Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul: Is the war over?

Afghanistan is full of surprises. And what surprise could be bigger than the lightening advance of the Northern Alliance over the last seven days? In less than a week, Taliban forces have been swept from most of northern Afghanistan, including the key cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Kunduz, Taloqan, Bamiyan, Jalalabad and the capital Kabul. The question is: How did a force that only two months ago controlled most of Afghanistan get swept from the battlefield so quickly, and is the battle over?

"When the leaders speak of peace, the common people know that war is coming." (Bertolt Brecht)

Afghanistan is full of surprises. And what surprise could be bigger than the lightening advance of the Northern Alliance over the last seven days? In less than a week, Taliban forces have been swept from most of northern Afghanistan, including the key cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Kunduz, Taloqan, Bamiyan, Jalalabad and the capital Kabul. The question is: How did a force that only two months ago controlled most of Afghanistan get swept from the battlefield so quickly, and is the battle over?

As a matter of fact, the speed of the Northern Alliance's advance was not really surprising. Rapid advances are the norm in Afghanistan, as when the Taliban swept through the country as quickly in 1994 and 1995. A decade or so earlier, Russia's initial invasion of Afghanistan took only a few weeks. The reason for this phenomenon is partly the country's small population density. The rugged terrain means that most of it is uninhabited. Armies are usually small and mobile, with not much of a rear. So once the front line breaks, it usually ends in a rapid retreat.

The national question also played a role. The Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan - overwhelmingly Pushtoon in composition (with volunteers from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) were fighting among a population drawn from other ethnic groups: Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, who were viciously oppressed by the Taliban and hostile to them. It was thus relatively easy for the Northern Alliance to make rapid progress in this area, and more difficult for the Taliban to maintain themselves, once the grip of terror was removed.

Another feature of wars in Afghanistan is the tendency of commanders to defect to the other side - and back again. Switching sides is common behaviour among Afghan groups. It is how the Taliban initially captured Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997 and how it was as swiftly driven from the city later that year. The factions comprising the Northern Alliance have fought one another as often as they have fought the Taliban. As the Taliban core withdrew from northern Afghanistan, the groups that had sided with it during its occupation quickly joined the advancing Northern Alliance.

It is also important to bear in mind the following fact: the Russians occupied not just Kabul, but the whole country, quickly and (from their point of view) painlessly. But the problems started afterwards, when they found themselves faced with an intractable guerrilla war. The same was true in 1992, when the Mujahedeen (basically, the same people as the present Northern Alliance), occupied Kabul with surprising speed, only to be ejected again three years later. Finally, the Taliban themselves staged a lightening advance, as we have said, and dominated ninety percent of Afghanistan, until the position was completely reversed, as is happening before our eyes.

From his hiding place, Mullah Omar says that the loss of Kabul and the other cities is "unimportant", and that he is preparing a counter-offensive. Can this be true? Or is it the expression of a deluded mind? The western media proclaim victory and the rout of the Taliban. But if one reads between the lines of the speeches of the leaders, a note of worry underlies the public triumphalism.

Withdrawal or rout?

Tony Blair - that most consummate and tireless propagandist of the cause of US imperialism - did not hesitate to characterise the recent events as a "rout" for the Taliban. He indignantly rejected any suggestion that it may have been a strategic withdrawal. However, as usual, the British prime minister was being "more papist than the Pope". Subsequent statements from US spokespersons put matters in an entirely different light, and admitted that the Taliban actions in abandoning Kabul without a fight may indeed have been a strategic withdrawal. The same point has been made by the serious strategists of Capital, who, unlike Tony Blair, understand the dangers that can arise when one starts to believe one's own propaganda.

