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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE BATTLEFIELD : NEWS ANALYSIS

U.S. Strategy Hinges on Afghan Allies

November 03, 2001|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The U.S.-led military effort in Afghanistan is embarking on a phase that will test how much of the campaign can be entrusted to the United States' Afghan allies on the ground--and how much of it U.S. forces will have to shoulder themselves.

This week, the United States has sharply strengthened its commitment to the anti-Taliban forces by stepping up front-line bombardment, pouring in ammunition, food and other supplies and pledging to increase the number of U.S. military advisors in the country.

Now it is time for opposition Northern Alliance forces to prove themselves.

If the alliance begins to succeed in capturing territory, it will finally demonstrate progress in a campaign that has so far seen few visible results.

Yet the Pentagon's estimation of the opposition forces doesn't appear to be high--in the words of one U.S. official, the alliance has been "underwhelming" in the fight so far. And if the alliance fails, the Bush administration will have to reexamine its strategy--and may be forced to begin preparing for the kind of ground offensive that U.S. leaders have so far sought to avoid.

"The spotlight is turning to [the anti-Taliban forces]," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. "This is their moment to demonstrate that they're a force to be reckoned with, or pretenders to the throne."

The test could begin within days.

Based on comments by the rebels and U.S. defense officials, the offensive is likely to begin near the northern cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Sheberghan. The offensive's dual aims would be to isolate Taliban forces in the area and open supply lines for the rebels to the neighboring country of Uzbekistan.

If all goes as planned, this could be followed quickly by advances toward the capital, Kabul, and toward the western city of Herat. The last stage of fighting would come in the south, around the Taliban spiritual center of Kandahar, officials say.

Military experts caution that the pace of the advance is hard to predict. Many say they believe that by the time the harsh Afghan winter impedes the offensive, the opposition is likely to have made, at most, limited advances around a few cities.

If opposition forces make limited progress, the U.S. military may spend the winter months training and equipping them for new offensives in the spring, experts say. But if they make no progress, the Pentagon would probably start thinking about a substitute strategy--such as the U.S. ground offensive.

Pentagon Counting On Opposition's Knowledge

From the beginning of the nearly month-old air campaign, Pentagon officials have said they hoped they could rely on the Northern Alliance to take on missions that U.S. forces weren't well suited for, or didn't want to tackle.

The group, made up largely of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks from northern Afghanistan, know the terrain, the dialects and the region's brand of warfare. Although the Taliban may have four times the 15,000 fighters the alliance claims, the two sides have been locked in a seesaw ground battle in the north since the fundamentalist regime took power five years ago.

The informal division of labor has called for the United States to supply the air power and commandos while the Northern Alliance commanders engage the Taliban on the ground and, by forcing the radical Islamic regime to concentrate its forces, make it more vulnerable to U.S. air attack.

In the first three weeks of the fight, the U.S. forces didn't work closely with the alliance. Instead, the Pentagon went about systematically destroying the Taliban's air defenses and fixed military infrastructure.

Although some alliance commanders began to complain that the Americans were ignoring their needs, U.S. forces had other goals. The Bush administration had hoped it could unite Afghan factions in a loose agreement on the country's political future before the opposition ground forces began seizing territory.

Now, however, with winter approaching and world confidence in the campaign apparently slipping, U.S. officials have changed their approach.

In just a few days, they have taken a series of steps designed to greatly improve the U.S. ability to support ground attacks, and thus signaled that--for the moment, at least--they are casting their lot with the Northern Alliance.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's trip to Russia and South Asia, which began Friday, has also stirred speculation that he may ask neighboring countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan for permission to put U.S. warplanes on bases near the front lines. That would enable planes that now have to fly hundreds of miles from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea to spend more time blasting front-line Taliban forces.

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