More misery in store for a longsuffering people
November 7, 2001
"When you're wounded and left
On Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out
To cut up your remains,
Just roll to your rifle
And blow out your brains
And go to your Gawd
Like a soldier."
-- Rudyard Kipling
from "The Young British
HOUGHTON -- Recalling the remote rugged beauty of a flight above Afghanistan's barren deserts and the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush, it seems hard to believe that people could survive in a place so desolate. Looking at isolated cities and villages surrounded by a barren landscape far below must make it easy for pilots to drop
"precision" bombs onto their targets, unaware of the looming humanitarian catastrophe below. Having experienced the hospitality and friendship of these people who have experienced so much misery and hardship, I cannot help but worry about the further suffering of the Afghans.
This photo, taken in 1992, shows the wreckage of a Soviet tank used as a table near the village of Naray Kelay in northeastern Afghanistan. (Photo by Ron Martin, Jr.)
Pentagon photos of destroyed runways, terrorist camps and military headquarters do not show the lives of innocent civilians whose homes, livelihood, and loved ones have also been destroyed by bombs. Civilian casualties, often referred to as collateral damage, are no more deserving of such a fate than the innocent victims of the September 11 attack.
While the Taliban have allowed Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network to operate freely within Afghanistan, Afghans did not elect the Taliban, invite bin Laden into their country or attack the United States. Because so many Afghans have suffered at the hands of the Taliban and bin
Laden's al Qaeda, many would welcome their removal from power. Much of the world would also welcome the removal of the Taliban and al Qaeda but most do not approve of the means.
Part 1: On the Military Front
Any hope for a quick and decisive resolution has been tempered by admissions that the Taliban are a formidable adversary and military action could last for several more months. However, continued bombing will certainly turn more Afghans, Muslims and world opinion against the U.S. and create new terrorists.
Initially Afghans, other than the Taliban, were not worried by the impending attacks, believing that civilians would not be targeted. Many were even hopeful that military action would eventually bring peace to the country. But each bomb that kills a civilian also erodes the support of Afghans hoping for change and believing that the U.S. is not against them.
The US has accidentally bombed villages, buses, hospitals and houses. In a public relations catastrophe, they also bombed clearly marked Red Cross facilities twice -- killing four United Nations staff, destroying desperately needed food and other supplies and initially suggesting that the damage was from Taliban anti-aircraft guns.
Refugees fleeing Kandahar have reported innocent civilians being injured and killed while Taliban and al Qaeda fighters remain safely hidden. Most bombing casualties are believed to be the low-ranking Taliban soldiers and conscripts. Aid workers have reported only 300 Taliban injuries from the first three days of carpet-bombing the front line with the opposition Northern Alliance.
The Taliban have also carried out indiscriminant bombing; a BBC correspondent witnessed them firing rockets into a civilian area controlled by the Northern Alliance. They have also endangered civilians by allegedly hiding troops, weapons, fuel and transport in or near civilian areas, aid agencies and mosques.
The Media War
While the U.S. concedes that some civilians will unfortunately be killed, it has been slow to admit mistakes, appearing to be dishonest and evasive. This plays into the hands of the Taliban -- who seem to be winning the propaganda war abroad and, especially, in Muslim countries. The U.S. had a groundswell of support after the September 11 attack, but the support is fading as the death toll of innocent civilians climbs. Even small numbers of casualties have a disproportionate affect on public opinion.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's dismissal of casualties, seen in the context of the September 11 attack, is extremely insensitive and implies innocent Afghan lives are worth less than innocent American lives. Although the U.S. intent is not to kill innocent civilians, the result is the same. Those affected and those watching do not see it from the same perspective as
Certainly, Taliban civilian casualty figures are inflated and cannot be verified since the Taliban limit access to the few reporters they allow into the areas they control. The isolationist Taliban have quickly become skilled at exploiting the media. They have permitted greater access to journalists from Al Jazeera, the satellite TV station based in Qatar and watched by many Muslims who view it as impartial. Until recently halted by Pakistan, the Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, held frequent press conferences. As in every war, all sides put their own spin on the news with truth often being a casualty.
The Impending Ground War
With most of the air defenses and strategic military assets destroyed, there is little remaining for U.S. bombers to target. However, the Taliban are reported to be in high spirits, having physically and politically survived the bombing, demonstrating to Afghans that the U.S. is not so formidable.
