By Fariba Nawa
October 22, 2001
Agence France Presse
Islamabad — The United States will be hard pressed to complete its assault against the Taliban by a double deadline of the looming bitter winter in Afghanistan and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, experts said.
Temperatures will plunge about the same time as Ramadan starts in mid-November throwing up physical and religious hurdles to the US action against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, the accused terrorist leader.
Secretary of State Colin Powell surprised many Afghan experts and diplomats with his call Sunday for a speedy end to the military assault.
“It would be in our interest and the interest of the coalition to see this matter resolved before winter strikes and it makes our operations that much more difficult,” Powell said on US television.
A big freeze will hit Afghanistan from next month, making the mountainous mine-infested terrain even more treacherous.
US-led forces can seize major Afghan cities soon but a lot of guerrilla warfare will continue, said Talat Masood, a retired general and senior Pakistan government defense analyst.
“The major targets are feasible. They will be able to take over. But to be able to wipe off all resistance, that will be difficult,” Masood said.
The Taliban has so far denied that much damage has been caused to their military capability. But US military officials say they have knocked out significant numbers of Taliban air defenses, tanks, artillery and support facilities.
The Taliban have vowed that even if they are forced out of cities they will start a prolonged guerrilla war and the winter deadline looks ambitious to many Afghan opposition commanders contacted by AFP.
Ismail Khan, a key opposition commander in western Afghanistan, said it should not take more than six months to take the prime targets. But he was doubtful that it would happen before winter.
The best way is not fighting with weapons but by giving money to commanders and civilians who support the Taliban and bin Laden, said Khan. “The US needs to negotiate with civilians and commanders in Taliban-held areas for Afghans to oust the militia,” he said.
“Unless the people are convinced that the Taliban and bin Laden are their enemies, it will be a daunting task to crush resistance,” Khan said. Abdul Karim Khalili, an opposition commander in Bamiyan province, said the Taliban are rapidly losing in the air and ground war but would not predict that the US army could meet a winter deadline.
Khalili, an ethnic Hazara leader in the central region of Hazarajat, told AFP by telephone that the opposition has an advantage over the Taliban during the bitter winter.
“We’re more used to the temperatures in the mountains and the snow doesn’t allow their big Datsun vehicles to cross our territory,” Khalili said.
Temperatures in the mountainous valleys of Hazarajat are the coldest in Afghanistan. The water freezes and winter temperatures normally drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Emphasising the need to help the humanitarian operation in Afghanistan during the winter, Powell also admitted hostilities during Ramadan would be tricky.
“We have to be respectful of that very very significant religious period but at the same time we also have to make sure we pursue our campaign,” Powell said. Traditionally fighting in Afghanistan’s civil war has eased during the prayer month.
But Pakistani defense analyst Masood said halting the new war during Ramadan would be important to the public psychologically, showing that this not a war against Islam.
Khalili said however that the opposition and Taliban do not consider holidays and holy months a reason to stop war. “We fight year round. They launch offensives and we defend ourselves.”
Another pressing problem for Washington is the opposition insistence of a political framework for a post-Taliban government before launching an offensive to re-capture Kabul, which it lost to the Taliban in 1996.
One international military analyst now based in Pakistan said “The Americans are low key about involving the Northern Alliance in any future government and the North Alliance has probably realised this.
“Now there is no reason for them to come storming out of the mountains for a bloody fight.”