- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

At last. The this weekend "wave after wave of U.S. jets pounded the Taliban front-line trenches and gun emplacements" north of Kabul, where Northern Alliance troops have been stalled in their attempt to capture the Afghanistan capital since American bombing began more than three weeks ago.
While the secretary of defense has been promising support for the Alliance almost from the beginning, his message has not made it through the ranks. The same day he first announced significant air strikes on front line positions, the news media reported only one big bomber participated in the raid. Even the most recent attack was described by an unidentified senior officer as consisting of "a larger number of B-1 and B-52 bombers" than previously. Hopefully, this does not mean just two. Only a few sites were hit effectively according to Alliance sources.
The issue of direct support to the front-line Alliance troops is critical. The president and defense secretary have already said, correctly, that large masses of American ground troops cannot be involved. Only quick-support special forces raids will involve U.S. ground forces. So the only fighting army is the Alliance's. Only they can take Kabul from the Taliban. And, if that objective is not met before winter, America's opponents will have won, at least for this year. The prospect of a protracted, losing war will not sustain popular support for long.
In a perfect world, the Northern Alliance would be held back to assure that a new Afghan government would include all of the major national groups, especially the most numerous Pashtuns, and not only the Alliance's Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. But the time to have thought of this was before the battle in Afghanistan began. Once the bombs began falling, the Taliban troops desperately knew they had to dig in deeply. A few days to knock out communication and anti-aircraft infrastructure was appropriate. But delaying serious bombing of the front line until now might already have threatened the mission of at least driving the Taliban out of the north.
The Pashtuns will be difficult in any event. They are the ethnic base of the Taliban and they dominate the south. Even in the northeast, when former Pashtun anti-Soviet war hero Abdul Haq entered his home province recently to organize his fellow ethnics, he was surprised by the strong support for the Taliban. Villagers reported his whereabouts and he was executed last Friday. More ominously, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency reported to President Pervez Musharraf that the American raids were ineffectual and had not decreased Taliban support in the south or east.
An anonymous American officer told a reporter he was "surprised" the Taliban had been able to resist in the face of the bombing. We have been there before. "Graduated pressure" was the leitmotif of the Vietnam War and it was a disastrous failure. Military officers surprised that embattled troops can dig in are not reassuring. Only after the supposedly besieged Taliban city of Mazar-e Sharif had been reinforced by Arab, Pakistani and Chechen fundamentalists, did concentrated allied bombing begin.
Apparently, the lessons of the Gulf and Kosovo wars have not been fully learned. Half-measures do not win. If some success is not achieved by winter, public support will begin to fade. And the media want to write the story as another Vietnam anyway. The botched rescue of Abdul Haq is just the first of the irresistible stories for an increasingly aggressive and petulant press. Battle stories now have subheads reporting civilian deaths. Soon they will be the lead.
The time has passed for a political war. It is clear from the opposition discussions in Rome that it will take time to patch a government together. Their meeting was suspended again last week. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld must take the bull by the horns now, before things get out of control. Creating a multiethnic government can wait until fall. Today, dispatch every big bomber in sight and break those front lines or he will quickly gain sympathy for his predecessor, Robert McNamara remembering him sweating through news conferences trying to explain why some primitive, exotic people half way around the world was defeating the United States of America.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.


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