Did al Qaeda Escape?
What happened in Afghanistan? The Taliban had three times the force of the Northern Alliance (NA) and was well-dug into defensible positions. American airpower had hurt the Taliban, but they remained well-dispersed and held fast for weeks. The American military seemed content with trying to capture Mazar-e-Sharif in the north to open the road to Uzbekistan before Winter set in. Colin Powell had done a magnificent job of bribing Pakistan by removing sanctions and providing over one billion dollars to allow "support" units to use their military bases. Uzbekistan agreed to allow use of a large airbase and major construction to improve the base was underway. Tajikistan joined in and offered use of three bases. The Russians were sending the NA some of their military hardware, paid for by the USA. After three months of careful preparation, a rapid allied Spring offensive would trap and destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda before they could head for the hills.
Suddenly, the Taliban fled south. They did not collapse from an overpowering military force like the Iraqis; there were no lines of thousands of defeated Taliban fighters and there were few dead bodies. The NA didn't "defeat" the Taliban, they simply rode open trucks into major cities. Keep in mind that the Taliban was an "alliance" as well, and many elements withdrew support and went home. The respected "Strafor" believes this was a carefully planned withdrawal to consolidate forces. Perhaps the Taliban abandoned the cities knowing that squabbling would quickly divide the NA.
The Israeli intelligence website DEBKA wrote a detailed article, which appeared in World Net Daily, claiming that 2000 elite Russian and 6000 Uzbek troops joined the NA to spearhead the attacks. This is a convincing explanation, although Americans must feel awkward helping Russian forces reestablish control of Afghanistan. Pakistan had been assured by President Bush that a coalition which included Pakistan/Pashtun tribes would be formed before Kabul was taken. This led Bush to publicly ask the NA not to enter Kabul. Islamic Cleric Burhanuddin Rabbani (left) ignored Bush and arrived to install himself as "President". Bush went with the flow and claimed credit for the rapid victory. General Franks honestly admitted he was surprised by the disappearance of the Taliban, and said a new battle plan was being developed. Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem of the Joint Staff offered Pentagon's assessment of what happened: "We don't know."
It is easy to forget that al Qaeda is a terrorist organization, not a conventional military force. They were in Afghanistan because it offered a remote safe haven to train and coordinate activities. After the American bombing began, it was foolish to remain in Afghanistan. They have no interest in fighting fellow Muslims while waiting for aircraft to kill them, so they pulled out to Pakistan. This prompted the overstretched Taliban to pull out of the north, abandoning several thousand fighters around Kunduz. These Taliban and al Qadea fighters were subject to intense American bombing for two more weeks but did not give up until a favorable surrender was negotiated.
Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance collapsed. Rabbani is the "President" of most of Kabul, while other warlords reclaimed areas they controlled back in 1996. They have little interest in pursing the Taliban in the south as they want to preserve their soldiers and equipment to protect their turf. As a result, they will engage Americans in a long game of "negotiation" with a goal of keeping American aid coming. This means not defeating the Taliban completely and playing the "coalition government" game in Germany. This forced the US military to choose between forming new Pashtun military units, which may include former Taliban members, or bribing the Afghan warlords to push south, or bringing in US Marines to finish the job. On November 25th the Marines landed, but it is not yet clear if they will try to smash remaining resistance or just guard a forward helicopter base.
What happens next is a guessing game, but history shows that long-time warriors don't stop fighting easily. One lesson the British learned in their Imperial adventures is that hiring or supporting locals to fight is not always best. You can hire thousands of poor Third Worlders who are dirt farmers or basically homeless, and they are happy to become well-paid adventurous soldiers. However, when the task is done, these guys don't like the idea of turning in their weapons and going home to beg for food or work. This is why the British decided to rely on their SAS commandos to fight in Malaysia rather than training local mercs. The USA thought it was great to hire and train thousands of Albanians to fight Yugoslavia, but now these guys refuse to go home and plant potatoes. They have formed "revolutionary" gangs and now plunder and terrorize the citizens of Kosovo and Macedonia. Afghanistan faces the same problem; none of these "rebels" want to become shoeshine boys or goat herders.
