Winter may stall U.S. war machine

October 11, 2001|By Jack Kelly

PITTSBURGH -- The easy part is almost done. With a few more days of good weather, we'll have bombed every fixed target in Afghanistan worth bombing. Then it will be time for the heavy lifting.

The heavy lifting has, of course, already begun. UPI, citing sources in Pakistani military intelligence, says U.S. Army Special Forces teams are operating with two groups opposed to the Taliban -- the Northern Alliance, of which we have heard much of late, and an Iranian-backed group under Ismail Khan, one of the more famous of the anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters. Mr. Khan's group is said to be composed chiefly of deserters from the Taliban.

The biggest danger posed to the allies -- if we may so call the United States, Britain and the various quarreling anti-Taliban Afghan factions -- is the same enemy who defeated Napoleon in Russia: General Winter.

Winters in Afghanistan are ugly. And winter will set in in another two or three weeks.

Everything in Afghanistan shuts down in winter.

After about Nov. 1, roads are all but impassible. Howling winds may not affect "all-weather" bombers flying above them, but they would play hob with helicopters and close air support birds like the A-10 "Warthog."

Once winter comes, it is likely to be spring before there are any meaningful military operations.

It's possible the Taliban will collapse in the next couple of weeks, but that's not the way to bet. Prepare for the long haul, and bring your long johns.

The air raids that began Sunday are a necessary precursor to what must come, and cathartic for most Americans. But it is easy to overrate -- as many of the teletwits on cable already have -- their effectiveness.

The targets of our bombs and cruise missiles were the pathetic excuse for an air defense network the Taliban have -- a few obsolete fighters and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites -- and symbolic political targets of the Taliban regime.

Another target was such concentrations of armor that the Taliban have that we've been able to locate. This is important because the roughly 1,000 T-55 and T-62 tanks the Taliban possess have to be neutralized if the anti-Taliban forces are to be successful in the quasi-conventional operations likely to be necessary to oust the regime.

But recent history indicates it is real tough to destroy dug-in armor if you don't force it to move. After-action reports from Kosovo indicate NATO destroyed less than 10 percent of the Serb tanks and armored personnel carriers in the country when that war began.

Also targeted were camps where the bin Laden network is thought to have been training foreign terrorists. But if any terrorists were killed in these raids, they were the dumbest terrorists Satan ever put on this earth. The bin Laden bunch has known for weeks that a world of hurt was coming their way. The only terrorists who have been in those camps since Sept. 11 have IQs between a rock and a carrot.

Since the camps were little more than canvas tents, it's likely the bombs we dropped cost more than the infrastructure we destroyed. But it made us feel good.

We can use winter to our advantage if we use it to arm, to train and to impose a semblance of command and control over the squabbling factions that constitute the anti-Taliban forces. This won't be easy. The only concept more alien to Afghans than fire discipline is cooperation.

But however harsh winter will be for us and for our Afghan allies, it will be harsher still for our enemies. Opportunities will abound for mass defections -- if we cross the right palms with silver. Some in the CIA and the Army might also use the time to learn the local languages. You can never tell when it will be useful to be able to talk to our allies, and to interrogate prisoners.

We might also prevail upon our British buddies to make available a battalion or so of Gurkhas. They are the baddest dudes on the planet. They come from Nepal, which is even more mountainous and isolated than Afghanistan. Gurkhas love to kill with the kukri, the curved knife that is their signature weapon. And in the end, that is how the Afghan portion of this war will be decided: up close and personal.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He may be reached via e-mail at

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