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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE MILITARY FRONT

Airstrikes, Payoffs Seen as Next Steps

November 14, 2001|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the next phase of the war in Afghanistan, Pentagon strategists are faced with ousting the Taliban from its southern stronghold without an organized Afghan opposition force on the ground. That leaves U.S. policymakers to do it with air power, gifts of money and appeals to disaffected Pushtuns.

A southern strategy based on financial inducements and the momentum from this week's dramatic anti-Taliban victories in the north could persuade leaders among ethnic Pushtuns, who dominate both the south and the Taliban, to forge their own infantry, according to some military strategists.

Until that happens, an air war without ground troops in the inhospitable south is likely to look much like the first three weeks of the northern campaign, military analysts said.

With ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the Northern Alliance promising not to head south, Taliban forces face a continuing rain of U.S. bombs that Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says has already left them "severely weakened."

"You don't want to lose the sense that this war has an inevitability about it, and our side is going to win," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution.

The speed with which Northern Alliance forces dropped an anti-Taliban curtain across the middle of Afghanistan has given the U.S.-led campaign momentum and a psychological advantage over demoralized Taliban troops. Thus, Pentagon strategists are expected to continue unrelenting airstrikes to keep up the pressure and encourage southern Afghan leaders to change sides.

"There's a greater likelihood now that the Afghans can do this themselves," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "The southern tribes and forces could gradually move in our direction."

U.S. Special Forces have led just one known mission in southern Afghanistan, raiding Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's home last month.

But a small number continue to operate in the region, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday.

Opposition Pushtun leaders continue their own clandestine missions to convert disaffected Taliban supporters into an opposition military and political coalition.

The northern sweep has brought several military advantages. Although captured airfields in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul would need to be rebuilt, they could soon serve as resupply depots and host U.S. warplanes that now must fly hundreds or even thousands of miles.

"The fact that we have places to hold is going to give us some leverage," said Cindy Williams, a former director of national security studies with the Congressional Budget Office who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Although defense strategists haven't ruled out the use of U.S. ground forces, they would much rather have a proxy army on the ground to extend the anti-Taliban gains of the Northern Alliance.

If a Pushtun opposition fails to coalesce, an international force, preferably including Muslim nations, would create less friction than a U.S. force, a Pentagon official said.

Hamid Karzai, a U.S.-backed Pushtun tribal leader, is among those hoping to lure disaffected Taliban supporters into an opposition military and political alliance. Those close to Karzai say he is calling on tribal allegiances.

It remains unclear what promises the United States is making to prospective Pushtun turncoats, but O'Hanlon said they should include assurances of physical security, military assistance and humanitarian aid doled out locally rather than through a future government in Kabul.

Military analysts say the United States will also rely more on a tool that has greased new Afghan alliances for decades: money.

"They'll switch sides at the drop of a hat and go for winners," said William Taylor, a retired Army colonel with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy group.

"And they go for money. And if you can get the two going at the same time, you've got something going. This is what we're doing in the south now."

Rumsfeld suggested that a different kind of financial consideration might make a difference: Rewards for the capture of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda leaders.

"You know, it may very well be that money will talk at some point," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing Tuesday.

Quayum Karzai, a brother of the Afghan tribal leader, said he expects diplomacy and opposition gains to attract allies and bring down the Taliban. "There are already signs that they are willing to surrender," he said, apparently referring to reports of swelling numbers of defections.

Rumsfeld said wartime hardships have begun to drive a wedge between Omar, the Taliban leader, and Bin Laden.

The Defense secretary has repeatedly suggested, without elaborating, that U.S. intelligence has evidence of signs of tension between the two sides.

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