As the War Turns

Milt Bearden was CIA chief in Pakistan from 1986-89 and was responsible for the covert assistance to the Afghan moujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet Union. He is the author of "The Black Tulip," a novel of war in Afghanistan

It is tempting to rejoice over the sudden and apparently massive collapse of the Taliban across Afghanistan last week. But it might be prudent to defer celebration until the full meaning of such fluid events is clear and some of the new openings have been exploited. As a rule, set-piece battles for major urban centers are not the way of combat in Afghanistan, especially when a foreign element as prominent as U.S. air support in the current fighting is involved. Getting into Afghan cities, particularly for foreign armies, has always been pretty easy; it took the Soviets less than two weeks to take most of the cities when they invaded Afghanistan a dozen years ago.

The hard part has always been what comes next, as 19th-century British and 20th-century Soviet adventures have taught. So, to call the Taliban down for the count because a string of urban centers has fallen, while possibly true, would also be needlessly pushing our luck.

Nevertheless, the massive rollback does offer opportunities thought beyond reach just a week ago. To exploit these new opportunities, the United States will have to continue to play its cards as thoughtfully and carefully as it apparently has so far, possibly shifting its emphasis from overt military actions to covert operations and dark maneuverings of betrayal.

The first golden ray of optimism to break through the fog is that, with one glaring exception, a sort of status quo ante that prevailed in Afghanistan before the 1992 seizure of the capital by Ahmed Shah Masoud's Northern Alliance has suddenly taken shape. Mazar-i-Sharif, the strategic crossroads between Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan, has fallen to Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek warlord who has governed the region in a series of shifting and opportunistic alliances with all comers, including my old adversary, the Soviet Union, for most of the last 20 years; and Herat, the cradle of Afghan culture and history and strategic center in the west, has been retaken by legendary Tajik commander and governor Ismail Khan, who, until a few years ago, had been the unrivalled warlord in the west since he slaughtered hundreds of Soviets and their families in Herat in 1979. The Soviets responded by reducing one of the world's oldest cities to rubble and, in the process, creating the "Lion of Heart," who tormented them as our capable comrade-in-arms for the next decade.

There seem to be a few Taliban pockets holding out in the far north, Kunduz in particular, but they will likely be cleared out or cauterized as the Taliban rout from the north becomes complete. It would seem, therefore, that with lightning speed, the unnatural situation created after 1996, when the Pushtun Taliban militias swept north and west from their Pushtun homelands, has been reversed. And that is very good. It puts most of the ethnic groups in Afghanistan back in their traditional homelands in a tribal federation structure that will be easier to work with as the United States and others try to cobble together a broad-based coalition that might just hold it all together, if ever so loosely, from the Afghan capital.

The one large piece that is dangerously out of place on the ethnic map is the occupation of Kabul by the Northern Alliance. While it appears that opposition troops have not yet committed widespread reprisals in the capital, and that fighting over the spoils has not yet irretrievably broken out between the loosely allied ethnic groups that make up the opposition forces, this luck cannot hold indefinitely. A major breakdown of order in Kabul, or large-scale atrocities, or a move beyond Kabul into Pushtun strongholds by an overconfident alliance could set off another round of generalized interethnic warfare. That, in turn, could spill across the Durand line, the 1,400-mile border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where another 15 million Pakistani Pushtuns live in an uneasy relationship with the Pakistani central government. Pushtun tribals on either side of the artificial line drawn by 19th-century British surveyors generally ignore the division of their lands, and the rhythm of war is felt on both sides of the line.

Another disaster in Kabul could reverberate beyond Afghanistan's borders. To prevent that from happening, the installation of a neutral force in Kabul must move forward without delay. It doesn't really matter whether such a force is made up of Muslim or French or British ground troops as long as some neutral force with real authority takes over now. If such a force cannot be quickly raised, a U.S.-led coalition of ground troops should secure the capital as a stop-gap measure, until the Americans can be replaced. This is dangerous and tricky, because Pushtuns may think that U.S. ground forces are too closely allied with the Northern Alliance.

But the prime objective now is to reduce the risk that Kabul could revert to the 1992-94 model that brought the chaos that created the Taliban. If Kabul can be quieted and relief corridors established to feed the Afghan population, the majority Pushtun population in the south and east of Afghanistan will feel less threatened and will have less reason to rally to the Taliban who have retreated to their tribal homelands. This, in turn, opens the way to a new phase in the war that will shift the emphasis from conventional military action to Rudyard Kipling's ageless game of treachery and betrayal.

The United States has an impressive inventory of assets for the tough job ahead. Topping the list is an Afghan Pushtun population more prepared than a month ago to betray Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors. To leverage the serious and growing tensions between the traditional Pushtun tribal structure and the Taliban religious structure, the United States could gain tactical advantage from an undeclared bombing pause, during which it could intensify its behind-the-scenes efforts to capitalize on Taliban weakness within the Pushtun homeland. This might involve fewer bombs and more cups of green tea with cardamom seeds with tribal leaders, but my own experience was that at crucial moments in Afghanistan, gold coins often secured more ground than iron bombs.

The United States has one great advantage in dealing with the Taliban in their mountain redoubts that the Soviets did not have in their war--there is no resupply system, no lifeline for the Taliban. Afghanistan is sealed, insofar as there is no major power on any border funneling supplies to the Taliban as the CIA did to good effect with the moujahedeen during the 1980s. To be sure, there are enough supplies in the Pushtun strongholds in eastern and southern Afghanistan to keep the Taliban going for some time, but those supplies are not infinite, and the dumps where they are located are fixed and vulnerable. And certainly there will be leakage of supplies from the tribal areas of Pakistan to the Taliban, but nothing approaching the tonnage needed to sustain a guerrilla movement. The CIA moved up to 60,000 tons through the hundreds of routes from Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan into Afghanistan each fighting season. That cannot happen now.

Among the worst of the worst-case scenarios that come to mind might be the withdrawal of Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda cohorts from Afghanistan into the Pushtun tribal areas of Pakistan, where they might find temporary refuge. The prospect of Pakistani forces carrying out a combat search mission for Bin Laden within the tribal areas is difficult enough; the thought of U.S. military search-and-destroy operations inside Pakistan is even more difficult to contemplate.

But all things considered, the current situation is pretty good. Yes, very bad things might happen if bold and rapid action is not taken to secure Kabul. And there is still room for setback in the campaign to track down the Taliban leadership and root out Bin Laden. But no irreversible errors have been committed, and if luck holds, this phase of the administration's war on terrorism will have gone better than anyone ever had reason to hope.

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