The Washington Post

Afghanistan: a nightmare battlefield


A Northern Alliance fighter watches over the town of Dashti Kola in northern Afghanistan in October 2001. (Gleb Garanich — Reuters)

Six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and about three weeks before America went to war, a headline on the front-page of The Washington Post foretold the difficult fight ahead.

“Afghanistan: A Nightmare Battlefield.”

“In all the war-gaming of military academies and Pentagon planners, the U.S. armed forces would be hard-pressed to have invented a more intractable military scenario than waging combat operations in this impoverished, bedraggled land against a radicalized guerrilla force and its most infamous resident -- Saudi fugitive and accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden,” wrote The Post’s Molly Moore and Kamran Khan.

Afghanistan, they noted, was ethnically fragmented. Its terrain was among the most rugged and isolated in the world. It had virtually no infrastructure. And its population was already struggling to survive in the face of drought, famine and bloodshed.

Even then, Pakistani military and intelligence officials were warning U.S. war planners about the challenges across the border, most notably the Afghans who would rise up against American forces, just as they had against the Soviets in the 1980s.

“ ‘You yourself [the United States] trained them to be the best guerrilla force in the world,’ ” a former Pakistani intelligence official told The Post. “Some of these Taliban were the CIA’s superstars.”

In this light, it is not difficult to believe that America is still at war today, exactly 10 years after the start of the U.S. invasion.

There were always questions about how long it would last.

On Oct. 11, 2001, four days after U.S. and British forces launched their first airstrikes, President George W. Bush was asked how Washington might avoid being drawn into a Vietnam-like quagmire.

“People often ask me, ‘How long will this last?’ ” Bush responded. “This particular battle front will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two, but we will prevail.”

Indeed, with U.S. backing, a resurgent Northern Alliance toppled the Taliban government within months. The real end would not come so swiftly.

Not that that was clear 10 years ago. Despite warnings about the stark challenges in Afghanistan, there was hope that the conflict there might be a relatively brief chapter of what Bush had described as a “different kind of war.”

“I don’t think the president ... has any intention of keeping American troops stationed on the ground in Afghanistan” after the defeat of the Taliban, then-Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN in October 2001.

As soon as a new interim administration had been established in Kabul, U.S. officials began to realize just how much money it might take to build up a government and establish basic services. They had seen what nation-building had looked like in Kosovo, and how hard it had been to stabilize places like Somalia after years of conflict.

“Ballpark estimates,” The Post wrote in December 2001, “begin at $6.5 billion for the next five years and run as high as $25 billion.”

At last check, the United States had spent nearly $19 billion on aid in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2010.

The overall cost of the war effort for fiscal 2011 alone, including military operations, is estimated at $118.6 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

On the 10-year anniversary of the war, we recommend to you a story on the past decade from the view of Afghan Americans, as well as a piece on how the United States is scaling back its ambitions in Afghanistan.

See here for a photo gallery that charts key events in the war.

And, after all that, have a read of a story below — it’s 10 years old but it still rings true.

“Afghanistan: A Nightmare Battlefield.”

By Molly Moore and Kamran Khan

ISLAMABAD, Sept. 16 — In a war against Afghanistan, the world’s only superpower would be aligning the most sophisticated, high-tech military weaponry ever developed against mud barracks, mountain caves, a few hundred artillery pieces and a savvy foe able to melt into the khaki folds of an already devastated landscape.

In all the war-gaming of military academies and Pentagon planners, the U.S. armed forces would be hard-pressed to have invented a more intractable military scenario than waging combat operations in this impoverished, bedraggled land against a radicalized guerrilla force and its most infamous resident -- Saudi fugitive and accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. U.S. officials have pointed to bin Laden as the chief suspect in last week’s terror attacks in New York and Washington.

Afghanistan is an ethnically fragmented country with some of the most rugged and isolated terrain in the world, an infrastructure that has been almost completely devastated by two decades of continuous war, and a population struggling to survive in the face of drought, famine and endless cycles of violence and bloodshed.

Unlike the multinational coalition attacks on Belgrade and Baghdad over the last decade, fought with high-precision weapons aimed at selected targets, there are few major command and control networks to be hit in Afghanistan, where guerrilla battles are usually fought with artillery barrages and mortar fire. Neither requires the sophisticated orchestration of First World combat.

The militant Islamic Taliban movement, which controls more than 90 percent of the country, has amassed an eclectic arsenal of aging tanks and other equipment left over from the Soviet Union’s failed occupation. It also nabbed some overused aircraft from various warring Afghan factions defeated since the Taliban began its takeover of Afghanistan in 1994. More recently, new weapons, mostly automatic rifles, machine guns and mortars, have been supplied by bin Laden and other wealthy Saudi benefactors.

The U.S. military learned during the Persian Gulf War that months of bombing destroyed only a fraction of the Iraqi military hardware arrayed across a flat desert, a lesson that could apply to Afghanistan as well. “Carrying out large-scale bombing of Afghanistan would be a mistake,” Nikolai Kovalyov, former head of the Russian Federal Security Service, a successor agency to the KGB, said in an interview in Moscow. “We must learn from the lessons of history -- we have not been able to solve the problems of terrorism by large-scale bombing.”

Vice President Cheney today identified Afghanistan as a possible target for a reprisal attack. “The government of Afghanistan has to understand that we believe they have, indeed, been harboring a man who committed and whose organization committed this most egregious act,” Cheney said of the airplane attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

But there are enormous logistical hurdles to an attack on the Taliban and bin Laden.

