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Sunday, 21 October, 2001, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
What next for Afghanistan?
Afghan refugee and Pakistani troops
The Afghans' fate rests in foreign hands
By the BBC's Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus

"What next?" is the question that everyone is asking about the US-led military campaign against the al-Qaeda network and its Taleban supporters.

But "What next for Afghanistan?" is an equally important question for the weeks and months ahead.

Indeed the two questions and answers are inextricably bound up in an untidy mixture of local politics, international diplomacy and military might.
Fighter demonstrating a gun to young boy
Teaching a new generation the art of war

Short of some extraordinary change of heart, the Taleban regime seems unlikely to hand over Osama Bin Laden and his supporters.

This means that, like it or not, removing the Taleban regime from power is one of the key US and British war aims.

Failed state

The argument is that only a failed state like Afghanistan is likely to give haven to an organisation like al-Qaeda.

Thus, the view in Washington and London is that what passes for Afghanistan's government needs to be removed and replaced.

The absence of a viable alternative to the Taleban is going to have a critical impact on the way the military campaign unfolds

But there is no obvious successor that could command widespread support in the country.

The Northern Alliance is unrepresentative of the majority population, and some of its components have been responsible for some very unpleasant atrocities in the past.

Pakistan - perhaps the key actor in the region - does not want to see the Taleban replaced in Kabul by the Northern Alliance.

This absence of a viable alternative to the Taleban is going to have a critical impact upon the way the military campaign unfolds.

Ground forces

This weekend saw the first major use of ground forces by the US.

Military planners have essentially two tactics to choose from: intervention heavy or intervention light.

The first involves large numbers of specialised troops to seize maybe an airfield inside Afghanistan from which raiding operations by special forces could be mounted.

Such an operation could involve several thousand men, drawing on units like the US 101st Airborne Division; men from the 10th Mountain Division; maybe even British Royal Marines.

Intervention light - as in Friday night's attack - avoids a large ground presence in Afghanistan, depending solely upon the speed and the agility of special forces' helicopters to get their assault teams into positions from where they could engage Al Qaeda groups.

As ever, intelligence is the key and whatever option is decided, it is already clear that huge intelligence-gathering resources are even now being directed at building up a picture of what is going on the ground.

Power vacuum

Clearly, Northern Alliance pressure is one of the elements that it is hoped will chase the Taleban from power.

Afghan fighter with howitzer
The Northern Alliance is waiting for its chance
But there is simply no point launching ground operations unless there is a clearer sense of what will take over should the Taleban regime collapse.

There is a terrible danger of leaving at best a power vacuum; at worst a new and bloody cycle of civil war.

This will not help ordinary Afghan people, and it will not ensure that the country ceases to be a haven for terrorist groups that have, to use President Bush's phrase, a global reach.

The BBC's Paul Adams
"American operations continue around the clock"
See also:

10 Oct 01 | South Asia
Summary of targets so far
09 Oct 01 | South Asia
Fears of Afghan food crisis
09 Oct 01 | Americas
Bush's military countdown
11 Oct 01 | Americas
New scare diverts US flight
11 Oct 01 | Americas
Analysis: Washington's next phase
11 Oct 01 | South Asia
Mapping Afghanistan's political future
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