A Stratfor report, dated November 13 and entitled "Taliban Withdrawal Was Strategy, Not Rout" answers firmly:

"On the surface," says Stratfor, "it appears a lightning offensive by the Northern Alliance - supported by US aerial bombardment - has shattered the Taliban army in a matter of days. But has the Taliban been defeated? An examination of the Taliban withdrawal suggests the group has intentionally surrendered territory in the interest of adopting tactics more amenable to its strengths. If the United States and its allies misread the Taliban withdrawal as a rout, they could quickly find themselves locked in a nasty guerrilla war in Afghanistan. Worse, that war is likely to spread beyond Afghanistan's borders, as the core of Taliban and al Qaeda forces in that country seek to secure their supply lines and capitalise on their strengths and their opponents' weaknesses."

The most striking feature of the withdrawal of the Taliban is that it took place almost without a fight. Neither the US bombardment nor the Northern Alliance offensive are sufficient to explain this. The Taliban has a hardened army with many veterans of the war against the Soviet Union. The Americans themselves were forced to admit that the Taliban forces were tough combat troops and were putting up a surprisingly strong resistance. Therefore, it would seem inexplicable that they should just give up without a fight.

Several western observers have pointed out that the Taliban forces withdrew from Kabul in good order under the cover of darkness, in order to avoid being bombed. The aim was clearly to avoid battle and preserve their forces intact. Stratfor, for example, points out that: "In most cases, the Taliban's retreat was premeditated and orderly. The fighting that occurred was a rear-guard action, often carried out by foreign troops."

"So contrary to appearances, the withdrawal by the Taliban troops was intentional and orderly," concludes Stratfor. "They were not routed. They are now stripped to their ethnic and ideological core, intact, with most of their arms and equipment. They are also back in familiar territory and reinforced with the bulk of Osama Bin Laden's Afghan Arab volunteers. The Taliban are now prepared to adopt a strategy more amenable to their tactical strengths and resources."

George Bush's "joy"

The Americans did not welcome the occupation of Kabul by the Northern Alliance forces, but had no alternative but to accept it and publicly support it. Bush could not do otherwise. Coming after a month in which the US bombing campaign had failed to deliver any serious results, this was the biggest military breakthrough since the US mounted its campaign - in fact, it was the only breakthrough. President Bush declared their rapid advances to be "great progress" towards the goal of bringing al-Qaida terrorists to justice. But behind the scenes he is already manoeuvring against his "allies".

The fact that Washington does not control the situation was starkly exposed by the conduct of the Northern Alliance. When the Northern Alliance troops moved into Kabul it was clear that they had ignored Mr Bush's plea on Saturday - made with Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani leader, at his side - not to enter the capital. As late as Monday night the Northern Alliance was still promising that its forces would remain outside Kabul. But on Tuesday its troops swept into Kabul at dawn. In public, President George W. Bush welcomed the "wonderful, joyous" scenes of liberated cities in Afghanistan on Tuesday, after the Northern Alliance swept triumphantly into the capital Kabul. But in private, he is furious at the fact that the rebel fighters defied his earlier demands not to enter Kabul.

This open defiance of the instructions from the American President was a warning to the West that the Northern Alliance was not prepared to be the puppet of America. This fact is pregnant with consequences for the future. The Northern Alliance claimed it had no choice but to establish a presence in Kabul following the night-time flight of Taliban forces. Many of its troops on Tuesday remained outside the city. But the lightening advance of the Northern Alliance, following the earlier capture of the key city of Mazar-e-Sharif, has not only shifted the military balance but also rewritten the diplomatic equation in Afghanistan. The stage is set for a future conflict between America and the Northern Alliance.

Under the cloak of friendship and solidarity, the public statements of Alliance leaders shows a defiant attitude to Washington. Conflicts are inevitable. The US desires to shape a new coalition government for Afghanistan, which it would dominate. But the military successes of the Northern Alliance forces has given rise to the feeling among its soldiers and commanders that they are winning enough victories on the ground to claim political leadership of the country for themselves. "We didn't need US help to take Taloqan," one senior commander, Ras Mohammad Urya, was quoted as saying. "We don't need help from America to take Konduz. After that we will think," he said. Thus, the red light is flashing for the Americans in Kabul. That is why the Americans and British are urging the United Nations to intervene, allegedly for "humanitarian" reasons.

