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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Afghan challenge awaits US military
Fighters from the opposition Northern Alliance survey their territory
Afghanistan's hostile terrain has caused others difficulty
By George Arney in Islamabad

As the huge US military build-up in the Gulf continues military analysts in Pakistan are considering the possible benefits or pitfalls of an American military intervention in Afghanistan.

At the back of many peoples' minds is the experience of the Soviet Union, whose troops invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979.

But they never really got anywhere near subjugating Afghanistan - and they withdrew 10 years later, humiliated and defeated.

"Mark my words, there will be a signal catastrophe". So wrote the commander of the British army which marched on Kabul in 1839, and he was right.

Three years later British troops were forced to retreat over the snow-filled passes of the Hindu Kush and were massacred almost to a man.

And 150 years later the Russians suffered a similar humiliation.

Tyranny of the terrain

But would the same thing happen again in a showdown between the Taleban and the United States?

Retired General Matin-ud-Deen has been assessing the Taleban's military capacity. "They have about 200 or so tanks, they have about 45,000 people who are armed," he says.

A fighter from the Northern Alliance
The US could back the opposition Northern Alliance
"They are very well equipped, very well armed, but only for the fighting that goes on within Afghanistan. They are, of course, no match for the United States," he said.

But that does not mean that the US will find any battle with the Taleban a walkover.

"There is what they call a tyranny of the terrain. The mountainous nature of Afghanistan, the valleys and hills," says the general.

"It will be very difficult and I see a very long drawn-out battle, if ground troops are used, and very many casualties. The Russians suffered 15,000 casualties and the Americans are probably going to suffer more."

So the US may have to steal itself to take casualties.


But there is an alternative. The more cautious approach would be to give full military backing to the only anti-Taleban force still fighting in Afghanistan.

But Professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais of Quaid-e-Azam University, is not impressed with the strength of the Northern Alliance.

"They are extremely weak and I do not think they are capable of pushing Taleban forces out of the front lines," he says.

They are extremely weak and I do not think they are capable of pushing Taleban forces out of the front lines

Professor Bakhsh Rais
"They have been confined to a very small corner of Afghanistan. Militarily I don't think that on their own they are in a position to take on the Taleban."

If the Northern Alliance was to receive US support it could start to pose a threat to the Taleban, but Professor Bakhsh Rais emphasises, not in the immediate future.

The other possibility is for short sharp military action in which the US commits ground troops and accepts there will be casualties.

"I would say the achievable objective of course is that you try and remove the present Taleban regime and install a regime that is friendly perhaps to the United States and to Pakistan," said General Matin-ud-Deen.

"And to achieve that you have to only go to Kabul or Kandahar and physically go and occupy that for a short period of time and then place there a friendly government and then get out of it."

Perhaps, surprisingly, several authorities on Afghanistan believe that this kind of action, seizing one major Taleban stronghold and holding onto it, could succeed in toppling the regime.

The Taleban are widely disliked in Afghanistan and a lot of military commanders would be willing to switch sides, if that was the way the wind was blowing.

Former King Mohammed Zahir Shah
Ousted king Mohammed Zahir Shah is one candidate for power
But Afghan affairs analyst Mushahid Hussein warns that installing a new government acceptable to the US is far from a recipe for stability.

"Unless it is fashioned together as a compromise, as a consensus through the official Afghan decision making with the certain indigenous and Islamic support," he says.

"If it's a government imposed by dictate from outside, that government would be despised, I would say."

And there is the rub.

Even if Taleban support melts away in the face of overwhelming military might, even if the Americans are ready to take major casualties, there is no guarantee that an alternative government would kowtow to Washington or even survive for very long.

Afghanistan is prone to anarchy, a perfect breeding ground for terrorism.

US military action might succeed in the short term, but neutralising Afghanistan in the long term probably depends on a huge international reconstruction programme to rebuild a country shattered by a quarter of a century of war.

See also:

24 Sep 01 | South Asia
Text of Taleban leader's speech
24 Sep 01 | South Asia
UN prepares for refugee crisis
24 Sep 01 | Americas
US to produce Bin Laden evidence
23 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition 'gaining ground'
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
16 Sep 01 | Americas
US prepares for war
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan - a tough military option
23 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan ex-king offers his services
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