'U.S. Goal is to Beat the Taliban, But Not Too Quickly'

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AC-130 Spectre gunship

TIME.com: Has there been a qualitative shift in military operations in Afghanistan in recent days, with reports of the heavy ground-attack AC-130 plane being used over Kandahar on Tuesday, for example?

Not really. The first few days were focused on Taliban air defenses, and then on fixed targets such as ministries and logistics bases. Now they're looking for emerging targets, such as mass troop concentrations and armor. The AC-130 is often used to support ground troops, but it's also used solo. The U.S. is clearly moving from fixed to mobile tactical targets. The more you hit those mobile tactical targets, the more damage you do to the Taliban. And, of course, you have to be careful about hitting them too hard if you don't want to topple the Taliban too quickly.

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Why would the U.S. not want to topple the Taliban too quickly?

If you take down the Taliban, something has to take its place. Pakistan doesn't want the Northern Alliance to form the new government. But, unfortunately, right now the Northern Alliance is the biggest opposition group in Afghanistan. So right now the choices are not good: The U.S. has to balance the interests of its key regional ally, Pakistan, against those of its key in-country ally, the Northern Alliance.

But the Alliance's civilian political leaders are in complete agreement on not going to Kabul yet. A lot of their commanders want to go now. But whenever a war begins, these sorts of debates arise. Still, if the Northern Alliance, helped by the U.S., takes the city of Mazari al-Sharif this week, that will be plenty. They don't need to rush to Kabul when no alternative government is ready. Plainly there are schisms within the Taliban, and the U.S. is also trying to exploit those. If you're going to create a stable government, you have to put together a group that has the credibility to govern. And that may include elements that have been part of the Taliban.

The exiled king, Zahir Shah, has appealed to the UN to send peacekeeping troops to a post-Taliban Afghanistan. Presumably there will be some pressure on the U.S. to be part of such a force — how will the Pentagon view such a possibility?

There is always pressure on the U.S. to be part of peacekeeping missions, and seeing as how we've just bombed Afghanistan to smithereens there may be some moral obligation to take part. It's too early to tell how the Bush administration will deal with such a request. The Pentagon obviously wouldn't like it; they don't like peacekeeping missions. But that's also why they don't get a big vote in these decisions.

Recent reports have suggested that the U.S. military may be more pessimistic than its political leaders over the prospects for success in its Afghanistan mission. What do you make of these reports?

Well, that may have been true from the very beginning, to the extent that the question is how the mission is defined. That may be why the military is saying it can knock down the Taliban but not necessarily deliver Osama bin Laden. The first is a relatively easy task for the U.S. military; the second is nearly impossible. The President speaks of delivering bin Laden dead or alive, but he and his advisers know that's a desire rather than a pledge on which they can deliver.

Some reports have quoted former U.S. commander for the Gulf, General Anthony Zinni, as saying soon after the September 11 attacks that he hoped the military was not given the task of solving this problem…

General Zinni had been very pessimistic during his final appearance in uniform on Capitol Hill when the question of Osama bin Laden came up — and this was long before September 11. He said he didn't think the military would be the best way to get bin Laden, and I don't think anyone in uniform disagrees with him. It's difficult to send an army to do a job more commonly reserved for cops.

Pakistan has said it will support the U.S. for as long as the campaign against bin Laden takes, but it also urged the U.S. to wrap up its bombing campaign as soon as possible. How quickly can that be done?

It depends on the goal. If it's to knock down the Taliban and get a post-Taliban government installed, then that can't be achieved very quickly. Especially if elements of the Taliban continue to fight on after they've lost power. So we're simply going to have to hold Pakistan's hand on this one.