Facing A Long, Cold War

Commander Rakhmad Gol is enjoying himself. For the past six years he's been fighting a frustrating war against the Taliban, usually enduring defeat, sometimes making small but costly gains of territory. Now he's watching raptly as U.S. warplanes bomb Taliban positions just a few hundred yards away. He exults as a dark gray cloud of smoke and dust bursts into the bright blue sky above the Shamali Plain. The boom from the explosion arrives a few seconds later. "There, look, that was right on target," he says, cheering the destruction of what he says was a Taliban tank and gun emplacement. The threadbare soldiers under Gol's command are getting into the spirit of things, too. Walkie-talkies crackle as fighters hurl insults at the Taliban over a shared frequency. "If the Americans give our government all the help they can," says Abdul Sabur, who has been fighting in Afghanistan's caves and trenches for six of his 21 years, "we will end this war fast."

That is extremely unlikely. Gol and Sabur are sitting in the ruins of a shattered, three-story building of mud bricks. They look out over a vista of rock walls, green scrub and a rutted track where shepherds sometimes drive their herds of fat-tailed sheep. Many of the 100-odd fighters hanging around are young teenagers with the Northern Alliance, the loose collection of anti-Taliban militias that control about 10 percent of Afghanistan. They're clad in simple tunics and scarves, and wear sandals and raggedy running shoes. They generally sustain themselves on one meal a day. Four days a week, they eat rice and beans; three days they get rice with bits of mutton. Most can't tell you their exact age. They complain gently about their miserable clothing and poor equipment. (So out of touch are the militiamen with other units that at another front recently, one commander asked reporters for use of their satellite phone to call his general.) Although they are only 15 miles from the capital Kabul, these fighters know as well as anyone that it will be one of the longest journeys of their lives, and perhaps the last.

Promises of quick victory, particularly in wars as messy and confused as this one, have an almost siren-song quality. (Who doesn't want to believe them?) And the Pentagon's now emerging "Northern Strategy" to defeat the Taliban is doubly enticing because it seems, from Washington's viewpoint, relatively painless. Send in B-52 bombers, dispatch several teams of "military advisers," paste the enemy from the safety of three miles up and let your local allies do the nasty ground fighting. The Americans can provide plenty of punch from the air, as well as ammunition, communications and logistical know-how; the locals know the terrain and the enemy. And with locally provided intelligence, the Americans can mount commando raids and Special Ops to get Osama bin Laden and other specific targets from Al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership.

But the new strategy is fueled, in part, by impatience. The Pentagon now expects that even in the best-case scenario, the campaign will go well into next spring. As a result, a faint air of desperation has set in among Washington policymakers, who seem to be jumping from one strategy to another. First the aim was to surround and isolate the Taliban politically, hoping the movement would crumble from within. Then the bombing began with the hope that overwhelming air power would force a Taliban collapse. Nobody really wanted to back the Northern Alliance, because Pakistan deeply opposes that approach, and because the alliance--composed mainly of minority ethnic groups--was seen as unreliable and unable to provide a stable alternative to Taliban rule. But the Bush administration, exhausted and distracted by constant threats and anthrax attacks at home, is increasingly hankering for some kind of visible victory abroad. It's also worried that the onset of winter will pretty much rule out an effective ground campaign. Already last week the Pentagon blamed icy weather for the crashes of a Special Forces helicopter and a spy drone.

NEWSWEEK has learned that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently called in about a dozen Washington political consultants, among them Michael Deaver and Jody Powell, for what one described as a "gut check" on how the public perceives the war's progress. Meanwhile the State Department and Pentagon have begun fighting over whether to bring more NATO allies into the war (the Pentagon doesn't want them, fearing Kosovo-like confusion over targeting and tactics).

One Pentagon insider says the White House is putting "relentless pressure" on wary military planners for quick results. In particular, the administration is waiting impatiently for a planned offensive against the strategic town of Mazar-e Sharif. The assault, perhaps as early as this week, will be supported by U.S. Special Forces teams attached to various Northern Alliance militias. The job of these teams will be to keep the assault coordinated, give tactical advice, run logistics and call in U.S. airstrikes. (Otherwise they will not engage directly in combat.) A hurried offensive will be a big gamble, especially considering that in the last three weeks the Northern Alliance has actually lost ground to the Taliban. If Mazar-e Sharif falls, the Taliban becomes more isolated than ever, cut off from a key supply route. But if the Taliban succeeds in repulsing the assault, it gets a huge morale boost, and Washington faces an even colder winter than it does now.

The strategy is not only full of risks, but also historical echoes of past disasters. The insertion of military advisers and dependence on unreliable surrogates recall Vietnam. The dangers of getting into a tribal conflict with fighters of remarkable fearlessness and cunning evoke Somalia. One of bin Laden's lieutenants has even warned that American corpses will be dragged through the streets of Afghanistan just as they were in Mogadishu in 1993. Yet Afghanistan, though it has been a meat grinder to foreign invaders for centuries, defies easy analogies. The North Vietnamese had superpower backing; the Taliban does not. And while the U.S. impulse was to leave Somalia after one horrific fire fight, similar bloodshed in Afghanistan would likely harden American resolve in the wake of September 11.

