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[] Al-Ahram Weekly: War by other means,

Al-Ahram Weekly Online
8 - 14 November 2001
Issue No.559 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

War by other means

Galal Nassar on the difficulties faced by war reporters covering the US operation in Afghanistan
A month into military operations in Afghanistan, war reporters all over the world are feeling increasingly frustrated by their inability to adequately cover this conflict, which defies the conventional definitions of warfare. This is a war of soundbytes. Both parties are well practiced in the art of packaging their activities for the media and keeping a tight control on the flow of information. 

Independent field reporters have been denied access to the warzone. They are distanced from events on the ground, finding themselves instead in distant offices, frantically combing through second-hand material, searching desperately for hidden insights in official briefs and statements, wire releases and snippets of data released by Washington or by the Taliban. 

This is not a war in pictures. Television cameras and field reporters were once a major factor in the future course of a war. Nowadays, it seems, they have to be content with disparate snippets of information, which they have to piece together like detectives. Afghanistan represents more than just a new mode of 21st century warfare: one of its major by-products is a new challenge for 21st century crisis journalism. 

Last Sunday, the war games seemed to have been forced "back to square one," as one observer put it. In a pre-recorded statement broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV, Osama Bin Laden proclaimed that there was not a shred of tangible proof that anyone in Afghanistan was linked to the suicide attacks against the US on 11 September. 

The Al-Qa'ida leader's statement seemed to highlight the awkward position in which the US administration now finds itself. Washington has yet to release substantial evidence about who masterminded the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Meanwhile, its strikes against Afghanistan -- ostensibly in retaliation for those attacks -- have so far failed to achieve their military and political objectives. 

With the holy month of Ramadan and the onset of winter just around the corner, US military strategists face crucial choices. The war is wreaking havoc on US relations (and interests) in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, not to mention in the Middle East. The crossfire of statements and counter-statements, the unclear images of air strikes and the conflicting reports on their effects have all combined to make a noise far louder than the din of missiles and artillery. 

Five weeks into the fighting, Bin Laden seems to have realised that the US strikes aimed not only to support the Northern Alliance forces -- which number some 15,000 -- or to lay the groundwork for a massive US-British ground assault. The US campaign is also a public relations campaign, which is aiming to undermine popular support for the Taliban and Al-Qa'ida leaders among Afghanistan's majority Pashtun population. 

Bin Laden now seems to be playing the US at its own game. He has declared a global jihad against the US and all who support it and he has asserted that any Arab or Muslim leader who supports the assault is a heretic. Not only has he upped the stakes in the media war, he has also re- drawn the strategic map of the region by issuing a call to Pakistanis to join the Afghan "Islamic emirate". In a statement distributed to the press, Bin Laden urged Pakistanis to rise against their government and lay siege to US bases in the country. 

Meanwhile, the US attempt to undermine the Taliban's Pashtun support does not seem to be meeting with much success. When US strikes began, a Congressional and CIA delegation met with deposed King Mohamed Zahir Shah, now in exile in Italy. He is a Pashtun, and the US hoped that fact would help encourage his tribesmen to defect from the Taliban. Later, having realised the exiled king would not attract enough support, the US turned to 43 year old Abdul-Haq, a Pashtun national figure and military hero in the fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. 

Abdul-Haq, however, met a premature end when pro-Taliban Pashtun leaders captured him and turned him over to the Taliban. He was executed the same day. The US moved on to the next insurrectionist on their list, Hamid Karazi, a former Afghan foreign minister and a supporter of King Zahir Shah. 

In an attempt to break through Taliban lines, Karazi -- also a Pashtun -- sought to lead an armed rebellion in the south, where he enjoys a strong power base. His ultimate objective was to create a "broad based coalition government" to succeed the Taliban. Karazi boasted to BBC journalists that his forces had succeeded in repelling a Taliban attack. But another Pashtun leader later claimed that Karazi's forces and their supporters had in fact retreated into the mountains. 

As these developments show, US strategy has changed in subtle but important ways as the campaign has gone on. Besides a public relations war for the hearts and minds of Pashtuns, the focus has also shifted to the area south of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif and its access routes. At the same time, plans to advance on Kabul have been deferred pending negotiations over what shape any post-Taliban government will take. 

Meanwhile, a team of Pentagon and US National Security Council experts concluded a few days ago that aerial assaults alone will not be enough to topple the Al-Qa'ida organisation, even if they succeed in destroying its camps. 

Yet the experts have also counselled against a massive ground operation in Afghanistan A ground offensive would place domestic support for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in peril. In addition, the rugged and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan favours guerrilla-style warfare, in which US ground forces would not be sufficiently manoeuverable. They would be exposed to Taliban artillery or the sniper fire of volunteer fighters who possess light weaponry and mortar guns and have the capability to plant land mines. Furthermore, beyond US forces occupying certain strategic cities, plains and valleys, a conventional campaign to pursue Al- Qa'ida elements into their mountain hideaways would cost between one and three American lives for every ten lives in the Taliban/Qa'ida forces. The US administration would never be able to justify this ratio, particularly in the event of a protracted war. 

