While there may be some merit in this argument, the real reason is that there are few military targets to hit and the widely dispersed Taliban forces cannot be severely confronted without causing major damage to innocent Afghan civilians in whose towns and villages the Taliban take shelter. Although China has not directly violated UN sanctions imposed against the Taliban, past experience is a pointer that it may be engaged in viding covert aid to Taliban through Pakistan.
Afghanistan is heading inexorably for a prolonged civil war. The newly formed United Islamic and National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, in short the United Front, comprises the Northern Alliance and includes the forces of Abul Rasheed Dostum, the Hazwariord Isiain Khan and other anti-Taliban elements. It is taking advantage of the US airstrikes and is going on the offensive.
While the early fall of Mazar-e-Sharif to the United Front appears to be a near certainty, the Taliban militia can be expected to continue to hold out much longer in Kabul, the Kandahar region and in bordering Pakistan where the tribal population on both sides of the Durand Line is of the same ethnic origin. The Afghan civil war will inevitably spill over into Pakistan NWFP and Western Baluchistan due to tribal affinities, strong support for the Taliban in these provinces, a long and porous border and terrain that is excellent for guerrilla warfare.
Continuing regional instability adversely affects India’s national security and economic interests. Hence, India has a major stake in ensuring that eventually a strong and stable government is installed in Afghanistan that is at least neutral if not openly supportive of Indian interests.
It would be in India’s interest to ensure that the new regime is moderate in its religious leanings and that the repercussions of the likely fallout of the ouster of the Taliban are minimised.
The success achieved so far in the military campaign has been rather limited. One reason is that the US has deliberately slowed the tempo of operations so that a representative regime can be first cobbled together lest the Northern Alliance runs riot in Kabul and then become difficult to control. While there may be some merit in this argument, the real reason is that there are few military targets to hit and the widely dispersed Taliban forces cannot be severely confronted without causing major damage to innocent Afghan civilians in whose towns and villages the Taliban take shelter.
The virtually complete destruction of the Taliban’s air defences has enabled the US and its allies to launch daylight attacks with complete immunity. Fighter-ground attack aircraft are now moving in for low-level attacks with rockets and Gatling guns.
Such attacks are more accurate and will cause less collateral damage. Reconnaissance sorties during daylight will also provide better intelligence inputs for subsequent attacks. However, both Osama bin Laden and the reclusive Mullah Omar continue to elude the US.
The inadequacies of modern air power, no matter how potent, in achieving military objectives by itself have been highlighted again and again in recent times. One of the major lessons of modern conflict is that without boots on the ground and a stomach for casualties, a long-drawn air campaign usually has little to show for the colossal effort and expenditure that it entails. From Vietnam through the 1991 Gulf War to Kosovo and now Afghanistan, the story has been the same. President Bush has now begun speaking about a ground campaign and Iranian sources have reported clashes between US and Taliban forces. The next major stage in the ongoing military campaign is likely to be the induction of special forces units that will be inserted by air for short raids against specific targets. Subsequently, the US may establish a base at a captured airfield such as Bagram to launch longer forays into the mountains.
The various contenders in Afghanistan have widely conflicting interests. The short term interest of the US in Afghanistan is limited to its war against global terrorism. The US will work towards driving the Taliban regime out of power and installing a more representative and moderate regime, capturing Osama bin Laden and destroying the infrastructure of his Al Qaeda network for training and launching terrorists.
In the long-term, the US has geo-strategic interests in the region, including enlarging its influence to the Central Asian Republics, both for their abundant oil reserves and for ensuring that they do not get too close to either Russia or China.
Though the US has been tacitly supporting the Nothern Alliance since the 11 September acts of terrorism, it is wary of the Northern Alliance leaning towards Russia and will not accept a predominantly Northern Alliance regime as a replacement for the Taliban.
The erstwhile Soviet Union had fought a decade-long war in Afghanistan to protect its soft underbelly and to gain access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. While those interests are no longer relevant in the post-Cold War era, Russia has a major Islamist fundamentalism problem on its hands in Chechnya and, hence, a high stake in ensuring that Afghanistan is cleared of all jehadi elements. Russia still has approximately 20,000 troops close to Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan but will not participate militarily in the ongoing conflict.
In its anxiety to contain the Uighur rebels in Xinjiang, China has been assiduously engaging the Taliban. A Pakistan-friendly regime in Kabul serves Chinese interests, rather than a pro-US or neutral one, and China would like to see the Taliban retain power. The Taliban had allowed Chinese experts to carry two unexploded Tomahawk missiles in 1998 to Beijing for analysis. Although China has not directly violated UN sanctions imposed against the Taliban, past experience is a pointer that it may be engaged in viding covert aid to Taliban through Pakistan.
Shiite Iran does not see eye to eye with the Taliban that is dominated by Sunni Pashtuns and supports the Northern Alliance, which it has helped to arm. Iran is already hosting a substantial number of Afghan refugees and is apprehensive that the present turmoil will add further to its burden. On the issue of the replacement of the Taliban regime, Iran is not willing to accept a pro-US coalition being installed in Kabul, even if King Zahir Mohammad Shah heads it.
Pakistan has shown remarkable skill in jettisoning its decades old Afghan policy and in abandoning its protege, the Taliban. However, it would be reasonable to assume that Pakistan would continue to provide covert support to the Taliban, including advance intelligence about US strikes. Pakistan has always sought to ensure that a regime favourable to it should be in power in Afghanistan as it (mistakenly) believes that Afghanistan provides it strategic depth. A friendly regime in Afghanistan would also help Pakistan ensure that it can exercise effective control over its border population that has ethnic affinities with Afgan tribes.
While Pakistan may accept the unseating of the Taliban regime, it is not ready to accept its replacement by a hostile Northern Alliance. Pakistan will seek to exploit its newfound status as a frontline state against Islamist terrorism by getting the US to endorse the nomination of pliable Pashtun warlords on the governing council when a new regime is installed in power. Also, Pakistan will try to convince the US that the Taliban must not be driven completely out of Afghanistan so that the surviving hordes of the militia do not become agents of instability on its own territory.