The Pentagon is wary of running its military campaign according to a political schedule, in part because it's unsure the Northern Alliance is ready and in part because its own forces aren't fully in position. Military planners want to send Special Forces teams into Taliban-controlled territory, for instance. But to minimize the risk of a Mogadishu-style disaster, standard military doctrine now dictates that U.S. Special Forces must have backup teams on alert and close at hand. NEWSWEEK has learned that the United States wants a forward base for its Special Forces in Uzbekistan. But President Islam Karimov, while allowing the United States to occupy an old Soviet air base in his country, has refused to permit American forces to use the base to launch raids into Afghanistan. (Negotiations are ongoing.)

Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of the U.S. war effort, is said by colleagues to be "dubious" of the Northern Alliance's capabilities. The alliance forces are thought to number 15,000 to 20,000, probably less than half the Taliban's strength. And they aren't well trained or well equipped. Most are young soldiers like Sayeed Karim, who serves on the front line in the village of Rabat. When a bullet jams in the barrel of his Kalashnikov, Karim's solution is to detach the barrel and to pound the cartridge out with a stick. Clad in sandals and a simple wool tunic, he worries that "soon it will be winter and we don't have any boots."

The U.S. military has the capacity to airlift necessary supplies. (The push to take Mazar-e Sharif is partly to capture the air base there, which could be used during the winter.) So assume the Northern Alliance surprises everyone and scores a lightning victory. What then? Alliance commanders are a hodgepodge of warlords with a long history of infighting, corruption and incompetence. The last time they captured Kabul, back in 1992, triumph soon degenerated into civil war as competing commanders feuded for turf. Many Afghans don't want the Northern Alliance back in power, at least on their own. And neighboring Pakistan, a critical U.S. ally for supplying intelligence and support, wants a Kabul regime dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, which the Northern Alliance is not.

Alliance leaders insist they've learned from past mistakes, and claim they won't move into Kabul un-til they've created conditions for a stable, ethnically rep-resentative administration. But plans to set up an alternative government have failed. And for local commanders, the motivating force is not to create a pluralistic government. It's revenge. Gen. Gol Heydar, a 40-year-old baker's son with six war wounds and an artificial leg, says that Taliban fighters can count on mercy only if they defect soon. Arab fighters from bin Laden's corps are out of luck no matter what they do: "Even if they give up," he says matter-of-factly, "we will kill them anyway."

If American forces are focused on how to win on the ground in Afghanistan, bin Laden has his sights firmly on winning in Muslim (and nuclear-armed) Pakistan, where the U.S. bombing campaign is causing increasing unrest. Bin Laden released a letter last week calling for Pakistanis to rise up against the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, which he said was standing "beneath the Christian banner."

Here, too, bin Laden may be successfully parrying U.S. efforts to get him. Part of the aim of U.S. attacks is to spur defections from Taliban ranks, yet much of the movement last week was in the opposite direction. Pashtun tribesmen from Pakistan--armed with ancient muskets and AK-47s, axes and antiaircraft guns--streamed across the border of the wild North-West Frontier province. They wore white turbans--symbolizing solidarity with the Taliban--and sputtered with rage. "I don't want to live under an un-Islamic government in Pakistan," said Asal Din, 65. "I prefer to die with the Taliban, even under a U.S. rocket." For weeks the Taliban told the volunteers to stay put--"don't call us, we'll call you" was the message to would-be martyrs. Then last week they agreed to accept 600 fighters. Yet 1,200 crossed the border on Thursday alone, despite the fact that Musharraf had officially banned Pakistanis from helping the Taliban.

Musharraf is probably reluctant to use force to crush those defying him because he fears a bloody confrontation could split the country's one stable institution: the Army. After he joined the U.S. antiterror coalition in September, Musharraf protectively removed five of his 14 most senior generals from key posts, including the director of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. But many Army officers still sympathize with the Taliban, and whole units could refuse to act or even cross over to join a rebellion. Some analysts fear what they call a "Sadat scenario," in which Islamic militants within the Army assassinate Musharraf.

Washington's Northern Strategy can only make Musharraf's position more uncomfortable. And it may be designed to do just that--and to push Pakistan to cobble together its own Afghan alternative to the Taliban. But those efforts will take time, and Musharraf is worried, according to a source familiar with his thinking, that the White House is fighting a foreign war according to its own domestic political imperatives. He thinks the bombing started too soon, without sufficient political preparation for a post-Taliban Afghanistan. He also believes the Northern Alliance would need months of training and equipping before they could amount to a serious fighting force. "What is the military campaign plan?" says a senior Pakistani source. "Do the Americans even have one?" Bin Laden does--and nobody is more aware of that than Musharraf and his U.S. allies.