The dramatic turn of events in Afghanistan over the past week does not necessarily mean that the struggle against Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaida terrorists is closer to victory. The Taliban regime had offered Bin Laden and his minions sanctuary but very little in the way of direct logistical or financial support.
Bin Laden’s vast personal fortune and his widespread international network are such that the end of the Taliban does not necessarily mean a serious setback in Al-Qaida’s operation. Indeed, as a decentralized network of underground terrorist cells, even the loss of an official sanctuary may at most be only a minor setback. Worse, it probably does not mean the end of the Taliban. The Taliban evacuated Kabul and other cities well ahead of advancing militias from the Northern Alliance. It appears this was a tactical retreat to consolidate their forces in mountainous rural areas to resume a guerrilla campaign, possibly with enough strength to put some Afghan cities under siege.
As the Russians know all too well, controlling Kabul and other Afghan cities does not mean controlling Afghanistan. Indeed, most Afghan cities are in valleys vulnerable to shelling and sniper fire from surrounding mountains. American air power, like Soviet air power in the 1980s, would likely lessen the pressure only slightly and, as if civilian casualties mount, even turn the population against those in government and their foreign backers.
To really pursue the Al-Qaida, U.S. ground forces may be forced to send in ground troops to the rugged mountainous terrain and fight the seasoned Taliban guerrilla fighters on their own terms. Even with a reduced geographical area in which to hide, finding Bin Laden and the Al-Qaida leadership will be extremely difficult. Perhaps, with a combination of defectors, high-tech tracking equipment, and luck, U.S. forces may still be able to kill or capture Bin Laden and other Al-Qaida leaders.
However, in the fight against terrorism, the political struggle is at least as important as the military struggle. The strategy of heavy bombing has marginally improved the military equation but has significantly set back the political equation. As a result of seven weeks of bombing, the sympathy the U.S. had in the Islamic world after the September 11 attacks has been lost. The United States needs the cooperation of individuals and governments in Islamic countries to help track down and root out the Al-Qaida cells, which will now be far more difficult. Both fairly and unfairly, the U.S. is being seen as responsible for killing hundreds of innocent people directly through bombing and indirectly risking the lives of millions by exacerbating the country’s humanitarian crisis.
There are no other countries outside the Taliban’s Afghanistan that formally grant the Al-Qaida network sanctuary, but that has not prevented these terrorists from building a far-reaching network. The Bush administration and its supporters in Congress are going to learn that high-altitude bombing–even putting the legal and moral arguments aside–is a very blunt and not particularly effective instrument in the fight against terrorism.
The good news is that hundreds of thousands of Afghans in urban areas are now liberated from the rule of the Taliban, perhaps the most totalitarian government in the world. The bad news is that the Northern Alliance consists largely of war lords, opium magnates, and ethnic militias that were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands through internecine fighting, banditry, and executions when they controlled Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996. Indeed, the Taliban was able to take over because the Afghan people were so desperate for stability and order they were willing–at least initially–to accept the Taliban’s theocratic fascism. Time will only tell whether the U.S. will be able to convince the new rulers to be more responsible this time.
Even prior to the September 11 terrorist attack and the start of the October 7 bombing campaign, many observers believed the Taliban was nearing political collapse and would not last for another year. The bombing may have escalated this collapse to the point where it may now be difficult to create a credible, broad-based, and stable government. The Bush administration may be forced either to watch as violent instability returns–making it all the more difficult to track down the terrorists–or to engage in the very kind of “nation-building” candidate George W. Bush criticized during the campaign. Afghanistan’s complex and violent tribal and ethnic politics has swallowed up great powers before. It remains to be seen whether the United States will become the next victim.