Letter From Ground Zero: November 21, 2001

Letter From Ground Zero: November 21, 2001

Letter From Ground Zero: November 21, 2001

The sudden and unexpected collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan.


The sudden collapse of the Taliban in most of Afghanistan is one of those events that seem to have been designed by the fates to teach policy-makers and pundits humility. The collapse came, of course, as a surprise; but it was also something more: It arrived in the teeth of almost universal opinion that it was not possible so soon. If there was one thing that the predictors in and out of government—very much including, I regret to say, this Letter—were agreed upon, it was that the campaign to unseat the Taliban (the prelude to attacking Al Qaeda) was going to last a long time—"years, not weeks or months" in the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who noted that the formula could mean up to twenty-three months. Hawks and doves in the newsmedia agreed. The hawks said: The bombing isn't working; therefore the United States must send in ground troops. Bombing alone, The New Republic editorialized, could not achieve US objectives, even in combination with attacks on the ground by the Northern Alliance, of which the magazine wrote, "Of all the proxies the United States has enlisted over the past half-century, the Northern Alliance may be the least prepared to attain America's battlefield objectives." The Weekly Standard agreed. The real problem, the editors believed, was to enlist the Pashtun tribe in the south in the fight–something that would be possible only "if we are not dependent on the Northern Alliance for ground power." Therefore only "a significant deployment (in the tens of thousands) of American ground forces to the country" would serve.

Doves argued: The bombing isn't working, therefore stop the bombing and step up humanitarian aid instead, both for its own sake and because it will head off the increase in terrorism likely to accompany a war in a starving land. Here I can quote my own words against myself. The problem, I wrote in this Letter, was that American military strategy was at odds with its political strategy. In the first days of the war, I noted, the Administration had hoped for an anti-Taliban rebellion in its southern stronghold. The Taliban refused to permit Western journalists to enter Afghanistan, and information was sparse. Yet the capture of one anti-Taliban leader (Abdul Haq) injected from Pakistan and the ejection of another (Ahmed Karzai), among other events, suggested that this policy was failing. But above all, "the bombing, far from prompting an anti-Taliban rebellion, has, according to all reports, rallied popular support to the previously hated regime." History offered many supporting examples of peoples, including the Germans in World War II and the Vietnamese in the Vietnam War, whose will was stiffened rather than broken by bombing. On the basis of this assumption, a host of conclusions seemed to follow: If bombing was solidifying opposition to the United States, the war would last a long time; the humanitarian crisis would worsen; a large ground force probably would be sent in; the age-old Afghan hatred of foreign occupiers would be inflamed, and guerrilla war would ensue; anger at the United States would build around the Islamic world, and terrorism would increase; some Islamic regimes, especially that of nuclear-armed Pakistan, might even fall into extremist hands.

Even the Taliban, it appears, shared in the widespread misconception. Its spokesmen repeatedly threatened that the real war against America would begin only when it invaded on the ground.

The fates decided otherwise. If journalists were to devote their columns to correcting their previous misjudgments, the opinion pages of the papers would be filled with little else; yet nearly universal error does seem to call for at least some reflection by somebody. With the sharper (we can hope) vision of hindsight, it appears that the main mistake was to imagine, on the basis of a few scraps of information (the capture and execution of Haq, and so forth), that we could know what the temper of the people of Afghanistan was. Even after the fact firm judgments seem risky, yet on the basis of subsequent news reports it appears that many people hated the Taliban far more than they hated the bombing.

The collapse of the Taliban lines outside Kabul was perhaps not surprising. The Gulf War had made it clear that troops deployed in fixed positions in open terrain cannot long survive the effectively unlimited violence of American air power. Like the US troops entering Kuwait, the troops of the Northern Alliance faced little resistance when they finally breached Taliban lines. It was what happened next that amazed. The Alliance forces, whose warring factions had turned much of Kabul to rubble just six years before, were nevertheless greeted by many as saviors. Three symbols of liberation were immediately flashed around the world: men shaving unwanted beards; women casting off the tent-like burqas; children flying kites. Meanwhile, it turned out that the Taliban had simply quit the city. Only future investigation will reveal the reasons for their decision, but in the meantime it looks as though they knew that a fight in the streets of Kabul would be doomed with a hostile population at their backs.

A secondary factor seems to have played an important role– the traditional Afghan practice of deciding military confrontations through side-switching in brokered deals. In these deals, the losing side trades in its readiness to cease resistance for leniency or a share in power in the new dispensation. The practice, which permits some of the losers to join the victors, gives exceptional force to the urge to place oneself on the winning side. The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan largely through such deals, and they appear to have lost it in much of the country in the same way.

Of course, the war goes on. Overthrowing the Taliban (still in control of the cities of Kandahar and Kunduz as I write) is one thing; the founding of a new government, another. The same revolving door that ushered the Taliban in could usher in other distasteful characters soon. And American officials are already suggesting that in the "war on terrorism" there may be more wars to fight. But let us leave these questions for another time.

Is there anything to be learned? Use historical analogies sparingly. Reserve judgment when facts are unavailable. Respect the mystery of the will of peoples. Their decisions, can, when made, astonish the world.

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