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US Afghan Policy Switch
Washington this week signaled it was no longer prepared to allow faltering diplomatic efforts to secure a post-Taleban settlement hold up its military campaign.
The US said on Tuesday that it had begun dropping supplies of ammunition to the Northern Alliance and intended to secure an air base in the north from which to launch further ground operations by American and British forces.
"The military track has been held up waiting for progress on the political track," a Bush administration official said. "We had to get rid of the idea - or rather the illusion - the we could micro-manage the political future.
"Basically, the new thinking is to take those cities that are within easy reach of Northern Alliance forces without waiting any longer to be sure we can control in advance all the risks of post-war factional rivalries."
The new objective is to provide the Northern Alliance with enough fuel and munitions to conquer Taleban-held, Mazar-e-Sharif, in the hope that it will fall before the winter snow. The Afghan opposition offensive against the northern city in October produced little in the way of significant gains due to a lack of coordination, fuel and ammunition.
According to recent reports, alliance tanks are rationed to just 100 litres, enough for a single day's operation but not an extended, fast-moving campaign. The shell allowance is down to 40 per tank - 160 shells are considered the necessary arsenal for offensive operations.
For the first time since air strikes began on October 6, US bombers pounded frontline Taleban positions this week, in an attempt to open breaches for the passage of alliance troops. The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, situated close to the border with Uzbekistan, will allow Washington's newest partners in the war against terrorism to link up the many isolated pockets of opposition to the Taleban to the east and west.
It will also open a land bridge between the Uzbek city of Termez, where US marines are now based, and the Soviet-built airports in Mazar-e-Sharif and Shiburghan, 80 km to the west.
The western city of Herat, with its mixed population of Tajiks, Hazara and Pashtun, is also considered ripe for plucking. The respected Tajik former Emir of Herat, Ismail Khan, who enjoys considerable local support in spite of his expulsion by the Taleban in 1995, is reported to be massing a force capable of attacking the city, with the active support of his long-time sponsor, Iran.
Having failed on three occasions to persuade Pashtun tribal leaders to defect from the Taleban to a broad-based government in the making, the Bush administration has now put the diplomatic strand of its three-pronged approach to the Taleban on hold, focusing instead on its military and humanitarian priorities, using minorities from the Northern Alliance as proxies.
Washington is now set on chipping away at Afghanistan's urban centres, where Taleban support is weakest, in an effort to drive them back into their heartlands in the south and east of the country.
The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat to the Northern Alliance would form the base of an inverted triangle of opposition to the Taleban, whose apex is situated in the Panjshir valley, scarcely 100 km from Kabul itself.
Washington's change in tactics followed a weekend blitz of Western media criticism of the performance of the US air offensive, its goals and direction. Far from agreeing to a pause in the bombing - which critics in the West and the Muslim world have called for - the US decided that it was the pause in supplying the Northern Alliance that was at an end.
The decision is certain to rattle President Parvez Musharraf. He has struggled to offset domestic charges that he is a traitor to Islam by trying to persuade the US to respect Pakistan's concerns over a post-Taleban settlement.
Musharraf insisted that two-thirds of Afghanistan's new government should come from the Pashtun tribes who dominate the Taleban. But with the exception of Abdul Haq, a respected veteran of the anti-Soviet war, no Pashtun or Taleban leader has expressed an interest in such a proposition.
Haq was executed last week by Taleban forces while inside Afghanistan on a US-backed mission to win defections as part of the Pakistani plan to incorporate moderate Pashtun Taleban from the south into a broad-based government, headed by ex-king Zahir Shah.
His death strengthened US suspicions that Pakistan's military and intelligence circles were pursuing a separate agenda in regard to the Taleban's survival, in spite of Musharraf's official commitment to the American-led coalition.
Relations between the two countries remain cordial on the surface, with Musharraf no longer warning that unless US bombing of Afghanistan ceases before Ramadan starts on November 17, there could be a further round of violent protest from Pakistan's Muslims.
But the US-Muslim coalition, in so far as it exists in practice, has been drastically weakened by Washington's decision to actively support the Northern Alliance. President Bush has much to lose too by throwing in his hand with the Afghan opposition, but he has a humanitarian ace up his sleeve.
From 5-7 million Afghans face starvation this winter, chiefly in northern provinces administered from Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat that are hard to reach from Pakistan. The creation by force of an air bridge shifting food from Central Asia to Afghanistan could prove to be useful public relations tool to confound critics of the Bush administration and, at the same time, help Washington achieve its military objectives.
Significant progress on both the military and relief fronts would make an unbeatable combination as winter approaches and war aims get lost in the snow. The key question, however, is whether Northern Alliance will play along.
Michael Griffin is author of Reaping The Whirldwind - The Taleban Movement in Afghanistan, and is project coordinator of IWPR's Afghanistan project.
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