In Afghanistan, U.S. surveillance satellites will see no sizable power grids, no vast military bases, no major bridges and highway networks as targets: There are none. Special forces would land in a war zone that has changed little from the desert country of nomadic tribes and medieval-looking villages British troops invaded more than two centuries ago. Land forces, with virtually no access to local supplies, would be treading through one of the most densely mined countries on the globe amid a hostile population.

While Pakistan has given the United States permission to use its airspace for missile assaults and aerial bombardment of Afghanistan, the easiest military targets already have disappeared, according to Pakistan intelligence reports.

The Taliban has emptied its training bases, arms depots, command and government headquarters and has scattered its military hardware. Bin Laden has gone into even deeper hiding than usual and has dispatched his family members to a variety of locations, Pakistani intelligence sources said.

The U.S. military failed to kill bin Laden on a previous attempt in 1998 when it launched missile attacks on his training bases and suspected hide-outs in Afghanistan in the aftermath of two U.S. embassy bombings in Africa.

The problems of locating useful targets and destroying them in air assaults would pale when compared with the complexity of trying to land special forces or send ground troops into the country, according to U.S. and Pakistani military planners.

“The first mistake would be a large-scale land operation,” said former Russian security chief Kovalyov. “In the mountains there, it is impossible to determine where or what to destroy. For every trainful of explosives, perhaps three guerrillas at most will die. The country is filled with caves and crevices in which to hide.”

The Taliban is estimated to have no more than 45,000 troops, including up to 12,000 foreign troops -- Pakistanis, Arabs, Uzbeks and others, according to most estimates. Pakistani military officials said they are uncertain how large an arsenal the Taliban has assembled but said the militia is armed with Soviet T-59 and T-55 tanks left over from the 1980s, as well as artillery guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, antiaircraft and antitank missiles, aging Soviet MIG and Sukoi fighter planes, mortars and thousands of small arms.

But it is the guerrilla tactics of the Taliban that make the militia more formidable than its numbers might indicate. Those tactics were instilled in what is now the Taliban leadership by Pakistan, with CIA backing during the rebels’ successful attempt to oust the Soviets, and more recently honed by bin Laden’s Arab soldiers.

Senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials -- whose officers have advised, coordinated and in many cases participated in combat in Afghanistan with various factions over the past 20 years -- said they are warning U.S. war planners of the daunting challenges.

“You yourself [the United States] trained them to be the best guerrilla force in the world,” said a former Pakistani intelligence official who said he advised Islamic freedom fighters under CIA-sponsored programs during the rebels’ war with Soviet forces in the 1980s. “Some of these Taliban were the CIA’s superstars.”

“Doesn’t the CIA remember they were the ones who gave the Afghans the best lessons in the world in how to humiliate a great army?” said another former Pakistani intelligence official, who has advised the Taliban in military operations for the past five years.

Taliban leader Mohammad Omar fought under one of the CIA’s most prized rebel commanders, Yunis Khalis, according to the former operative.

Invading forces have been attempting to conquer Afghanistan and tame its feuding tribes for centuries. And in every instance, it was the politically charged ethnic divisions that undermined efforts to unify the country. It is a legacy that may not only govern how the U.S. military would plot attacks, but also the problems it would generate to fill the void created if the military objective is to dismantle the Taliban government.

Afghanistan’s population, estimated to be about 25 million, is a volatile mixture of ethnic groups: about 38 percent Pashtun, 25 percent Tajik, 6 percent Uzbek, 19 percent Hazara, along with small numbers of Aimaks, Turkmen and Baloch. Most of the population speaks an Afghan form of Persian called Dari, Pashto, or one of more than 30 other minor languages. The language barriers alone offer a vivid example of problems land forces would face in fighting or follow-up efforts to rehabilitate the country, according to military planners.

The warlords and military commanders who controlled each of these groups were united in their effort to dislodge Soviet forces. But when Moscow withdrew its troops in 1989, a power-sharing government composed of the former rebel leaders quickly disintegrated into civil war, with the defense minister and president assembling their own army to fight the prime minister.

It was the brutality and destruction of those wars that led to the formation of the Taliban in 1994, though the movement’s rise can also be traced to ethnic and religious animosities going back three centuries.

While the Taliban easily won control of the largely Pashtun southern deserts and mountains that border Pakistan, opposition forces managed to cling to small pockets of territory in the more isolated and beautifully rugged valleys and mountain lands bordering Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

One commander was most responsible for fending off the Taliban near the Tajik border: the rail-thin Ahmed Shah Massoud. Only this year he had managed to persuade other ethnic commanders from the anti-Soviet days to return to northern Afghanistan in a loosely organized group called the Northern Alliance.

On Sept. 9, Massoud, 48, was hit in a suicide-bomb attack by two men posing as Arab journalists at his headquarters. Though Pakistani and U.S. intelligence reports indicated he died within hours of the explosion, his family only confirmed the death on Thursday.

Now, it is unclear whether his successor will be able to maintain the same loyalty commanded by Massoud, who enjoyed almost legendary stature in his home Panjshir Valley.

Pakistani military officials note that inserting ground forces into Afghanistan from Pakistan would force them through the region of Afghanistan that would be most hostile to foreign forces attempting to drive out the Taliban.

They say more sympathetic entry points would be along the northern borders through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. While the United States has been holding an increasing number of joint military training exercises with those and other Central Asian nations in recent months, the Northern Alliance has been heavily supported by Iran and Russia, two countries with strong concerns about the presence of Western forces in the region.

Correspondent Susan B. Glasser in Moscow contributed to this report.

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