Not accidentally, the most enthusiastic advocates of UN intervention are the Pakistani leaders. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, said on Tuesday that Kabul should be immediately demilitarised and that UN "blue turban" troops should be rapidly deployed to prevent a blood bath. "Events in Afghanistan are moving extremely fast, and we need to move faster than events," he said. "The more this vacuum lasts, the more danger there is of ethnic clashes."

This is pure hypocrisy. The government of Islamabad was unconcerned about human rights and blood baths in Afghanistan as long as their allies - the Taliban - were carrying out the massacres. But now that their friends are on the receiving end, they demand that the United Nations intervene to save them. The problem for the Pakistani ruling clique is not that there is a power vacuum in Kabul, but that the vacuum is being filled by their mortal enemies, the Northern Alliance. This does not suit either Washington or Islamabad, but it is occurring anyway.

Diplomatic manoeuvres

Continuing to play out the diplomatic farce, the Northern Alliance leaders invited the United Nations to come to Kabul to help keep the peace. Abdullah Abdullah, the Alliance's foreign minister, also invited "all Afghan groups" - except the Taliban - to travel to Kabul for talks about the future government of Afghanistan. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy on Afghanistan, outlined plans for a two-year transitional government, supported by a multinational security force. Speaking at a UN security council meeting, Mr Brahimi said he hoped for a meeting between ethnic leaders and the Northern Alliance "as early as humanly possible".

Tony Blair, taking his cue from Washington and Islamabad, immediately urged the UN to move rapidly to fill the political vacuum in Afghanistan. "We need urgently to put in place the next political and humanitarian moves that the changing military situation now permits." Thus, the urgent dispatch of 4,000 British troops is said to be for humanitarian purposes: keeping order in Kabul and assisting the United Nations and humanitarian agencies.

The units concerned include elements from 3 Commando and 16 Air Assault brigades, including 2nd Battalion, the Parachute regiment, and 45 Commando Royal Marines, backed up by RAF air transport, support helicopters, engineers, logistic teams and explosive ordnance disposal experts. None of these - it is alleged - will be used in offensive operations against Afghanistan's Taliban former rulers or Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida network. A small number of UK special forces are, however, said to be on the ground assisting the US operation there, while the ministry said 40 Commando Royal Marines remained at a high state of readiness for "contingency operations."

It should be observed that regiments such as the paratroops, commandos and Royal Marines are first-rate combat troops, whose principal purpose is not handing out blankets and sacks of flour. It is crystal clear that the urgent dispatch of such troops to Kabul is not connected with any humanitarian intentions, but has a much more serious aim. When we are told that they are not being sent to fight bin Laden and al-Qaida, we might accept it. When it is said that they are going to "keep order" in Kabul, we feel that we are getting closer to the truth. But wait a minute. Is the Northern Alliance not present in Kabul? Are they not supposed to be our allies? And are they not maintaining order in the capital?

In order to prepare public opinion in the West for what will come next, the press is full of reports (mostly rumours) of supposed atrocities by the Northern Alliance. It is fairly certain that some Taliban prisoners have been killed, especially Pakistanis and Arabs. Washington has urged restraint on the Northern Alliance. But moral exhortations by foreign leaders will have little effect in Afghanistan. As the Financial Times points out: "it is unclear how the coalition could physically prevent further atrocities - especially given their scarce presence on the ground and their reluctance to deploy UN peacekeeping troops."

Despite the dire predictions of the western media, the scale of these killings so far appears to be much less than on previous occasions, and certainly nothing in comparison to the massacres perpetrated by the Taliban in occupied territories in the north. There have been no confirmed reports of a breakdown in public order in Kabul. On the contrary, most Kabulis seem happy to see the back of the Taliban and - at least for the time being - to welcome the Northern Alliance.

