Cover Story: Afghanistan: After the fall of the Taliban - the tasks ahead
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, December 1, 2001
The sudden collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, against the publicly expressed expectations of the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and almost all international observers, is a remarkable tribute to US tactical doctrine, its effectiveness in deploying military power on the other side of the world, and the striking power of its computer-guided missiles and bombs.
These succeeded in breaking the Talibans defence lines, enabling the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance to sweep down on cities such as Mazar-i-Sherif, Hazarajat, Herat, Kabul and Kandahar, before the freezing northern winter made it impossible to continue operations.
The overthrow of the Taliban, which had provided bin Laden and al-Qaeda with a secure home base for their campaign of terror, became necessary only when the Taliban refused to hand him over to the Americans.
Within three months of the use of hijacked aircraft to destroy the World Trade Center in New York and damage the Pentagon in Washington - organised by Saudi-born terrorist leader, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network - the Taliban has been overthrown in Afghanistan, and bin Laden is on the run.
Despite US assertions that it was conducting a "war on terrorism", its objective was always narrower: to hunt down those responsible for the almost unbelievably audacious attacks on the US on September 11, and to prevent them happening again.
Now, however, the US and the United Nations have assumed responsibility for the future of Afghanistan, a country with a population estimated at 26 million, which faces massive problems arising from years of war, drought and other calamities.
The difficulties are compounded by the warring ethnic and religious factions which make up this land-locked country. These include divisions between the southern Pashtuns, who are of the same racial group as most Pakistanis, and the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and others who predominantly live in the north and west of Afghanistan.
This responsibility threatens to divert the US from the central task it has set itself: the destruction of bin Ladens terrorist network.
There are already difficulties in getting the warring Afghan factions to the conference table, particularly after the Northern Alliance took over control of the capital, Kabul.
It is to be hoped that the presence of United Nations military forces from other countries, and particularly the Islamic world, may help to restore peace after years of civil war, at least until a stable government, representative of the rival ethnic and religious factions, takes power in Kabul.
This is urgently needed. With the imminent onset of winter, millions of people are facing malnutrition or starvation, and an estimated two million Afghans remain in refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan. Order and economic stability are a high priority.
The United Nations has a key role to play in this process, although whether it will be effective is quite uncertain.
In any case, it is politically preferable that the transitional arrangements are handled by the UN, rather than the United States, which in the eyes of many Muslims is seen as the Christian superpower.
Al-Qaeda has clearly been weakened by the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the death of some of its leaders including, reportedly, bin Ladens deputy.
What needs to be done now is to complete the destruction of the terrorist network, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Within Afghanistan, it appears that the surviving Taliban and al-Qaeda units are retreating into the mountains.
At the time of writing, the leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda were defiant. In an interview last week with the BBC, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar threatened the destruction of the United States "within a short period of time", and asserted that the Taliban would withdraw to its mountain fastnesses to conduct a guerilla war, as they did against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
This may well be propaganda by a defeated leader; but the possibility that some al-Qaeda cells remain in operation - in Afghanistan, in the United States, or elsewhere - cannot be discounted.
In the meantime, the fall of the Taliban has also been accompanied by an end to Islamic protests on the streets of Karachi, Jakarta and other cities in the Islamic world, and silence from those in the West who criticised the American role in the "war on terrorism".
They may not like America, but they cannot ignore Americas strength.