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The War at 30 Days: Little Progress, Weak Coalition

by Mushahid Hussain

But Rumsfeld refuses to rule out nukes
(IPS) ISLAMABAD -- Thirty days after the American military campaign began against Afghanistan, there are clear indications that things are not going according to plan and the United States may be getting bogged down in a costly conflict.

After pounding Afghanistan with more than a million-plus pounds of bombs, including the lethal anti-personnel cluster bombs, there are no signs of a Taliban collapse or the United States moving anywhere closer to its minimal military or political goals.

In an uneven battle, the weaker side often is perceived to be "winning" by simply staying on, by not losing, which is what the Taliban seems to be doing.

The Pentagon has itself admitted that the Taliban are "formidable opponents." On Oct. 24, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem called them "tough warriors" and expressing "surprise" at their "doggedly hanging on to power."

Dropping more than 300 bombs a day on Afghanistan, the U.S. military campaign has managed to inflict greater self-damage by its bombing of a hospital in Herat, and a United Nations demining operation in the capital Kabul (there are a million landmines in Afghanistan).

U.S. bombs also accidentally killed a family in anti-Taliban Northern Alliance territory and knocked out three of five Red Cross warehouses in a 10-day span twice, all attributed to "human error."

And to top it all, the top American anti-Taliban operative, Commander Abdul Haq, was captured and killed by the Taliban last month.

It is in this context that a critical reassessment has begun even within America. The chairman of Senate foreign relations committee, Sen. Joe Biden, even likened American bombing to acts of "hi-tech bullies."

The publication Jane's Defense Weekly lamented that "there is no simple winning strategy, the Americans failed to think this through."

Likewise, Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar blurted out in a candid admission of how clueless the coalition is about the future: "Nobody has any solutions."

American exasperation at the military stalemate in Afghanistan, which has the hallmarks of a quagmire in the making, has also been reflected in the somewhat alarming refusal on Oct. 29 of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to rule out the nuclear option in the war against the Taliban.

If the United States is unable to overwhelm the Taliban militarily after four weeks of intense pounding, the United States is also losing the battle for Muslim "hearts and minds" with a marked insensitivity for Muslim concerns.

On Oct. 12, a Friday, American planes refrained from bombing Afghanistan, supposedly "out of respect for the Muslim holy day." On the following Friday, Oct. 19, such "respect" was missing and the bombing went on undeterred.

Now the United States is talking of a relentless military campaign during the Muslim holy month of fasting, Ramadan, despite warnings against this from Muslim countries.

It is not surprising that a new Coalition Information Headquarters has been established in Washington, with a "media war room" to coordinate an information counter-offensive round-the-clock with offices in London and Islamabad.

As Rumsfeld toured the region, his second in four weeks, he was faced with an embarrassing videotape of Osama bin Laden, aired on Nov. 3 on the Doha-based al Jazeerah station, which indicated he was still operational and still defiant.

Rumsfeld would also be pondering over three major miscalculations that the Americans made before they launched their bombers over Afghanistan. First, the Americans overestimated in thinking that their firepower and hi-tech weaponry would be enough to bring about the Taliban's early demise.

Second, the United States underestimated the Taliban's resolve and resilience to resist.

Third, Washington overestimated the strength of the anti-Taliban opposition, particularly the Northern Alliance.

These miscalculations apart, there is confusion regarding American goals as the U.S.-led retaliation reaches a month.

Distrust among Muslim coalition members
Starting with the goal of capturing Osama "dead or alive," the focus shifted to ousting the Taliban, then to fashioning a future regime in Afghanistan, and the United States has also hinted that "other countries" could be American military targets, a reference to Iraq.

There also seems to be an element of distrust of Muslim partners in the coalition against terrorism.

The last fortnight, for instance, witnessed a sustained propaganda barrage against Saudi Arabia in the American media. Crown Prince Abdullah's statement of Oct. 27 that "force alone would not bring a solution" is another manifestation of Muslim concern at a conflict still showing no light at the end of the tunnel.

On Nov. 4, the Saudi press carried an interview with the former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al Faisal, that the Taliban were, at one stage in 1998, agreeable to handing over Osama but then American bombing in August 1998 on Afghanistan upset these plans.

Saudi Arabia apart, repeated misinformation in the western press regarding concern for Pakistan's nuclear program reflects a lack of faith in Pakistan's ability to manage its nuclear assets.

After Rumsfeld's meeting with Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad on Nov. 4, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Sattar told the press that the visiting U.S. defense secretary had been assured of "stringent measures for custodial safety of our nuclear assets."

The efforts to cobble a future regime in Afghanistan have also run into snags.

China, Iran and Turkey do not endorse Pakistan's perspective on inclusion of "moderate" Taliban in a new coalition. Turkey has also committed 90 troops to train the Northern Alliance forces, whose "offensive" against the Taliban remains stillborn.

Likewise, the Pakistan-backed Peshawar meeting of 800 Afghan clerics and commanders on Oct. 20 turned out to be a non-starter since the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, or Zahir Shah's representatives were absent.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's testimony to the U.S. Congress in late October is also instructive in this regard.

He made known U.S. reservations regarding Pakistan hosting a meeting of the anti-Taliban Afghan opposition, which excluded the Northern Alliance. He said that the "next government of Afghanistan cannot be dictated into existence by Pakistan," adding that he got the "clear impression in my conversations with President Musharraf that he recognizes that Pakistan cannot do it the way it did before."

For Pakistan, this is a situation more complex than perhaps what even Afghanistan is facing since the stakes for its stability and cohesion are infinitely higher.

While the protests in Pakistan have been containable, public opinion against the bombing of Afghanistan is fuelling anti-Americanism, which is likely to be aggravated should the bombing of Afghanistan continue into Ramadan, which begins Nov. 17.

Pakistan also has modified its policy toward Afghan refugees who are fleeing death and destruction. Seeking to assuage humanitarian concerns since 65,000 Afghan refugees have already forcibly entered Pakistan in the past month, with another 30,000 waiting at the gate, Musharraf has established a special President's Relief Fund for Afghans to collect donations for Afghan refugees seeking relief, relocation and rehabilitation.

But he says Pakistan's borders, like those of Afghanistan's other neighbors, will remain closed, with assistance provided to camps on Afghanistan's side of the border.

On Oct. 7, after the first night of the bombing, an F-14 pilot who would only give his name as "Commander Biff" of the Fighting Black Lions Squadron, told a reporter: "Tonight was about restoring America's confidence." But restoring America's confidence may end up ruining the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world, one that is already under severe strain due to the war in Afghanistan.

Mushahid Hussain was Information Minister in the cabinet of Nawaz Sharif from 1997-1999

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Albion Monitor November 12, 2001 (

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