In Afghanistan’s tough terrain, tribal fighters have beaten two past empires, in a history lesson for U.S.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called Afghanistan a ”bleeding wound.” For a British viceroy more than a 100 years earlier, it was a ”poisoned chalice.”
The reason? The Soviets and the British were both dealt bloody and humiliating defeats by the warrior clans of the poor country, where the brutal, mountainous terrain poses a challenge for any would-be invader.
As U.S. forces consider an assault against Osama bin Laden – the top suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks – and Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia, history is not encouraging.
The British Empire fought three major wars in Afghanistan between 1830 and 1920, trying to impose its control over the country but repeatedly suffering heavy losses and brutal massacres at the hands of its highly independent tribesmen.
The worst came in 1842 when several thousand British and Indian soldiers, women and children and thousands of camp followers were slaughtered by Afghan fighters as they tried to retreat through the deep mountain passes out of Afghanistan.
In the 20th century, the Soviet Union’s attempt to hold Afghanistan met similar humiliation. Its 10-year occupation ended in 1989 in disgrace with more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers dead. When the withdrawal finally came, the last soldiers scurried out of the country across the northern Oxus River, guarding their backs against guerrillas.
It turned out to be the last great Cold War battle. Less than 10 months after its pullout from Afghanistan, the Soviet Union collapsed and shattered into a dozen independent states.
Now it may be the United States’ turn to try a foray into the Afghan quagmire, if it seeks to ferret out bin Laden and to punish the hard-line Islamic Taliban movement, which has given him refuge since 1996.
First, the United States must find bin Laden. His global terrorist network, called al-Qaida, is thought to operate out of hidden bases and caves honeycombing the mountain ranges that crisscross Afghanistan.
According to Pakistani intelligence sources, bin Laden went into hiding within minutes of hearing of last week’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and now could be taking refuge in one of a dozen hide-outs.
Any U.S. military operation must deal with the same daunting geography that foiled the British and Soviet empires. Tanks and armor have difficulty moving in large force; mountain passes make ambushes easy; deep ravines and caves blunt the effectiveness of aerial bombing. Bitter cold saps troops’ morale as they battle tough guerrilla fighters with intimate knowledge of the landscape.
Bin Laden’s al-Qaida group and affiliated groups operating in Afghanistan are believed to number up to 10,000 members.
One veteran of the Soviet war, Lt. Gen. Ruslan Aushev, warned the United States would find bin Laden only if it was ready to comb 200,000 square miles ”rock by rock.”
”You can occupy it, you can put troops there and keep bombing, but you cannot win,” Aushev said Tuesday of Afghanistan.
The United States would not be able to repeat the 1991 Gulf War scenario of collecting a large ground force in a neighboring nation and invading. None of the countries around Afghanistan provide a likely staging ground, and any invading force would have to work it way through mountain ranges along the borders.
A retired Pakistani general, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there cannot be a large-scale ground operation.
Instead, the strategy should be an air assault and more pin-point operations by specialized ground troops.
He said cruise missiles should be used to target bin Laden’s mountain hide-outs and Taliban leaders, with U.S. carpet bombing against Taliban positions on front lines battling Afghan opposition forces. Helicopter gunships could ferry in troops for clean-up operations and provide air cover.
Any U.S. operation could also be helped by the deep exhaustion of most Afghans after 23 years of non-stop war.
There have been reports of chemical and biological weapons being tested in these training camps.
One Taliban security officer, who accompanied bin Laden to a camp in eastern Kunar province, said he saw a North Korean training the militants in chemical weapons. It was impossible to independently confirm his report.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has already stressed that the war on terrorism will rely more on unconventional military methods than on traditional weapons like bombers, tanks and warships.
”These are people who operate in the shadows, and we have to deal with them in the shadows,” Rumsfeld said.
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