Therefore, what need is there to send 4,000 British combat troops to Kabul? It is sufficient to pose the question to get the answer. The British army is being sent to Kabul, not for humanitarian purposes, or to keep order, but to challenge the hegemony of the Northern Alliance and prevent it from installing itself in power. Once again, the British ruling establishment are falling over themselves to do the dirty work for the Americans.

"A broad-based government"?

The Financial Times, on November 14, warned: "But diplomats are also fretting that the political task of reconstructing Afghanistan may have just become immeasurably more difficult as the country is once again in danger of sliding back into anarchy." While the diplomats at the State Department fretted, the generals at the Pentagon - of whom President Truman once remarked that they were not capable of marching and chewing gum at the same time - celebrated, believing that the fall of Kabul would relieve them of the painful necessity of fighting on the ground. However, the elation of the Pentagon is premature, to say the least.

The rapidly shifting military situation has frustrated the Americans' attempts to impose a political solution in Afghanistan favourable to themselves. As always, the decisive question is arms. With the withdrawal of the Taliban, the only armed force in Kabul is the Northern Alliance. The only way to keep the Northern Alliance under control and prevent them from seizing power is by counterposing to them the armed might of Britain and America. And the only way to do this is to deploy American and British troops on the ground as quickly as possible. Hence Tony Blair's indecent haste to send in the British army.

However, as we have seen, this is a very risky option. They will be sending troops into an explosive environment which they do not control. The warring factions have not even declared a cease-fire. This is a dangerous situation in which to deploy UN troops. Which countries would volunteer to send troops on such a risky mission? Only the USA, and its foreign stooges - Britain and Turkey. Thus, it would not be a UN force at all, but an American force under a UN façade.

The Americans talk about a broad based national unity government, but this is unreal in the present situation. The men with guns on the ground, and not the politicians sitting in Washington and Peshawar, are shaping the country's destiny. The Northern Alliance - at least for the moment - has turned itself into the arbiter of Afghanistan. But, given the restricted ethnic base of the Northern Alliance, this creates new problems. Diplomats are warning of a de facto partition of Afghanistan along ethnic lines.

Everybody agrees that what is needed is a broad-based national unity government. The problem is "how broad" - and who will wield the real power? Pakistan and Pushtoon leaders such as Pir Syed Ahmed Gaillani, head of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, who last month called a meeting of Afghan tribal leaders to launch a new peace process, have also said that no faction should dominate: "Capturing an area by force has not brought peace to Afghanistan in the past. If there isn't a proper political formula, the problem will not be solved," says Gaillani. Kabul must be turned into a neutral city under the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Conference with "a government that represents all factions". And so on and so forth.

Very nice in theory. But the problem is that at present only one faction holds power in Kabul, and has arms in its hands. That changes everything. We can predict in advance that, no matter who is in the government, the Northern Alliance will insist on controlling two ministries: defence and the interior - the army and the police. Since, as Lenin explained long ago, the state is armed bodies of men, the rest does not matter very much.

Before capturing Kabul, the Northern Alliance had seemingly struck an outline power-sharing deal with Mohammad Zahir Shah, the former king. But on Tuesday the king's supporters expressed dismay that the alliance had reneged on its pledges not to move into the capital. Why could they not wait like gentlemen, until the politicians in Peshawar had time to put on a suit and tie and graciously place themselves at the head of the nation? These people evidently do not lack a sense of humour!

The most controversial issue will be whether to include "moderate" Taliban leaders in any future government. Pakistan, which has been alarmed by the Northern Alliance's military success, is insisting that these "moderate" Taliban elements must be included in any future settlement. Naturally! What Islamabad wants is to smuggle its friends back into power through the back-door. But, having just taken Kabul by force of arms, and having fought a bloody war with the Taliban and their Pakistani backers for some years, the Northern Alliance is hardly likely to agree to this.