The Pentagon and the corporate media have avoided discussion of these confusing issues. It is easier to report America's airpower and technology caused the Taliban to collapse. This is a false victory because the al Qaeda terrorist organization remains mostly intact. Like the Viet Cong, they dispersed and will prove difficult to find. Unlike the Viet Cong, they didn't disperse into the countryside, they dispersed into Asia. The Pakistani military did not stop them for they supported the Taliban and were assured their NA enemies would not be allowed to occupy Kabul. They patrolled their borders to prevent incursions by NA troops, not to capture and hand over Taliban or al Qaeda fighters. There were even news reports of Pakistani military planes airlifting Pakistani fighters from Kunduz.
While rapidly conquering the Taliban was impressive, no Afghan was part of the 9-11 attacks. The large al Qaeda terrorist organization began as smaller groups in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As they agitated their home rulers, they were expelled or fled to New York and Sudan where they began to organize terrorist attacks. They used the new technology of global cell phones and Internet e-mail to maintain close covert contact. The simplicity of international air travel and the worldwide instant money transfer system also helped. After the 1993 WTC bombing, they were scattered from New York and pressured to leave Sudan. Al Qaeda emerged in Afghanistan, but are no longer welcome there, so now they have gone elsewhere. It doesn't matter if no government welcomes them because most Third World governments have little knowledge of what is happening in their remote areas. Al Qaeda even had several members operating in the USA for years, including a US Army Special Forces sergeant.
Most people assume that al Qaeda has been smashed because no new terrorist attacks have occurred. If you look at the history of this organization since its first attack in 1993, subsequent attacks were always one to two years later. Assuming this pattern remains the same, the next attack should occur in about a year, after anti-terrorist security has relaxed. This war is far from over, but the latest success makes this an excellent time to undermine al Qaeda by addressing grievances in the Arab world. I proposed four moderate steps last month: closing the unneeded airbase in Saudi Arabia, stopping economic sanctions and pointless bombings in Iraq if weapons inspectors are allowed to return, and cutting military aid to Egypt and Israel. The Bush Administration understands this need and is pressing for Palestinian statehood. Unfortunately, the Middle East "peace process" died last year and Bush will be ignored unless he gets Israeli attention by cutting some aid.
Hopefully, Bush will not strengthen the al Qaeda movement by attacking Iraq because of "suspicions" that Iraq "may" be involved in terrorism or producing weapons of mass destruction. Fighting al Qaeda is difficult and complex, this is not the time to invade Iraq and cause new problems. Without Saddam Hussein in charge, Iraq could become a chaotic Lebanon and another hideout for Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. The USA cannot expect UN or Arab peacekeepers to run Iraq if the USA cuts off its head. Meanwhile, none of the FBI's most-wanted have been killed or apprehended.
The problems in Afghanistan are just beginning as warlords will probably return to bloody tribal fighting with all the new Soviet weaponry provided by US taxpayers. Over 100 armed Russian troops have arrived in Kabul and set up a "hospital", uninvited by the UN or NA. The US military machine is somewhat relieved, and somewhat disappointed. How can a conventional military fight terrorists hidden throughout Asia? If a new enemy isn't found soon, plans for a huge increase in military spending may end. Hopefully, this search for a mission will not lead to "nation bombing " or "nation building". Now is the time for leaders to focus on fighting terrorism and review a passage from Mark Bowden's great book, "Black Hawk Down", where he quotes a State Department source about the lesson of the 1993 Somalia intervention:
"The idea used to be that terrible countries were terrible because good, decent, innocent people were being oppressed by evil, thuggish leaders. Somalia changed that. Here you have a country where just about everybody is caught up in the hatred and fighting. You stop an old lady on the street and ask her if she wants peace, and she'll say, yes, of course, I pray for it daily. All the things you'd expert her to say. Then ask her if she would be willing for her clan to share power with another in order to have that peace, and she'll say, 'With those murderers and thieves? I'd die first.' People in these countries--Bosnia's a more recent example--don't want peace. They want victory. They want power. Men, women, old and young. Somalia was the experience that taught us that people in these places bear much of the responsibility for things being the way there are. The hatred and the killing continues because they want it to. Or because they don't want peace enough to stop it."
Carlton Meyer editorG2mil@Gmail.com