When President George W. Bush debated former Vice President Al Gore on national television last year, he promised his foreign policy would avoid nation building – constructing a government with people who may or may not want assistance. Two months following the opening of U.S.-led strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan, it appears he has disregarded his original plan.
It is not that Bush had much of a choice. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the president pledged to make no differentiation between terrorists and the regimes that harbor them. By allowing Osama bin Laden to maintain a haven within its borders, the Taliban became the first target of U.S. strikes.
Less than two months ago, the Northern Alliance – a collection of Afghan tribes fighting against the Taliban – clung to less than 5 percent of Afghanistan. Today they control about 90 percent, and appear to be advancing to victory more quickly than anticipated. These successes came mostly from overwhelming force from a U.S.-led effort, which the Taliban’s aging stock of Russian weapons can barely withstand.
Afghanistan is a war-torn nation that has spent much of its recent history in conflict. Its mountainous topography has plagued military invaders – most recently the Soviets in the 1980s. The mountainous terrain also includes a series of complex tunnels and mountains where Taliban and al Qaeda members are said to be hiding.
The decision to attack al Qaeda and the Taliban was not made overnight. Several weeks of efforts to negotiate bin Laden’s arrest and extradition failed to prevent a military action. Pakistani efforts to arrange a diplomatic end to the struggle failed to materialize. On Oct. 7, the United States, with help from British planes, launched an air assault against Taliban and al Qaeda targets.
From the beginning, Americans were told to brace for a long war unlike any past battle the country has seen.
Professor Charles Toftoy, head of GW’s Entrepreneurship Program and retired lieutenant colonel from the airborne rangers of the U.S. Army, said the public should prepare themselves for a protracted battle.
“People have got to realize that this is World War III,” Toftoy said. “(The victims in the World Trade Center) came from 86 different countries, to me that’s world war.
First came the air war – a series of strategic strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban targets near the capital Kabul and Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual center.
Then the came the economic war – the global collaborative effort to freeze terrorists’ assets across the globe.
The results trickled in slowly at first, when the attacks appeared to strengthen the Taliban’s resolve.
When Northern Alliance leader Abdul Haq was captured and executed by the Taliban Oct. 27, many called it a major setback for the U.S.-led efforts against the Taliban.
But U.S.-led troops continued dropping 5,000-pound bunker busters and carpet bombs on Taliban forces and U.S. Special Forces were brought in to fight alongside the Northern Alliance.
By Nov. 6 the military stalemate gave way to Northern Alliance momentum. Aided by Special Forces, the alliance claimed victory in two fights against the Taliban to capture Kinsideh, a town near the strategic Mazar-e Sharif, which serves as a trade route for Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan.
Also by Nov. 6, the United States started dropping BLU-82 bombs or “daisy cutters,” which was used in the Vietnam War to clear jungles. The purpose of the bombs is to kill Taliban troops. The bombs kill by concussion, instead of a carpet bomb, which kills with shrapnel.
The war played into the hands of the Northern Alliance by Nov. 10, starting an apparent domino effect. A victory over the Taliban in Mazar-e Sharif provided an important psychological win for the Northern Alliance and enabled the United States to bring in clothing, aid for civilians, food and military equipment. The troops previously sat perched near the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border.
The victory at Mazar-e Sharif also allowed the United States to establish an airbase to accelerate its operations and rely less on countries with shaky political structures. Most importantly, opposition forces cut the Taliban from supply routes.
The victory in Mazar-e Sharif also forced many Taliban-allied warlords to ponder switching to the alliance’s side. Many of the warlords did not share an ideology with the Taliban but embraced them because they thought the Taliban could bring peace to a country that was tired of warfare.
By Nov. 12 the domino effect continued. Warned by Pakistan not to enter Kabul before a government was established, alliance forces surrounded the capital city before the Taliban fled. Faced with little choice, the Alliance re-entered Kabul to the joy of the citizens, who said they felt imprisoned by the Taliban – forced to wear religious clothing, grow facial hair and, for women, excluded from the workforce.
The victory in Kabul was also a symbolic one for Afghanistan’s president-in-exile Burhanuddin Rabbani, who returned to proclaim the city free from Taliban rule.
In recent weeks, Taliban dominance in Afghanistan has continued to wane. Taliban fighters surrendered in Konduz, and some even switched sides to fight with the Northern Alliance.
The rapid Northern Alliance victory has left a new problem, as Taliban forces from other countries – Pakistan, Chechnya and other nations – have nowhere to go. This week the Northern Alliance agreed to hand those fighters over to the United Nations.
Al Qaeda forces have also lost all of its known infrastructure and one of its main military chiefs, Mohammed Atef, who was killed in an airstrike Nov. 17.
While it does not appear the U.S.-led coalition is planning to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Afghanistan, many fear that al Qaeda has managed to purchase nuclear technology.
Opposition forces found nuclear weapons research and information on how to make a nuclear bomb left behind in Kabul after the Taliban retreated.
Bin Laden told a Pakistani newspaper Nov. 7 that he has obtained nuclear weapons and would use them against the United States if attacked.
While many in the government do not believe that he has that technology, Toftoy said after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, 50 nuclear weapons went unaccounted for. It is widely believed those radioactive weapons made their way onto the black market, he said.
“Once the Soviet Union was gone, Russia and the former Soviet states began selling everything because they badly needed money,” Toftoy said. “Unfortunately, there are some very bad people out there with very deep pockets.
Now the military strikes target Taliban Leader Mullah Muhammed Omar and bin Laden. Air strikes on Nov. 27 aimed at one of Omar’s known residences but failed to strike the leader himself.
Ground efforts have also expanded, with the U.S. deploying more than 1,000 marines outside Kandahar for the next course of action.
Bush and other government officials have promised to continue the battle until all terrorist networks are destroyed. Even if bin Laden is captured or killed, it appears the war against terrorism is just beginning.
— Jason Safdi? contributed to this report.