Retreating Taliban commanders vow to fight another day

War on terrorism: The future
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The Independent Online

As they retreated from city after city, from the capital Kabul, and their supposed stronghold of Kandahar, Taliban leaders were insisting that they are regrouping to fight another day.

The new war, they said, will be a guerrilla one – a form of fighting they did not experience when they swept through the country in the 1990s. Then it was the opposition that fell apart as commanders were bought off or defected to it. Now the same thing is happening in reverse.

The former mujahedin fighters among the Taliban, as well as the Afghan-Arabs who fought alongside them, will remember the hit-and-run tactics that saw off the Russians in the 1980s, and will now be hoping to administer the same treatment to the US and British forces when they arrive. In this kind of warfare, technological superiority counts for little.

The fighters of the Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies, said to number around 40,000, will head into the hills to carry out hit-and-run attacks. This, however, will take them northwards from Kandahar, towards the enemy. South of the city there is nothing but open desert, in which it is impossible to find cover.

The Taliban believe they will receive reinforcements in this new war from across the Pakistani border from fellow Pashtuns and also fresh waves of international Islamist volunteers. But despite claims to the contrary, this has never been the grand plan of their leaders, Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden. The change of tactics has been forced upon them from the success of the Allied tactics, the scale and speed of which surprised even military commanders in Washington and London.

One should also put the triumph over the Russians into perspective. The mujahedin won with massive financial and military help from the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, Iran and Egypt. The supply of Stinger surface-to-air missiles played a major part in changing the course of the war by making helicopter operations by the Russians highly dangerous. The Taliban and al-Qa'ida will not get that kind of support. Many Stingers still remain in Afghan hands and may be used in the future. But there is also evidence that many have been sold and others are unusable because of the Afghans' notorious ineptitude in looking after their weapons.

But there had been some hiccups for the Allies on the way to victory. The one and only ground attack by US Rangers, a purely cosmetic exercise for the media on a supposedly poorly defended target, ended in near disaster when the Taliban fought back. Nor did the initial burst of air strikes lead to the Taliban leadership wilting and handing over Mr bin Laden.

These shortcomings made the planners in Washington and London rethink and accept that the Northern Alliance must be helped, despite the strong objections of General Pervez Musharraf's Pakistani regime. American and British special forces were sent in to co-ordinate the various commanders, plan attacks and, most importantly, call down air strikes.

The scale of the air strikes increased dramatically, the number of aircraft often rising to more than a hundred, compared to 40 in the first day, and the Taliban front line being subjected to carpet bombing, and the dropping of "daisy cutters", the most potent conventional weapons in the US arsenal. The Taliban not only lost their air force and almost all their armour, but also communications. Within three weeks all radio traffic had ceased and the regime's commanders were forced to rely on passing on messages manually, often via horseback.

As the Taliban and the al-Qa'ida's arms and equipment deteriorated, those of the opposition Northern Alliance improved. The Russians, with the backing of the US and Britain, supplied 50 T55 and T62 tanks to supplement the 30 they had. In the west, the Shia Muslim commander Ismail Khan received fresh supplies from the Iranians.

Now, Mr bin Laden and the al-Qa'ida leadership may attempt to head for another country. German troops were yesterday said to be in position in Somalia, in case they head there, and security has been similarly tightened in Yemen, the bin Laden home before they found their wealth in Saudi Arabia.

If such avenues are cut off, Mr bin Laden and his closest followers are likely to attempt to cross the Pakistani border, where they are likely to find refuge among Pashtun sympathisers and may get protection from members of Pakistan's military intelligence service, the ISI.

Mullah Omar's followers appear to be heading south from Kabul and east from Kandahar. As they attempt to go to the hills of the north and the central highlands they, too, may attempt to infiltrate across the Pakistani border to avoid Allied air attacks. There is always the danger that elements of the Northern Alliance will set off in "hot pursuit" with the danger of the conflagration spreading.