The demand for the inclusion of some Taliban leaders in the new government may be popular in Islamabad, but not elsewhere. Moscow, one of the chief backers of the Northern Alliance, on Tuesday forcefully restated its position that the Taliban must be excluded from a new Afghan government. Russian diplomats have suggested that Afghanistan must be de-Talibanised much as Germany was de-Nazified. This is quite natural. Pakistan wants its stooges to rule the roost, and Russia wants the same thing. Unfortunately, both options are not possible.

The stage is therefore set for a series of splits, as each of the interested foreign powers (there are several) backs its particular faction in Kabul. Thus, even if a "national unity" government is formed, it will not take long to disintegrate into a government of national dis-unity. Once again, matters will be resolved, not in the corridors of parliament, but in the streets and in the mountains.

Like Pakistan and Russia Iran is an interested party in the affairs of Afghanistan. It is, in fact, the Northern Alliance's other chief supporter. It will back the Hazaras and other Shiite elements in the population. This will lead to a further deepening of the fault lines in Afghan society. The liberal Hayat-e-Nou newspaper has warned that the Northern Alliance might itself start to fragment after the capture of Kabul. This is quite correct. The Alliance is not likely to hold together. It is an unstable bloc of disparate forces that can break up at any time, plunging the country into bloody chaos. This is just what the western powers are afraid of.

The National Alliance has already expressed its unwillingness to accept foreign troops on a long-term basis. They will not want to see Kabul occupied by foreigners. Thus, far from controlling the situation, the imperialists do not even have a firm foothold in Afghanistan. The terrain is treacherous and constantly changing. In this quicksand it is very easy to sink. In the meantime, the Taliban have not disappeared into thin air.

The war continues

The swiftness of the collapse of the Taliban's defence, and the ease with which the Northern Alliance entered Kabul, has led many to conclude that the war is over and that the Taliban are finished. This is a serious misreading of the situation. Tony Blair was quick to emphasise that "military campaign will continue". Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, also warned on Tuesday that the war against terrorism was "far from over". He said US special operations forces were now working alongside rebel commanders in southern Afghanistan, seeking out the leaders of the Taliban regime and al-Qaida.

In an article significantly entitled "A dangerous advance", the Financial Times (November 13) warned that the war with the Taliban is by no means over:

"In spite of their apparent collapse across much of the north, the Taliban may remain a formidable fighting force for some time to come. One Taliban official told the al-Jazeera television station that their retreat from Kabul was part of a deliberate strategy. Rather than exposing themselves to sustained US bombing by remaining in fixed positions, Taliban fighters may take to the hills and continue to wage a mujahideen-style guerrilla war.

"The rapidly changing military situation has certainly left the UN flat-footed as it seeks to find a political solution acceptable to all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups and the country's six neighbouring powers."

These warnings are no accident. Having recovered from the shock of the capture of Kabul by the Northern Alliance, the western leaders have realised that the war has not yet been won. The main war aims of the USA have not been achieved. Bin Laden is still at liberty. The al Qaid organisation, despite the losses it has undoubtedly suffered, is still intact. Nor is the Taliban destroyed. On the contrary.

It is true that the fall of Kabul presents the Americans potentially with a more favourable logistical context for pursuing their military operation. It has made the logistics of supplying and maintaining the military campaign far easier. However, the essential problem remains: in order to realise its objective, the US and its allies must send troops into the Pushtoon areas. This cannot be achieved painlessly. The enemy has been driven from the cities but not destroyed. The Taliban, having withdrawn from the cities, will regroup in the mountains and villages of the Pushtoon heartland.

The swift collapse of the Taliban forces in the north was, in part, due to the fact that they were an overwhelmingly Pushtoon army fighting in a hostile environment. The north is mainly occupied by the national minorities: Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. The Northern Alliance was able to capture vast tracts of territory where they will have been received as liberators by these nationalities who were savagely oppressed by the Pushtoon-Taliban occupiers. The very weakness of the Taliban in these areas is the reason why they behaved with such inhuman ferocity in Mazar-e-Sharif and Bamiyan. The Hazaras in particular suffered dreadful atrocities at their hands, amounting to ethnic and cultural genocide.

