Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 14, 2001
In a ground war, rebel says, do not go it alone

At War With Terror

GOLBAHAR, Afghanistan - Mohammed Shari Tawasali stood on a hillside, watching his soldiers shooting live ammunition as they charged a pile of rocks in a demonstration of the military might of the Northern Alliance.

These foot soldiers with old rifles and shabby clothes are the primary weapon against the Taliban in the grinding war the Northern Alliance has been waging here for seven years. They are the type of rugged, ill-equipped warriors that American forces will fight with - and against - as the United States moves from an air war to a ground war on the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan.

"I think it would be difficult for the Americans to win," said Tawasali, the commander of a Northern Alliance base here. "The best way for the Americans to defeat the Taliban is to use the Northern Alliance. They can't defeat the Taliban alone."

In 23 years of fighting, Afghanistan's civil war has been conducted largely as an infantry campaign. The Northern Alliance, the coalition of ethnic and political groups opposed to the Taliban, has some artillery, tanks and rockets to support the troops entrenched on the front lines. But its chief weapon is the young foot soldier.

The Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic movement that controls most of Afghanistan, also relies upon waves of soldiers armed primarily with Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. It had a small air force of aging Russian jets before U.S. planes attacked the aircraft last week in the start of the allied bombing campaign.

Soon, American special forces are expected to be on the ground, too - to root out the cells of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists. Armed with the latest high-tech weaponry, the Americans are likely to encounter a foe equipped for mid-20th-century battle.

But the meager equipment of the Taliban's forces does not mean they will be pushovers, said Tawasali, 38, a veteran of two decades of war in Afghanistan against Soviet invaders and the Taliban.

Tawasali argues that if Americans commit ground forces - even small special-forces operations that stay on the ground only a short time - it could trigger an anti-invader backlash among Afghans and give the Taliban a powerful tool to rally support in the Muslim world.

As the Soviets discovered in their decade of occupation that ended in 1989, the Afghans are likely to regard any prolonged intervention by a Western power as a threat to their culture and religion.

Tawasali said the well-equipped Russians were easier foes than some of the Afghan contingents he has fought, because the Russians were seen as foreign invaders.

"It was easier to fight against the Russians," said Tawasali. "People knew the Russians wanted to occupy the country, so they rallied against them. The Taliban came in the name of Islam, so it is more difficult.

"The Taliban will fight against the Americans until the death," said Tawasali. "The Taliban will use this propaganda to motivate people. We also used this propaganda against the Russians, knowing that Afghans will fight foreign invaders with more vigor."

Afghanistan's daunting terrain could also pose a challenge for the U.S. military, even if the Americans are able to resupply their troops by air, avoiding the nation's notorious roads.

"Americans can't negotiate these mountains," said Tawasali, an ethnic Hazara, whose Shiite Muslim religion is regarded with contempt by the Sunni Muslim extremists who lead the Taliban. "The Taliban know the area. They've filled caves with ammunition. The Taliban are well armed. They've hidden a lot of weapons."

Most of Afghanistan does not lend itself to conventional warfare.

Much of Afghanistan's north is accessible only by roads that cling to sheer sides of narrow canyons, where the Soviets discovered they were easy targets as they lumbered along in single-file columns. Air support is difficult in such terrain, where cliffs hide deep crevices that provide comfortable hiding places for Afghan guerrillas accustomed to living in rough terrain.

At this time of year, when the land is dry and farmers are tilling their fields with ox-drawn plows to sow winter wheat, a fine dust fills the air, playing havoc with electronic gear of modern warfare. In the winter, the dust turns to slush and then to glutinous muck with the spring rains.

A few miles from here, the Panjshir River spills out of the mountains into a fertile plain about 40 miles north of Kabul.

This plain, divided by the front line separating the Northern Alliance stronghold from the Taliban troops guarding the capital, is already littered with wrecked tanks and armored vehicles. The flatland could well become the crucial battlefield in the alliance's quest to retake the capital from which its members were ousted in 1996.

While the American air assault continues, alliance commanders have been instructed not to move on Kabul until political leaders can work out an endgame for a post-Taliban Afghanistan. Pakistan, a big regional power that is the Taliban's chief sponsor, is worried that the Northern Alliance will move into power.

Tawasali said the alliance is trying to devise a civilian police administration that can govern Kabul and protect the population against feuding warlords.

In the meantime, the alliance troops wait for the word to advance and continue to drill.

After conquering the pile of rocks in their recent exercise, Tawasali's troops marched off to engage in a pleasure forbidden under the ultra-religious Taliban. They began a robust game of volleyball, the national pastime. home page   
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