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Waiting for the Real War to Start

Exploding shells twinkle over a hilltop in northern Afghanistan as opposition soldiers try to show that one day they will have the strength to overthrow the Taliban in Kabul. A line of soldiers advances on the enemy’s position and flushes out a single prisoner.

It was a perfectly efficient operation as a training exercise by the forces of the Northern Alliance, the opposition movement, which hopes one day to recapture the Afghan capital, Kabul, which it lost to the Taliban five years ago.

But such set-piece assaults are unlikely to play a central role in any assault by the Northern Alliance as it tries to break out of its mountain fastnesses over the next few months. The transformation of the battlefield is more likely to come about because allies of the Taliban change sides.

There is another possibility for the Northern Alliance. If the US launches a sustained air attack it might become impossible for the Taliban to concentrate its forces to meet an assault on the ground.

If the Taliban did muster its forces, it would suffer heavy casualties, which it can ill afford, and total loss of equipment, as happened to the Iraqi army in the Gulf War of 1991. But it is difficult to believe that the United States will give tactical air support to advancing Northern Alliance forces when the American public wants to see its own troops in action.

Abdullah Abdullah, foreign minister of the Northern Alliance, says its forces have launched “small-scale offensives in different parts of the country”. The idea is to make probing attacks to see if the Taliban is weakening. The Taliban, for their part, do not want to give anybody the impression that they are on the run.

It would help the Northern Alliance immensely in terms of its international credibility if it could win a serious victory such as recapturing Mazar- I-Sharif, the largest city of northern Afghanistan. There are no eyewitness accounts of the fighting, but the Taliban claim to have recaptured the one city that the Northern Alliance said it had taken. The alliance, also known as the United Front, says it fought off a counter-attack.

But the Northern Alliance has had one very important achievement over the last month. It has survived the assassination of its leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, on 9 September by two suicide bombers who posed as journalists seeking an interview. It was widely believed when he died that nobody else could hold the Northern Alliance together, but there is no public sign of the movement splitting.

The problem for the movement is that it depends on minorities in the north of Afghanistan. Its main stronghold is the precipitous Panjshir Valley and districts wholly populated by Tajiks, who make up a quarter of Afghanistan’s population. It has two other redoubts further west, both of which have been successfully defended because they are deep in the mountains.

There is an important difference in the build-up to a possible war between the US and its allies and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Even at this stage, many Afghans believe the end of the Taliban is inevitable because the disparity in forces is too great. In Iraq, it was never clear that the war was going to end with the removal of Saddam Hussein ? and indeed it did not. Afghanistan’s neighbours ? Pakistan, India, Russia and the Central Asian states ? are already vying for influence in a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan has always been peculiar. The armies involved are small. The Taliban has only 60,000 men and the Northern Alliance about 15,000. Both also have large militia forces. Fighting has been fierce, but the Taliban and the Alliance have tried to avoid heavy casualties to their core units.

A difficulty for the opposition to the Taliban is that its support is based on ethnicity ? it is backed by Tajiks, Uzbeks and Shia Muslims ? and it does not have support among the Pushtu who make up 38 per cent of the Afghan population. This poses a serious long-term problem for the opposition factions, particularly if they want to avoid Pakistan retaining its influence through some instrument other than the Taliban.

The Northern Alliance is likely to be strengthened by the impending struggle. But Afghanistan is such a divided country that it is hardly a country at all. Its tremendous mountain ranges make it difficult for any central government to gain total control of the provinces.

The constituent members of the National Alliance have little in common except hatred of the Taliban. They will certainly split at some point, but the prospect of support from so many quarters will probably make them stick together for the moment in face of a common enemy whom they hope will soon be in its death throes. CP

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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