- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2001

The approach of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the harsh Afghan winter are creating pressure on American military planners to produce quick results in their assault on Osama bin Laden and his Taliban backers.
Diplomatic sources say Muslim allies and Western Afghan experts have both advised the Bush administration that if it begins a ground offensive, it should finish up before Ramadan begins in mid-November.
Ramadan is not just a month of prayers and fasting. It is also a month when Muslims are continuously reminded that they are one nation.
The Koranic verse that "all Muslims are brothers and do not create differences among [their] brothers" is repeated from the pulpits several times a day. In some mosques, banners stress the Islamic unity.
The mosques swell with worshippers and hundreds of thousands gather in the two holy places in Saudi Arabia Mecca and Medina to pray all night and fast during the day.
An armed offensive against a Muslim nation during this period is bound to bring out crowds much larger than those already protesting in the streets of major Muslim cities.
Under such circumstances, friendly governments will be reluctant to openly identify themselves as U.S. allies, and pro-U.S. leaders will have to go silent at least for a month.
It will be even more difficult, however, for the United States to begin an offensive after Ramadan. It is already winter in Afghanistan and it will soon snow heavily in the north where the greatest threat to the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, is based.
Aware that the Afghan people will never accept a foreign intruder, the United States would prefer to see the Afghan rebels lead the charge into Kabul, allowing the Western allies to be seen as helping them remove an unpopular government.
But it is almost impossible to launch an offensive from the north in winter. That's why since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and triggered the current chain of violence, fighting has come to a halt late each year.
Adversaries retire to the areas under their control, collect weapons and supplies and plan to renew the fighting next spring. But waiting for the warm weather would also mean continuing the war rhetoric and some symbolic attacks on the Taliban for several months.
This would mean continued protests from across the Muslim world, bringing more pressure on friendly governments. It may also cause problems in the United States, where people want quick results.
Delaying the final assault will also give the Taliban the opportunity to boast that after defeating one superpower the Soviet Union they have held out against a bigger superpower for months.
Continued air strikes will also create many more martyrs, both among the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network. And if bin Laden survives the attacks for an entire winter, he will be a bigger hero for his followers and his following may increase as well.
That's why some U.S. officials, particularly in the Department of Defense, are reportedly urging the Bush administration to increase the pressure on Taliban and finish the war now.
While U.S. and British special forces in the region would prefer to finish the war now, they are not sure that the Northern Alliance is ready for a major offensive. Even in its stronghold in the north, the alliance only has 8,000 fighters compared to 20,000 Taliban fighters occupying the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
There are also serious differences within the Northern Alliance. Those loyal to Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was ousted from Kabul by the Taliban in 1996 and is still recognized by the United Nations as the Afghan president, do not trust supporters of the Uzbek warlord Rasheed Dostum. Dostum's men do not trust the ethnic Hazaras, and the Hazaras are reluctant to trust the few ethnic Pashtun allies that the Northern Alliance has.
Rather than count on the alliance to capture and hold Kabul, U.S. and British field operatives have suggested helping the rebels to take the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a halfway measure that would allow the Western allies to wait out the winter without allowing the Taliban to claim victory.
The alliance has already cut off the Taliban's supply route to the north. More than 20,000 Taliban occupying Mazar-e-Sharif, the nation's second largest city, are isolated among a people who still have not forgotten the massacre of more than 3,000 locals when they captured the city in 1998.
Capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, which controls the main road north to Uzbekistan, would also allow the Afghan opposition to receive weapons and economic assistance from its allies in Central Asia and from the United States.
From there, the rebels could organize themselves for a decisive assault on Kabul when the snow on the mighty Afghan mountains melts.

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