Afghanistan: The Moving Target

The Pentagon’s admission that Taliban forces in Afghanistan are not collapsing under the weight of the American bombardment, and that the Northern Alliance has not begun to march toward Kabul, casts doubt on the tactics being employed to run this war.

Its tactical model is familiar by now: air power applied from a safe height, with collaborating ground action by allied or proxy forces. In Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army assumed the ground role. In Bosnia, it was the European force already there.

Difficulties in Afghanistan also raise questions about the political assumptions and expectations that govern the campaign. US policy has assumed that the Northern Alliance, and possible Taliban defectors or dissident tribal groups elsewhere in the country, would do the ground fighting to overturn Afghanistan’s present government, once air power had broken its resistance.

This is not happening. A major emissary to Pashtun fighters, Abdul Haq, has been captured and killed. Serious evidence is lacking of a Pashtun disposition to defect. American tactical assumptions seem overconfident. Taliban military structures are rarely elaborate enough to be broken by bombing. The Pentagon announces that it has destroyed “command-and-control” centers at Afghan airfields, but correspondents who know the country say that a command-and-control facility is likely to consist of a wooden hut with a telephone that doesn’t always work.

Another problem is one with which the Air Force should be familiar by now. Bombing is not that effective against a technically unsophisticated, highly motivated army that digs in or disperses. This was true of the bombing in Vietnam. It never came close to making a decisive difference. In Kosovo, the Serbian army was not defeated by bombing. Postwar reckoning demonstrated that it had survived dismayingly well, contrary to NATO’s claims. Serbia eventually surrendered to NATO because Russia, its only serious source of foreign support, pulled out of what it had come to see as a damaging association, and told Belgrade to give up.

Finally, there is a natural reluctance on the part of anti-Taliban Afghans to be killed as proxies for an American army whose mission priority is to assure its own safety. In-and-out commando operations by US special troops seem unlikely to seriously hurt the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, if it is to do the real fighting, wants political rewards the US and Pakistan don’t want to offer.

The Pentagon’s reluctance to do more on the ground results not only from its allergy to casualties, but from the common-sense observation that ground warfare in Afghanistan, as winter approaches, would likely give the Taliban, not an ultramodern American army, most of the advantages of “asymmetric warfare.” Anyway, the United States is supposed to be conducting a war on terrorism, not a war on Afghanistan. Until September 11, Washington had for years demonstrated little or no interest in what was going on in Afghanistan.

Since then, Washington’s difficulty in finding and capturing Osama bin Laden has apparently led it to substitute the goal of overturning the Taliban government, an undertaking with…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.