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In less than a week, Taliban fighters have been swept from most of northern Afghanistan, including the key cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Kunduz, Taloqan, Bamiyan, Jalalabad and the capital Kabul. How did a force that only two months ago controlled most of Afghanistan get swept from the battlefield so quickly, and is the battle over? Evidence suggests it has only just begun.

The Northern Alliance now controls the key cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Kunduz and Taloqan, all located astride vital supply routes into neighboring countries. Popular uprisings have reportedly ousted the Taliban from Bamiyan and Jalalabad, and there are even reports of anti-Taliban Pushtun forces marching on Kandahar. On the surface, it appears a lightning offensive by the Northern Alliance – supported by U.S. aerial bombardment – has shattered the Taliban army in a matter of days. But have the Taliban been defeated? An examination of the Taliban withdrawal suggests the group has intentionally surrendered territory in the interest of adopting tactics more amenable to its strengths.

If the United States and its allies misread the Taliban withdrawal as a rout, they could quickly find themselves locked in a nasty guerrilla war in Afghanistan. Worse, that war is likely to spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders, as the core of Taliban and al-Qaida forces in that country seek to secure their supply lines and capitalize on their strengths and their opponents’ weaknesses.

Success against Taliban hinges on Pakistan

Pentagon officials are signaling that the war in Afghanistan will be hard and long. Questions have been raised as to why the Taliban does not believe its position is hopeless. The Taliban believes it is possible, with strategic luck, not only to survive but also to draw the United States into a quagmire. The key to all of this is Pakistan.

In order to evaluate whether the Taliban withdrawal from northern Afghanistan was the routing of a defeated force or a strategic maneuver, we must first look at the evidence on the ground.

Perhaps the key feature of the withdrawal is that it has come almost without a fight. Neither the U.S. bombardment nor the Northern Alliance offensive adequately explains this. The Taliban have a hardened army with many veterans of the war against the Soviet Union. Taliban forces were renowned for their dogged combat, stunning the Northern Alliance in previous battles by advancing undeterred through minefields.

Before Sept. 11, the Taliban controlled some 95 percent of Afghanistan and appeared poised to mop up the remnants of the opposition. In the weeks before Mazar-e-Sharif fell, the Taliban soundly repelled a series of Northern Alliance attacks on the city, and even the Northern Alliance admitted they had not had time to prepare for a serious offensive.

In most cases, the Taliban’s retreat was premeditated and orderly. The fighting that occurred was a rear-guard action, often carried out by foreign troops. Pakistani volunteers were left behind in Mazar-e-Sharif, and Arab troops reportedly fought a vicious rear-guard action in Kabul. The Taliban troops deployed armor to cover their withdrawal from Kabul, which occurred at night in order to limit U.S. air strikes and preclude premature Northern Alliance assaults.

The speed of the Northern Alliance’s advance was not surprising. Rapid advances are the norm in Afghanistan. The Taliban swept through the country as quickly when the group first emerged in 1994 and 1995. Russia’s initial invasion of Afghanistan took only a few weeks.

Population density explains much of this phenomenon. Afghanistan has about 41 people per square kilometer – less than a third the density of neighboring Pakistan – and this does not take refugees into account. Rugged terrain means that much of Afghanistan is nearly uninhabited or is settled in small villages. It is easy to sweep through this territory; there is little to get in the way.

But there is a catch. Ethnic divisions, limited resources and logistical difficulties have constrained the size of the armies that fought over Afghanistan. At their peak, the Soviets had only about 90,000 troops in the country, and the Taliban and Northern Alliance armies were far smaller. Small armies and vast distances make frontal warfare difficult and dangerous. Armies cannot afford to spare the troops necessary to garrison the land they have overrun if they are to maintain a viable army at the front.

This leads to thin front lines, with troops concentrated at key nodes and with little reserve behind them. Once a front breaks or withdraws, an opposing force can make tremendous advances. Anyone who has played the board game “Risk” will recognize this.

Incidentally, this goes some way to explain the brutality of the Taliban occupation. Because the Taliban forces could not afford to spare the troops to garrison land they had overrun, they needed to utterly subjugate those areas to preclude an uprising behind their lines.

One final factor explains the large numbers of defections among the Taliban forces. Afghanistan is geographically, ethnically and religiously divided, and loyalties are strongest at the local clan level. The Taliban, like the Northern Alliance and like previous Afghan governments, were not a unified entity.

The Taliban’s core members are Durrani Pushtuns from Kandahar and southern Afghanistan. They have had difficulty expanding support beyond this region – even in integrating their close ethnic kin, the Ghilzai Pushtuns from eastern Afghanistan and around Kabul – and most of the time they have not even tried. As the Taliban fighters advanced through Afghanistan, other clans and factions chose to join rather than fight them, but loyalties always remained at the local level.

Switching sides is common behavior among Afghan groups. It is how the Taliban initially captured Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997 and how they were as swiftly driven from the city later that year. The factions comprising the Northern Alliance have fought one another as often as they have fought the Taliban. As the Taliban core withdrew from northern Afghanistan, the groups that had sided with it during its occupation quickly joined the advancing Northern Alliance.

So, contrary to appearances, the withdrawal by the Taliban troops was intentional and orderly. They were not routed. They are now stripped to their ethnic and ideological core, intact, with most of their arms and equipment. They are also back in familiar territory and reinforced with the bulk of Osama bin Laden’s Afghan Arab volunteers.

The Taliban are now prepared to adopt a strategy more amenable to their tactical strengths and resources.

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