Tightening the Noose on the Taliban

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ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP

An Afghan Northern Alliance soldier cleans his Kalashnikov

The war on terrorism, as President Bush warned, will be mostly invisible on TV.

But the battle has already started. Guns are blazing right now in northern Afghanistan, as the opposition Northern Alliance forces press rapidly southward in the hope of capturing the strategic town of Mazari al-Sharif, and the sudden military gains of a rebel group that had recently been on the ropes may presage a turning of the tide in Afghanistan.

Warning that Afghanistan's ruling militia will face direct U.S. military attack if it continues to shelter bin Laden, Washington has begun moving an air armada into position and preparing its special forces for combat deployment.The U.S.-led coalition has been moving methodically and systematically to encircle and isolate the Taliban and Bin Laden.

In the course of this week, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

  • The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have cut ties with the Taliban, stripping them of diplomatic recognition from all nations but Pakistan, and starving them of foreign funding;
  • The U.S. government moved to freeze the foreign assets of a list of organizations and individuals deemed to have links with Bin Laden or be engaged in terrorism;
  • Russia signaled its support for military action against the Taliban, indicating that it would make available its airspace and the military bases it controls in the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to help the U.S. effort. President Vladimir Putin also undertook to step up direct Russian military assistance to the Northern Alliance from Uzbekistan. Small numbers of U.S. personnel have reportedly already begun arriving at Russian bases in the former Soviet republic;
  • European diplomats have visited Pakistan to firm up support for action against Bin Laden and the Taliban; and
  • The Western alliance moved to complete the encirclement of Afghanistan by sending British foreign secretary Jack Straw for talks with Iran's President Mohammed Khatami in Tehran Tuesday.

    The Taliban's response has been increasingly defiant, with the militia's leader, Mullah Omar, on Wednesday goading his Western foes by blaming the September 11 attacks on American "cruelty." British Prime Minister Tony Blair responded with a warning that the U.S. is poised to inflict "very considerable damage" on the Taliban regime if it maintains its refusal to hand over Bin Laden and others. With the battle lines now sharply drawn, the U.S.-led coalition is moving forces into place that would allow for various combinations of air strikes against the Taliban and terrorist camps, U.S. and British special forces deployments against specific targets on the ground, and greatly expanded military support to the Northern Alliance. Even without a large-scale invasion by forces supporting the anti-terrorism coalition, such a combination may be sufficient to put the Taliban to flight — particularly if military pressure creates cracks in the organization.

    The Taliban had looked unstoppable when its troops first swept across Afghanistan in 1996 to seize Kabul. But their perceived military prowess may have been exaggerated by Pakistani logistical support, the bribing of local warlords to let them pass and the aura of power they accumulated through their rapid advance. They were badly bloodied a year later in a disastrous attempt to seize the Northern Alliance stronghold of Mazari al-Sharif. Although they have subsequently consolidated their grip over more than 90 percent of the country, the current fighting in the north suggests that grip may be somewhat tenuous. Indeed, if Western air support to an emboldened opposition deals the Taliban a series of harsh blows in succession, the movement may find many local warlords less inclined to fight to the end.

    Foreign analysts have for some time suspected that there may be divisions within the Taliban over whether to risk annihilation in order to protect Bin Laden. Indeed, the movement's official position that the Saudi would be asked to leave for the good of Afghanistan suggests a measure of ambivalence. And concerted military pressure on the Taliban would likely exacerbate any current divisions.

    Who would replace the Taliban?

    Helping the opposition break the Taliban's grip on power would leave Bin Laden loyalists more isolated and vulnerable to attack by coalition forces. But the resulting power vacuum may create a chaotic situation inside Afghanistan. The U.S. is encouraging negotiations between different factions of the opposition with the idea of uniting them in an interim post-Taliban administration under the exiled Afghan king, Zahir Shah. But the opposition is composed of mostly ethnic-based militias who have been at each other's throats when not forced to work together against a larger enemy such as the Soviets or the Taliban. And Pakistan has warned against trying to impose a government that excludes the majority Pashto group from which the Taliban are drawn, signaling that Islamabad wants a hand in shaping a post-Taliban scenario — alongside, or in competition with such traditional neighborhood rivals as Russia and Iran.

    The intensified diplomatic shuttling and the jockeying over the shape of a post-Taliban government suggests that all the region's players are positioning themselves to reap the geopolitical rewards of Western military action that all now appear to believe is imminent.

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