Afghanistan: November 18, 2001


While basing attack planes at a captured airfield inside Afghanistan is not considered likely (Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is determined to minimize US ground presence), the Air Force and Navy are excited about having such bases for "emergency landings" by aircraft in trouble due to combat damage or mechanical problems. --Stephen V Cole

British commandos believe they have located Osama bin Laden in a 30 square mile are of mountainous terrain east of Kandahar. Northern Alliance officials also report that bin Laden is in the same general area. The region comprises the foothills of the Hindu Kush range, with local peaks as high as 10,000 feet. The area contains terrorist training camps and cave complexes. The British and American commandos are moving to block passes that would enable bin Laden to leave the area. The British believe that bin Laden is stationary and that if he does move, he will do so slowly. American drone and manned recon aircraft are covering the area, as well as satellites. 

In Kunduz, several thousand Taliban troops continue to resist a Northern Alliance siege. Yesterday, a thousand Taliban troops switched over to the Northern Alliance. Civilians who escaped the town reported that this defection infuriated the bin Laden troops, who then killed 150 Taliban troops they suspected of also wanting to switch sides. The Northern Alliance have already said they would kill all foreign (bin Laden) troops and this incident is unlikely to change their minds. So, as expected, the 3,000 or so bin Laden soldiers can be expected to fight to the death. American bombers continued to hit targets in and around the city.

The death of bin Laden deputy Mohammed Atef was the result of the rare combination of American reconnaissance, smart bombs and unusually quick decision making at the American military headquarters. This is not usually the case, as the aviation commanders in the area complain that many similar opportunities have been lost because the approval of targets has been slow. CENTCOM headquarters, which is in charge of the military campaign, is apparently so fearful of civilian casualties that they cannot move fast enough to approve hitting targets in populated areas. American reconnaissance (both visual and electronic) has frequently identified a meeting of senior Taliban leaders in a specific location, and ordered in bombers. But the final decision is up to CENTCOM, and that headquarters usually dithers so long that the Taliban meeting is over, and the attendees dispersed, before permission to bomb is received. Such is not the case outside the cities, where the U.S. military is rapidly improving their ability to have a drone or satellite spot a target, and then bring in a nearby bomber to destroy the target. This can often happen within minutes if a bomber is in the area. But while the theory for this "digitalization" of the battlefield has been worked on through the 1990s, not all the technology is in place. But because of the wartime atmosphere, impromptu solutions have been implemented. For example, an antenna (for receiving satellite signals) was quickly installed in B-2 bombers, and wired to a lap top computer used by the weapons officer. Thus as the B-2 approached Afghanistan (after flying all the way from the United States) the drone would transmit target information to a communications satellite, which would then send it to the B-2, where the weapons officer would put the targeting into one of it's smart bombs. When the B-2 got close enough to the target, it would release the bomb and hit the target. Since the B-2 can carry 22 tons of bombs, many different target can be hit in this way. The air commander knows when the B-2 will arrive and can coordinate sending the drones out to look for targets so whatever the drone finds can be promptly hit by the B-2. This capability was planned for the B-2, but in peace time it takes years, and a lot more money, to get it done. In wartime, some ingenuity by the aircraft engineers, a laptop and some new software gets the job done real quick. 

The Taliban have not evacuated Kandahar, even though two local chiefs are negotiating to take over the city. The two chiefs, who went over to the Taliban when the Taliban first showed up in 1996 (and have been allowed to "retire" for their services), have gone back into the warlord business and are leading their tribes against the Taliban. Kandahar is the only major city still held by the Taliban, although several other smaller towns are still held by diehard Taliban forces. The Taliban always had a hard core of several thousand true believers, but there were spread thin throughout Afghanistan. Eventually they will be overwhelmed by locals up in arms against the harsh Taliban rule. 

Warlord Management 101

The Tajik faction of the Northern Alliance, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, has established a national government in Kabul. Rabbanis administration contains Pushtuns, Uzbeks and Hazaras. But the UN representative has arrived to try and talk them out of it. This is going to be difficult. Among the Afghans, words like "pride" and "honor" mean a lot. A whole lot. The UN, and the United States, wants a democratic government in Afghanistan, but this may be an impossible dream for the moment. 

Working with the Northern Alliance is another matter, and it provides many opportunities to bring Afghanistan into the 21st century. It's understood that Afghanistan needs, and will get, a lot of foreign aid. But that aid can be delivered in a way that does further entrench the feudal political structure. 

One mustn't forget that just about every adult male in Afghanistan has a weapon. Millions of AK-47s were sent to Afghanistan during the 1980s. Added to this are the modern weapons (including more than a few century old Lee-Enfield bolt action rifles) the Afghans have obtained throughout the 20th century. There are currently nearly 200,000 armed men, commanded by 500 or so tribal chieftains (or "warlords.) Many of these guys have major league egos and are easily aroused if they are being dissed, getting lectured to, or patronized by, foreigners. "Death before dishonor" is not an empty phrase in Afghanistan. 

But money talks quite loudly in the mountain valleys. You become a warlord not just because you are the smartest and toughest Afghan in the neighborhood, but because you can take care of your people. This often involves stealing from neighbors (looting is something of a national sport.) But if American handed out "gifts" of money to the warlords, they would have less reason to loot. And these payments would have to be clearly marked as gifts, or payment for real services, lest honor be tarnished. 

Sending humanitarian and economic aid to Afghanistan is tricky. Corruption (as we define it) is rampant and considered perfectly normal behavior. There are ways around this. NGOs, facing corruption world wide, have long ago realized the importance of personally delivering aid to the people who need it. The local big shots will often protest, but the NGOs have found that saying "do it my way or no way" works. The local officials know they can take some credit for the aid, and if their people are better, so are the local leaders. In Afghanistan this technique can be extended. Construction projects can be supervised by American engineers, and accountants. The warlords can still steal from the workers but, remember, all the guys over there have guns. You can keep the warlords happy by hiring them to provide security, to prevent other warlords from stealing the payroll or construction materials. 

You can also offer to train and pay (directly) a national police force. Afghans would still run the police force, but as long as the cops receive their pay directly from American paymasters, it's more difficult for police chiefs to make off with a large chunk of the payroll. You can also afford to pay the cops enough (a lot by local standards) that they will have less incentive to be corrupt themselves.

Other forms of economic aid can be run the same way. Most Afghans keep livestock, and a lot of these animals died in the recent three year drought. The United States can buy new livestock in the region and have American agricultural agents personally deliver the animals to the tribes that need it. Of course, a local warlord would be hired to protect the animals as they are moved to their destination. 

Afghan-Americans can also be hired to help out. Most of these people were born in Afghanistan, but they understand these crazy (by Afghan standards) American techniques and can go a long way towards bridging the cultural gaps. This would be particularly useful for a program of "micro-loans" (lending small amounts of money, especially to women, to start small businesses.) Setting up schools, road building and even a large program like a railroad, will all work only if the money avoids getting siphoned off by corrupt local officials. The warlords have to get their share, but you have to prevent these guys from taking so much that the relief projects fail. 

Getting aid to the people will change Afghanistan more than a lot of jawboning by UN and American diplomats. The Afghans don't want peacekeepers, they don't want to be lectured to by foreigners. But if the Afghan people are prosperous and educated, democracy will come, as it usually does. The alternative is a lot of wasted effort and an Afghanistan ripe for another round of chaos and civil war. 


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