|HOME | NEWS | COLUMNISTS | MAJOR GENERAL ASHOK K MEHTA (Retd)|
|November 29, 2001||
Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta
Taleban will not forget their reverses
Kamal Matinuddin, a former general in the Pakistan Army, in his book The Taleban Phenomenon has noted that the Taleban was the biggest clandestine operation undertaken by his country. He says it was wrong for Pakistan to seek a puritanical Sunni-Pashtun-Taleban government in Kabul as it could never have brought stability to a multi-ethnic Afghanistan. Further, the Taleban lacked military expertise and though they did have some well-trained ex-communists, the majority were semi-trained fighters, good against light opposition.
This time too, Mazar-e-Sharif proved their nemesis as it had in 1997. The Taleban's defences in Northern Afghanistan fell like a house of cards, except in Kunduz, where thousands of their trapped fighters put up a struggle before surrendering. In 1997, 2,000 Taleban with the help of local Pushtoons and Ghulam, the militia leader, had held out for weeks despite being surrounded by the Northern Alliance. What has been played out now is the reverse of 1996 when the Taleban made rapid-fire gains to conquer all but Badakshan province in Afghanistan.
Just when the 35-day bombing campaign appeared to be getting nowhere, the Northern Alliance grabbed Mazar-e-Sharif in an operation reminiscent of their recapture of it in 1997. It was the average of 100 sorties a day employing every conceivable fighter, bomber and transport aircraft that delivered precision-guided bombs and missiles and the dreaded 15,000 pound fuel air explosive bomb that tilted the balance in the Alliance's favour. This gave them the option of either launching operations from Bagram first for Kabul followed by clearing the rest of the north or the other way round. They chose the latter, a safer option, and went for Mazar-e-Sharif first.
The question is: what happened to the Taleban? Why did they buckle under when they were expected to give their opponents a hard time?
The Taleban balloon burst in the North not so much because of the carpet-bombing, though this was one of the factors, as the severing of external assistance and a U-turn in local support. The people were simply relieved to see the Taleban go along with their repressive rule.
The bombing of Taleban defences had destroyed their rudimentary command, control and communication infrastructure, but their fighters were intact. With news of their leaders being on the run, individual garrison commanders decided to withdraw and scatter.
In the past, the Taleban have been more than a match for the Northern Alliance; however, this time around, without the presence and backup of Pakistani commanders and combat support, they were caught without a strategy and the will to fight. Pakistan, in a hurriedly mounted operation, had to rescue Lieutenant General Said-ul-Zafar and Brigadiers Rashid Shamim and Haider, the last two from the ISI, from the frontlines.
The disruption in the chain of command, desertion by some local leaders and their supreme leaders on the run triggered a virtual rout of the Taleban's 50,000-strong army beefed up by 2,000 irregulars. It is estimated that 30,000 soldiers were deployed in the north -- 6,000 along the Amu Darya border in the north with sizeable garrisons at Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Taluqan, Bagram, Kabul and Jalalabad.
Of the remaining 20,000 Taleban initially located in the south, nearly 6,000 were deployed along the border with Pakistan guarding the routes from Peshawar and Quetta. The main defences in the south were concentrated around Kandahar and the airport with task forces dug in along the two routes to Kandahar from Herat and Kabul.
After inflicting maximum casualties in the frontlines in the north, the Taleban was expected to conduct a fighting withdrawal towards Kabul and Jalalabad and defend these key towns. That neither of these options was exercised is a poor reflection on the conduct of battle by the Taleban leadership, except for the troops locked in at Konduz, where they had no choice but to fight a while.
Having failed to give a fight in the north, the Taleban should at least have fortified its defence network in the south and prevented the siege of Kandahar. But the revolt by rival Pushtoon leaders was probably something they had not reckoned with. Otherwise they might have saved the south and divided Afghanistan into a Pushtoon south and non-Pushtoon north.
As of now, the Taleban has managed to hold out only around Kandahar where Mullah Omar is believed to be holed in. It is only a matter of time before the Taleban surrender or are defeated in detail, notwithstanding reports that they are still in control of some pockets in the south.
Since the Taleban did not engage the Northern Alliance in conventional battle, everyone is expecting them to fight the war they are best at: hit and run. But events have moved so fast and the Taleban have taken such heavy casualties that they may not have the stamina and wherewithal for a guerrilla fight, especially after their benefactor, Pakistan, has dumped them.
The Taleban face serious operational handicaps. It is one thing fighting British, Soviet and other foreign armies, quite another combating the indigenous Northern Alliance and anti-Taleban Pushtoons.
Even though Pakistan has washed its hand of the Taleban, the latter will be able to secure sanctuaries in Pushtoon and Baluch areas contiguous to the border. But without Pakistan's help, the Taleban cannot wage and sustain a guerrilla war. The call by Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar to the faithful to melt into the mountains and fight the enemy is a hollow threat, like the threat to use weapons of mass destruction.
Unable to fight in the north and barely managing to hold out in the south, the Taleban may soon be written off as a factor in Afghanistan. But the Taleban are not likely to write their memoirs either. Angry at being let down by Pakistan, they will create unrest along the Durand Line and inside Pakistan.
Pervez Musharraf will do everything in his command to deflect the Taleban towards Jammu & Kashmir. The future of the Taleban rests in the hands of the US, which is at present fixated on bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
The question is: having expelled the bad Taleban from Afghanistan, will they allow the good ones to head for Kashmir?
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