Bombing alone will not defeat the Taliban, whose most valuable military assets are small units of soldiers armed with Kalashnikov (AK-47) assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortars and transported in Toyota pick-up trucks well-suited for the primitive and poorly maintained roads. Caves and mountains provide countless hiding places.
A worker assembles a counterfeit AK-47 in one of the many gun factories in Darra, Pakistan, a tribal area near the Afghan border. (1992 photo by Ron Martin, Jr.)
The battle must be fought on the ground in order to defeat the Taliban, eliminate al Qaeda, and find bin Laden. U.S. military planners realize that a massive ground invasion would result in numerous American casualties because of stiff resistance from Taliban and al Qaeda forces
-- experienced soldiers who are able to disappear into the familiar terrain and who are fighting for their survival. Bloody street-by-street combat would be required to dislodge the Taliban forces that are widely dispersed throughout the cities.
Furthermore, the Afghans will unite against a foreign invader. Even those opposed to the Taliban, including some opposition Northern Alliance commanders, have vowed to fight a U.S. invasion.
Instead, U.S. military planners have said they will use small Special Forces units. However, there is little evidence of Special Forces accomplishing much on the ground. Seymour Hirsch reported in the
New Yorker -- and the Pentagon denied -- that the October 20 raid on Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad
Omar's home accomplished little. Hirsch said it was poorly organized and executed and it resulted in several U.S. injuries, three serious.
U.S. Special Forces are also being deployed on the ground to help direct bombing and coordinate it with opposition Northern Alliance forces whom the U.S. military intend to use as a proxy force against the
The Northern Alliance
The Northern Alliance, who prefer to be called the "United Front," are officially known as the United National and Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (Unifsa). They are a very loose coalition of mostly Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic minorities. After the assassination of their charismatic military leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, they became even less cohesive.
Since the U.S. bombing began, the out-manned and poorly equipped Northern Alliance has had little success in making any significant gains against the Taliban, who had been well supplied and financed by Pakistan. Turkey has pledged troops to train the Northern Alliance, while the U.S. has air-dropped desperately needed military supplies. Iran, India and especially Russia have also increased the flow of military equipment to the Northern Alliance.
Author Ron Martin, Jr., shoots an AK-47 built in a local gun factory in Darra, Pakistan, a tribal area near the Afghan border. (1992 photo by Keith
Until recent carpet bombing against their front lines with the Taliban, the Northern Alliance had complained that U.S. bombing was inadequate. But many military analysts doubt the
Alliance's ability to defeat the Taliban even with U.S. air support.
Because the Northern Alliance has little Pashtoon representation, they would face strong resistance in southern and eastern Afghanistan, which is dominated by ethnic Pashtoon from whom the Taliban draw their support. The Northern Alliance would prefer having Taliban forces defect to their side in order to avoid fighting; but, in spite of numerous reports by the Alliance, there have been few if any Taliban defections.
Although more united than the Northern Alliance, the Taliban are not a monolithic force. With ethnic and tribal differences, the Taliban could still experience defections, if only potential defectors had someone to defect to.
Seeking Taliban Territory and Defections
The Taliban's capture and swift execution of Abdul Haq, who had returned to Afghanistan seeking Taliban defections, illustrates the difficulty and danger in organizing resistance to the Taliban.
Haq's plans were allegedly reported to the Taliban by Pakistani intelligence services (ISI) or Taliban sympathizers inside Pakistan where, unlike the U.S., the Taliban have an excellent intelligence network.
This incident highlights the importance of good intelligence, which will be crucial to persuade defections from the Taliban. It was also a propaganda coup for the Taliban showing that the U.S. cannot protect opposition politicians. The execution of Haq will act as a deterrent to future opposition.
Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west, dominated by ethnic minorities who resent the Taliban, are most vulnerable to defections and attacks by Northern Alliance forces. The international airport at Mazar-i-Sharif would provide the launch pad essential for a ground war that will require troop transport and ground-based aircraft that cannot be effectively launched from aircraft carriers.
The U.S. is also interested in the former Soviet Bagram airbase, which is controlled by the Northern Alliance but dangerously surrounded by Taliban forces. U.S. forces have also landed at a rudimentary dirt airstrip at Golbahar, near the front line north of Kabul, and would like access to airbases in bordering Tajikistan.
Military planners are racing to beat the paralyzing winter weather, which is already blamed for one helicopter crash. The winter poses an even greater challenge to the fight against the looming humanitarian crisis.
Learn more about the author of this guest column, Ron
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