However, now the picture is changing. After the capture of Kabul, the Northern Alliance is entering the Pushtoon areas, where the attitude of the population will be different. The population of Kabul itself is mixed. Many of those who came out onto the street to welcome the Northern Alliance will have been members of the national minorities. But in the Pushtoon lands of the south, the population will see the Northern Alliance as foreign invaders. Here there is a hatred for America and the Taliban still have support. It is here that they will try to organise their resistance.

The Afghan quagmire

Despite the public self-congratulations, the Americans are still blundering around in the dark, groping for a way out. But no way out presents itself. Yet again, we see how the Americans have thought nothing out to the end. They imagined that once they had pushed the Taliban out of Kabul, the problem would be solved. But this is not at all the case. The fall of Kabul has taken place in a manner not of the Americans' choosing and even less to their liking. They see that the Alliance leaders are already installing themselves in the capital, and, once this occurs, it will not be easy to dislodge them. Washington does not trust the Alliance. They fear that, now the common enemy is removed, the "united front" will break up into its constituent parts. This is very likely. The result will be chaos and civil war.

The Taliban have lost their grip on power, but not their potential for making war. They are very used to fighting a guerrilla war in the mountains. They did it before and can do it again. In the north, they were fighting in alien and hostile territory. But in the villages and mountains of the Pushtoon area, they are in their own homeland. The prospect opens up of a protracted guerrilla campaign which can go on for years. The first part of the allied war campaign was the easy bit. The second part will not be so easy. British and American troops will have to go into the Pushtoon areas on search and destroy missions, where they will be sitting targets for the guerrillas. Casualties will be inevitable. At a certain stage this will have an effect on public opinion in Britain and America.

The Americans had hoped to be able to carry out a quick, surgical strike against bin Laden, relying mainly on air power. Instead, the conflict is becoming ever more complicated and difficult, and the prospect of an end is postponed almost indefinitely. They will have to keep troops stationed not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan and other countries in order to prop them up. They cannot get out of this, and neither can the British, since Tony Blair has committed Britain to sending troops.

The UK ministry of defence announced on Wednesday that it was placing several thousand troops on reduced notice to move - meaning they will be ready to move at 48 hours' notice - in the light of what the ministry called the fluid and rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan. As usual, Blair has acted with indecent haste to show his unstinting devotion to America's cause. But already there is growing unease at home with his obsessive preoccupation with the war and his role as a "great statesman" to the detriment of the problems of the British people. This criticism will grow to a crescendo when people in Britain realise the mess they have gotten themselves into in Afghanistan.

In retrospect, the fall of Kabul will be seen to have been just one more episode in the bloody and long drawn-out crisis in Afghanistan. Between them, the Stalinists and imperialists have reduced this unhappy country to a shambles Now the chaos threatens to spread to the neighbouring states. Pakistan is worried that the war could spread through the Pushtoon lands to affect the rest of Pakistan. Musharraf is in a very uncomfortable position. He has no real support in any important section of Pakistan society. In fact, his only firm basis of support is America, which is compelled to prop him up for the lack of any viable alternative and fear of worse to come.

This is a far worse and more dangerous position than the one in which the Americans found themselves on September 11. Washington will now be compelled to underwrite the bankrupt and unstable regime in Pakistan, as well as all the other "friendly" states in the region, which are being destabilised by its actions. If the aim of this exercise was to combat terrorism, they will find they have achieved the opposite. Before these events, the imperialists could afford to maintain a relatively safe distance from the convulsions and wars of this part of the world, but now they are completely entangled in it. By their actions since September 11, the USA and Britain has got themselves dragged into a quagmire, from which it will be difficult to extricate themselves.

November 15, 2001

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