As such, the US appears to have opted for a more practical, less risky and less costly alternative: the "limited strategic offensive." The objective of this "realistic" option is to occupy cities and major communications routes in order restrict Taliban freedom of movement, thereby trapping them before dealing with them. Meanwhile, efforts to assemble a new ruling coalition will be redoubled. Once this coalition has secured power, the US will pledge to protect it for an unspecified period. This long-term involvement is necessary because, as US strategists now realise, overthrowing the Taliban regime will not necessarily neutralise Al-Qa'ida, which could continue to operate from the Afghan mountains. 

The US has already begun to act on this new strategy. US forces are supporting the Northern Alliance and providing the necessary conditions for it to assume the reins of government in Kabul. They are providing Northern Alliance forces with air cover and targeting Taliban locations. Between 30,000 and 50,000 US Special Forces soldiers equipped with powerful high tech weaponry are being prepared to force the terrorists out of their hideouts. The US is supplying advanced weaponry to the Alliance, along with intensive training courses in how to use it. They are also seeking to broaden ethnic representation in the Alliance and consolidate its leadership and trying to tempt Taliban supporters to defect by using humanitarian aid as an incentive. There is a renewed effort to sponsor insurrectionist groups following the model of those led by Abdul-Haq and Hamid Karazi. 

Last week, US assaults were concentrated on Taliban front lines in north-eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Tajikistan, in order to assist Afghan opposition groups in their proposed advances on the key cities of Mazar-i-Sherif, Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad. The US Air Force has begun to use new reconnaissance aircraft, notably the unmanned Joint Star E-8, which is essentially a Boeing 707 equipped with radar and the ability to photograph and map locations on the ground. Additionally, the unmanned Global Hawk aircraft has been used for the first time. This is a surveillance craft capable of remaining airborne at high altitudes for long periods of time. 

Meanwhile, B-52 bombers have been used to intensively carpet bomb Taliban and Al-Qa'ida forces. One B-52 strike hit the largest electricity generating plant in Afghanistan, cutting off the electricity to the southern cities of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah. Pentagon sources have said that the use of B-52s signifies a new level of operation, made possible with increased intelligence gathering on the ground and in the air. Northern Alliance leaders have said that several more days of sustained bombardment will debilitate Taliban defenses enough to give them the confidence to begin their offensive against Taliban forces. 

US forces have also intensified efforts to land Special Forces in the immediate vicinity of Taliban camps and other strategically vital areas. Washington has admitted that several earlier attempts to do this were unsuccessful because of ground fire and unfavorable weather conditions. According to the US defense secretary, there is a team of just under a hundred US soldiers already on the ground in Afghanistan, who are helping to pinpoint the air strikes against the Taliban and are assisting Northern Alliance forces. The Taliban ambassador to Islamabad, Abdel- Salam Daif, has announced that Taliban forces have captured an unspecified number of American soldiers. 

The immediate objective of US ground operations is to establish an advanced military base near Kabul to serve as the staging point for ground offensives against Taliban forces. Informed US military sources have said that the proposed base would support 200 to 300 Special Forces soldiers. More than 600 soldiers are expected to be working on the base to provide shelter, food, health care and evacuation services to Afghan civilians. They added that the base might be located towards the north so as to be of assistance to Northern Alliance forces advancing on Mazar-i-Sherif. The base could also be used to stage helicopter sorties against Taliban forces. The strategic plain of Dar Al-Souf, 70 kilometers south of Mazar-i-Sherif and controlled by Taliban since 1998, has been mooted as a potential location for the base. The capture of Mazar-i-Sherif, Afghanistan's northern capital, would be a major victory in the war against the Taliban as it would create a "corridor" for US ground forces to enter Afghanistan from neighbouring Uzbekistan, deprive the Taliban of a strategic base in the north and cut off Taliban land communication routes in the area. 

Russian news services based in northern Afghanistan have reported that the Northern Alliance leadership have met several times recently to draw up plans to invade Mazar-i-Sherif and then Kabul. It was also reported that a Northern Alliance general announced that the two cities would be taken before Ramadan and that the forces of General Abdul- Rashid Dostom, which are surrounding Mazar-i-Sherif, have benefited by the addition of large numbers of volunteers from the Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara tribes arriving from the mountainous northern border region. 

As battles continue to rage in the north, news reports of planes downed, positions taken and lost, and the numbers of soldiers captured or killed continue to be met with affirmations and denials of Taliban and Northern Alliance leaders. Who is telling the truth? It will be difficult to tell, it seems, in this media offensive backed by the instruments of war. 

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