A Winning Strategy
How the Bush administration changed course and won the war in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld's endorsement of a Northern Alliance attack on Kabul represented a clean break with Powell's approach. But it was also in keeping with President Bush's declaration that airstrikes would clear the way for a ground offensive to overthrow the Taliban. Two days later, therefore, Powell tried to swing things back in his direction. On October 22, Powell declared that "The Northern Alliance [was] on the march in the north toward Mazar-i-Sharif" and its forces were "gathering their strength to at least invest Kabul." The key word was "invest," by which Powell meant surround but not enter. The State Department sent officials to extract a promise from the Northern Alliance that they would not enter Kabul, and according to the Times, the Northern Alliance agreed.
Rumsfeld's partial victory within the administration did not translate into quick results on the ground. Although the United States began carrying out airstrikes against some Taliban front-line forces around Mazar-i-Sharif, they were not as sustained or as devastating as the attacks that would come later. Pentagon officials told the Times they were eager to do more to help the alliance, but they expressed some frustration with the military brass for failing "to heavily bomb Taliban front-line positions north of Kabul and other key locations."
Top NSC officials were also frustrated. And with good reason. In the third week of October, the Taliban actually launched a successful counteroffensive against the Northern Alliance and drove Alliance forces back several miles. Northern Alliance leaders now complained they were stalled four miles from Mazar-i-Sharif, waiting for the United States to start dropping heavy munitions on a sustained basis. For alliance forces to break through Taliban lines around the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Taliqan in northern Afghanistan, Afghan opposition leaders told the Times, several days of unyielding strikes would have to be carried out in one place. "Bomb it day and night for four days in a row," a senior Alliance official advised. "Don't let them sleep. Then we will be able to break the lines."
As Mufson and Ricks have reported, it was at about this time that administration officials began to acknowledge that the old strategy--the rapid fall of the Taliban after an initial phase of limited bombing, and the "smoking out" of bin Laden--was not working. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers, was now warning, "This is going to be a very, very long campaign. It may take till next spring. It may take till next summer. It may take longer than that in Afghanistan." Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a spokesman for the chiefs, did not hide the military's sense of miscalculation: "I am a bit surprised at how doggedly [the Taliban is] hanging on to their--to power."
By the end of the third week of October, then, American officials were growing increasingly nervous that the war would, indeed, drag on interminably. In Europe, support for what was starting to look like an inconclusive air campaign seemed to be waning. At the same time, the Times's Burns reported, American officials were growing impatient with the Pakistani government. The Pakistanis were still having no luck putting together a Pashtun coalition, and the Americans began to suspect the pro-Taliban Pakistani intelligence services "of manipulating the talks to ensure that Taliban elements retain a decisive hand." The Americans became infuriated when the Pakistanis tried to present as a "moderate" a known anti-American Islamic hardliner.
The Bush administration thus began to shift more decisively toward what Michael Gordon called "the new strategy" of supporting Northern Alliance ground offensives by massive air attacks on front-line Taliban troops. Mufson and Ricks described the new "Pentagon strategy" as "fiercer, broader and far more reliant on Afghan rebels than planners originally envisioned." Having "first focused on winning over southern leaders of the Pashtuns . . . the U.S. approach now [was] to use Special Forces on the ground and bombers in the air to bolster rebel forces attacking Taliban strongholds." The "relatively restrained attacks by fighter jets off Navy carriers that characterized the first three weeks of the campaign [had] given way to body blows by heavy B-52 long-range bombers."
On October 26, American warplanes began pounding Taliban front-line forces, and for the first time dropped cluster bombs designed to obliterate troop and armor concentrations. The overall thrust of American airstrikes shifted dramatically at about this time, too. Previously, the majority of missions had been flown against Taliban strongholds in the south. But on October 26 Myers announced that the vast majority of strike missions were now being flown against the Taliban's front-line troops. Pentagon officials also told reporters they planned to increase significantly the number of Special Forces helping the Northern Alliance.
The biggest air offensive against Taliban front lines in the North began on October 30. Carrier aircraft were joined by B-1 and B-52 bombers in what Pentagon officials described as the largest strike on Taliban positions since the start of the war. The B-52s began carpet-bombing the Taliban forces that day. The bombing continued steadily into the first week of November. By November 7, the Northern Alliance was on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif. On November 8, according to the Times, two additional Special Forces teams were inserted into the area where the Northern Alliance was fighting. They played a key part in the final advance. By November 9, the Taliban was announcing that its troops had abandoned that key northern city, blaming the American air onslaught for their defeat. "For seven days continuously they have been bombing Taliban positions," the head of the Taliban news agency noted. "They used very large bombs." Northern Alliance leaders agreed: "The American bombardment was instrumental."
The bombardment continued to be instrumental as the Northern Alliance advanced on Herat and Kabul. Powell nonetheless stuck to his anti-Northern Alliance strategy right to the end, getting President Bush to say on Nov. 10 that the Northern Alliance should not advance "into the city of Kabul itself." As it turned out, the United States had no capacity to stop--and Rumsfeld had no intention of stopping--the Northern Alliance. Rumsfeld calmly averred that the Alliance would "attack and take Kabul when they feel like it...and when they think that they're capable of defeating the Taliban and getting them out of there." And when the Northern Alliance did just that, the American war on terrorism scored its first substantial victory.
Can we draw the proper lessons from that victory? Surely one is that an aggressive strategy aiming at rapid victory is almost always preferable to a dilatory strategy that delays victory. The State Department's efforts to achieve the perfect political solution in Afghanistan, to minimize all conceivable friction with the Pakistanis, and to employ the minimal amount of American force, were well intentioned, but they were dead wrong. Successful diplomacy follows success on the battlefield, not vice versa. Winning the war is key to winning hearts and minds. Had the president not changed course, there would be no celebrations in the streets of Kabul today.
Perhaps the president will keep his own success in mind as we move forward now. Perhaps he will learn to trust the instincts of his secretary of defense a little more than those of his secretary of state. For even as this magazine goes to print, the secretary of state seems bent on repeating his recent errors, this time in the Middle East. At a time when the United States should be exploiting its victory and pressing hard, both in Afghanistan and against other terrorist threats, Powell has decided the time is right to appease the Arab world by leaning on Israel. Talk about choosing to slow your own momentum, or snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. It's not too late for the president to consider a change of course here, as well.
The administration's shift of strategy at the end of October has been vindicated by the events of the last two weeks. Like every successful war commander before him, the president understands that altering strategy when circumstances so dictate is no vice. Indeed, flexibility in pursuit of victory is a virtue. President Bush may turn out to be better at running a war than some of the old pros around him.
Robert Kagan is a contributing editor and William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.
November 26, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 11