Afghanistan: November 11, 2001


The fall of Mazar-I-Sharif on November 9th has resulted in a Northern Alliance sweep through northern and western Afghanistan. These areas are populated largely by non-Pushtun tribes who tend to switch sides quickly if the Northern Alliance forces enter their neighborhood with more men than the local Taliban have. While the Taliban may try and hold some of the larger cities, particularly the provincial capitals, they now know that American air power (both bombers and transports) make defending cities a lot more dangerous than in the past. Against the Russians, the Afghans were out in the hills, ambushing road bound infantry or playing tag with Spetznaz commandoes and helicopter gunships. Out there, the Afghans could call the shots, and fight or retreat as they pleased. But digging in outside a city and getting bombed by Americans and shelled by the Northern Alliance is not what an Afghan warrior is prepared for. For the Taliban, it's a different, and much more unpleasant, kind of war. For this reason, the Taliban appear to be eager to pull back to Kabul, and Pushtun territory. If you're going to be bombed, at least let it happen in more familiar territory. The Taliban leadership also has be carefully monitor the morale among its Pushtun troops. The foreign (Pakistani, Arab and other) troops in the Taliban army only comprise some 15,000 troops. This is not enough to control even the Pushtun half of Afghanistan. If the Pushtun troops become too demoralized, the Taliban will be alone in their own land, dependent on a bunch of fanatical foreigners for their survival. 

The major obstacle in the Afghan war remains, and that's the animosity between the Pushtuns and non-Pushtuns. Normally, the different ethnic groups stay in their own areas and have little to do with the other groups. Although there is a fair amount of intermarriage and contact between the different groups, this is mainly in the cities. There are really two Afghanistans. About a quarter of the population lives in cities and large towns where the different ethnic groups mix. But the rest of the population is out in the countryside, where you rarely see anyone but people from your own tribe. During the war with the Russians, most of the fighting was between Russians and Afghans from whatever area the Russians were operating in. Even the Afghans from the refugee camps in Pakistan would often trek back to their home territory to fight the Russians. But after the Russians left, the various tribes formed larger military units, moved around and, after several years, seven different ethnic armies closed in on Kabul. The majority of the Kabul population was Pushtun, with large minorities from the other ethnic groups. When the various rebel armies entered Kabul, after defeating the pro-Russian government forces, the non-Pushtun fighters often treated the Pushtun city folks as conquered people. Assault, rape and robbery followed. The same scenario was played out in other cities. It wasn't just Pushtuns who suffered, but city dwellers in general. It was the city folks who were the main support of the pro-Russian government and they were seen as traitors and non-Islamic (many city people were also communists). The Pushtuns were just as unpleasant when they advanced north into non-Pushtun towns, There were massacres and abuse of the non-Pushtun population. So as the Northern Alliance moves south into Pushtun territory, there is fear that a desire for revenge, and bad feelings towards people different from the conquerors will generate more bad treatment. This sort of thing unites the Pushtuns against the Northern Alliance. Even anti-Taliban Pushtuns will fight the Northern Alliance to defend themselves against real or imagined atrocities. 

The Northern Alliance leadership is at least aware of the problem and say they will deal with it. But an army of warriors is not so easily disciplined. If nothing else, this situation provides an Information Warfare opportunity for Americans. If the message can be gotten to Northern Alliance troops to behave, and to Pushtuns that they will be safe, the road to victory will be a lot shorter. Already, Pushtuns are saying they will be more willing to resist the Taliban if they see American troops with the Northern Alliance forces. The Pushtuns understand that the Americans are professional soldiers and could restrain the wild Northern Alliance warriors. This doesn't say much for Taliban anti-American propaganda, but does show how practical people in danger can be. American special forces and rangers may end up performing their most important duty not fighting, but keeping the peace between Northern Alliance warriors and Pushtun civilians. 

Northern Alliance forces entered Mazar-I-Sharif without incident. Shops have reopened and the radio station is playing music (which is forbidden on Taliban controlled radio.) Taliban rules have been rescinded. Men can trim or shave their beards and women can show their faces. Many actively pro-Taliban civilians apparently fled with the Taliban troops. Most Northern Alliance troops did not linger, but immediately went off to liberate other Taliban held territory. In some cases, Northern Alliance contingents are headed for their home territory to oust the Taliban. Northern Alliance forces have already cleared most of the Taliban from the Uzbek border, opening up a supply line from the north. The Tajik border is being cleared as well. Many more pro-Taliban commanders from local tribes are switching sides.

Bombs continue to go off in Kabul, as well as outside the city where Taliban troops are dug in. American reconnaissance, including special forces troops with Northern Alliance units, continue to find Taliban targets in out of the way places. Northern Alliance units running into resistance as they advance south are able to call in American bombing attacks. It may take hours, or a day, for the bombs to arrive, but when they do, the Northern Alliance get fire support they have not had in the past. 


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