the start, a dangerous mistake that denied it the support of the elders and worthies who lead Afghan communal life.
Finally, its military tactics were wrong. It is possible that it badly weakened itself in its initial campaign of conquest against the Northern Alliance who, though themselves weakened by the years of war against the Soviet army, had become an experienced army thereby. The Northern Alliance appears to have recovered its strength in the lull of the last three years and probably possesses more capable small-unit leaders than its opponents do. The alliance has also been strengthened, since the beginning of this war, by the transfer of huge quantities of munitions and some heavy weapons, including modern tanks, originating in Russia and its Central Asian allied republics.
Air power, however, has probably been the key factor, enhanced by the Taliban’s adoption of tactics that favored the other side. Afghan mountain warriors, particularly the Pathans of the south, traditionally found advantage in fighting regular forces by presenting a poor target to organized firepower. Their organization was the loose lashkar, which moved fleet-footed across country, avoiding roads, and their chosen method of fighting was that of the gasht, a raiding sweep. In the last few weeks, the Taliban seems to have made the mistake of constructing entrenched lines, which are clearly visible from the air and present attractive targets for precision bombing, even from 15,000 feet.
The Taliban has also encumbered itself with tanks and four-wheel-drive vehicles, which add little to its fighting capacity but signal its units’ location to American aircraft. Had they stuck to their feet, dispersed their units and clung to hidden positions on the high ground, the Taliban fighters might not have been as easily dislodged by the Northern Alliance and its American supporters.
The alliance has had great success, all the more praiseworthy for being so unexpected. It is doubtful whether anyone in Washington or London expected their makeshift allies to prove so effective in combat.
It is doubtful, however, whether success can be sustained on an equal scale henceforth. As the Northern Alliance enters the south, it leaves its own ethnic heartland and enters that of the Taliban, which is mainly Pathan and Pashto-speaking. Not all Pathans are pro-Taliban. Its puritanism and disregard for tribal political practice ensure that. The non-Pathan elements Arabs, Chechens, Sudanese and Punjabis also helped to make it unpopular with the Pathans, who are intensely tribal and are used to exercising a commanding role in Afghan affairs.
The Northern Alliance and its Western allies must recognize, however, that the easy part of the campaign, even if an easy part was not expected, is now over.