Grading The Other War

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KOJI HARADA/KYODO/AP

A crowded Northern Alliance tank rumbles down the streets of Kabul

The war in Afghanistan has not gone as planned. One year ago, as the U.S. military prepared to retaliate for the worst terrorist attacks ever perpetrated on American soil, the Bush Administration warned Americans to brace for a long, bloody campaign. "This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion," the President said in his address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001. Five days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that "it will not be an antiseptic war, I regret to say. It will be difficult. It will be dangerous. The likelihood is that more people may be lost." Armchair generals filled the airwaves with frets about the coming quagmire, pointing out that Afghanistan's forbidding terrain and wily guerrillas had sent two great powers packing in the past. This war, everyone said, would not be won easily.

Everyone was wrong. This week marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Today U.S. warplanes still patrol the skies over Kabul, and American troops are certain to stay in the country for months, even years to come. But the combat phase of the war appears to be over. America's defeat of the Taliban was remarkable for its speed, precision and relative painlessness to Americans, judging by U.S. casualties. Beginning with the first U.S. bombing run on Oct. 7, American air power and a hodgepodge allied ground force — consisting of a few hundred U.S. and British special-ops commandos, a smattering of Western ground troops and 15,000 Northern Alliance fighters — routed an enemy army of 45,000 in slightly more than two months. During a single week in early November, the allies conquered 60% of the Taliban's territory; they gobbled up the rest by the end of the month. Many military experts predicted that hundreds of U.S. soldiers could die fighting in the country's fabled caves and redoubts; in the end, the U.S. suffered just 23 combat deaths, eight of them during Operation Anaconda in March, the war's last major battle.


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So what happened to the victory parades? The simple answer is that while the fighting is finished, the U.S. hasn't won yet. Al-Qaeda's network, while badly degraded, hasn't folded. The biggest prize, Osama bin Laden, has remained maddeningly out of reach since the hunt for him began one year ago; U.S. commanders believe he is probably alive and holed up in Pakistan, perhaps in the northwest city of Peshawar. Afghan officials told Time that in November the U.S. allowed Pakistan to airlift hundreds of fighters, including some senior Taliban officials, out of the contested northern city of Kunduz. The task of stabilizing Afghanistan — let alone rebuilding it — has been hampered by lingering rivalries and suspicions. Just last week, a misunderstanding between U.S. troops guarding Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Afghan soldiers loyal to Karzai's Defense Minister nearly ended in a shootout at the Presidential Palace in Kabul; after the Americans tried to detain an Afghan general, the two sides faced off with weapons drawn for several minutes, before Karzai's aides separated them.

The U.S. strategy worked brilliantly on the battlefield, but its flaws became more glaring once the shooting stopped. And questions still remain about exactly what tactics America's Afghan allies might have used to defeat the Taliban so handily. Pentagon strategists insist that the Afghan battle plan won't serve as a template for any campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. But in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, U.S. forces will be tested on some of the same critical issues, and how well Washington learns the lessons of this war will help determine the outcome of the next one. Here's how the U.S. has done so far:

Removing the Sanctuary
Ousting the Taliban from power became a central war aim after Bush declared that the U.S. would "pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism" and the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden. As ludicrous as it sounds now, the Taliban commanders, for at least a few weeks last fall, seriously believed they had a chance. "We're waiting to fight the Americans — if they dare," blustered a general in Kandahar in late October. When a month of U.S. air strikes failed to break the Taliban's grip on power or kill its senior leaders, there was grumbling at home that the war was stalled. Pentagon officials counseled patience; in private, they say now, they felt the Taliban would soon collapse. The U.S. focused its early raids on pounding the Taliban's reserve forces; when the front-line forces called for reinforcements, they found their backup thrashed.

Taliban soldiers who had thoughts of fighting on were quickly dissuaded by the ruthless force and pinpoint precision of U.S. air power. The Pentagon's most celebrated tactic was its deployment of small groups of special-ops commandos to ride horseback with Northern Alliance forces and call in air strikes using handheld lasers and target-spotting binoculars. The combination of high-tech gadgetry, battlefield savvy and an increased use of precision-guided munitions made American power irresistible. "The bombs had a big effect," says Wahid Ahmed, 18, a Pakistani who fought with the Taliban in Kunduz and now languishes in a jail in Sheberghan, northern Afghanistan. "We couldn't gather in large groups because that made a target. We were waiting for our comrades to tell us what to do, but there was nothing to do but hide."

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