A Winning Strategy
How the Bush administration changed course and won the war in Afghanistan.
WITH THE TALIBAN DISLODGED and Osama bin Laden increasingly shorn of allies, the endgame seems to be in sight in Afghanistan. President Bush--along with the men and women of our armed forces--deserve the lion's share of the credit for the encouraging progress of our arms. The president deserves special credit for passing one of the key tests of any commander in chief: He knew when to drop a failing strategy and try something different.
The turning point in the Afghan war, it is clear in retrospect, came near the end of October. That is when the United States finally sent B-52 bombers to begin carpet-bombing Taliban front-line troops arrayed in the north against the Northern Alliance. The first of these B-52 strikes were launched on October 30. The following week the forces of the Northern Alliance began advancing against Mazar-i-Sharif. On November 9, a mere ten days after the start of the carpet-bombing, that vital northern city fell, and the rout of the Taliban had begun.
This winning strategy--pushed hard by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld--was implemented only after another, very different strategy had begun to fail. The original strategy, promoted especially by State Department officials under Secretary of State Colin Powell, in cooperation with the CIA, was unenthusiastic about too rapid a military advance by the Northern Alliance against Taliban positions in the north and around Kabul, and was therefore not designed to aid such an advance.
From the very outset, even before the bombing began on October 7, there was a fundamental disagreement between the Pentagon and the State Department over how to manage the situation in Afghanistan. On September 26, the Washington Post reported an "ongoing debate" between the State Department and the Pentagon over the objective. Pentagon officials wanted to "ensure that the campaign ends with the ouster of the Taliban." But State Department officials argued the administration should "be cautious and focus on bin Laden and his al Qaeda network." Secretary Powell was reluctant to make the overthrow of the Taliban the stated objective of the war.
The State Department's position reflected concern for the sensitivities of the Pakistani government and its nervous president, General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan had long supported the Taliban, and the government wanted a guarantee that some Taliban elements would have a share in any postwar government. The Pakistanis were also acutely hostile to the Northern Alliance and wanted to make sure that it would be kept out of a new government or would have at most a minimal role.
The State Department apparently won the first round in shaping the strategy. For the first month after the September 11 attack, American policy aimed not at supporting a rapid advance by Northern Alliance forces against Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, and Kabul, but at holding off any advances in the north while the State Department cobbled together an opposition coalition in Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan that was acceptable to Islamabad. The bombing that began on October 7, in addition to targeting Taliban air defense, air bases, and other military infrastructure, focused only on known or suspected al Qaeda bases and on Taliban headquarters. As Steven Mufson and Thomas Ricks have reported in the Post, in this first stage of the war, the administration "hoped for a rapid succession of events: pinprick airstrikes and a few raids by U.S. Special Forces might lead to substantial defections from the ruling Taliban, the rapid fall of major cities and, with a bit of luck, a final offensive that would 'smoke out' Osama bin Laden from Afghan caves."
Thus during the first weeks of the war the American airstrikes, for the most part, did not target Taliban troops. Administration officials told the New York Times that "attacks on the Taliban's front-line troops" were a "lower priority than efforts to strike at" the Taliban leadership and the al Qaeda network. In fact, as the Times's John F. Burns reported, the bombing was "carefully calibrated to exclude the Taliban's lines north of Kabul."