John Keegan, a defense editor of The Daily Telegraph, London, wrote the following column.  Keegan is the author of many books on military history, including Six Armies in Normandy (1982, reissued with a new introduction, 1994), The Second World War (1989), and The Face of Battle (1976). John Keegan was for many years professor of history at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (Great Britain), the equivalent of America's West Point Academy.

The collapse of Taliban resistance in northern Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul may stand as one of the most remarkable reversals of military fortune since Kitchener's victory at Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898.  Then, another Islamic fundamentalist army, led by the Khalifa, a charismatic religious figure, was swept away on the battlefield and the capital recaptured.  Omdurman came, however, as the culmination of a campaign which had already lasted a year and following preliminary ground victories at Dongola, Abu Hamed and the Atbara .  It was achieved, moreover, by a disciplined army containing a high proportion of British troops.  

Success - it cannot yet be called a victory - of the Northern Alliance comes after only a month of campaigning and has been achieved by an irregular army, admittedly supported by American air power. 

Why the sudden breakthrough?  The collapse of the Taliban has much to do with the movement's unperceived political, religious and military weaknesses.  Whereas the Khalifa drew his support from a popular form of Islam, which looked to him as the successor of Mohammed and was rooted in Sudanese life, the Taliban is a foreign import, formed in the religious school of north-west Pakistan and imposed on the easy-going Muslims of Afghanistan with puritanical zeal.  

Far from converting the Afghans, particularly those outside the Pushtu-speaking south, to its way of thought the Taliban succeeded in making itself deeply unpopular in a very short space of time.  

Lacking popular support, it has collapsed quickly in the non-Pushtu areas, which look to the Northern Alliance , formed from its tribal brothers, as liberators.  The Taliban was not only religiously oppressive. It also neglected to use the political forms to which Afghans are accustomed, particularly the village gathering, or jirga, a meeting of tribal elders at which village affairs are decided.  

The Taliban turned itself into a dictatorship from the start, a dangerous mistake which denied it the support of the elders and worthies who lead Afghan communal life.  Finally, its military tactics were wrong.  It is possible that it badly weakened itself in its initial campaign of conquest against the Northern Alliance who, though themselves weakened by the years of war against the Soviet army, had become an experienced army thereby.  The Northern Alliance appears to have recovered its strength in the lull of the last three years and probably possesses more capable small-unit leaders than its opponents do.  The alliance has also been strengthened, since the beginning of this war, by the transfer of huge quantities of munitions and some heavy weapons, including modern tanks, originating in Russia and its central Asian allied republics.   

Air power, however, has probably been the key factor, enhanced by the Taliban's adoption of tactics which favored the other side.  Afghan mountain warriors, particularly the Pathans of the south, traditionally found advantage in fighting regular forces by presenting a poor target to organized fire power. Their organization was the loose lashkar, which moved fleet-footed across country, avoiding roads, and their chosen method of fighting was that of the gasht, a raiding sweep.  In the last few weeks, the Taliban seems to have made the mistake of constructing entrenched lines, which are clearly visible from the air and present attractive targets for precision bombing, even from 15,000 ft.  The Taliban has also encumbered itself with tanks and four-wheel drive vehicles, which add little to its fighting capacity but signal its units' location to American aircraft.  

Had they stuck to their feet, dispersed their units and clung to hidden positions on the high ground, the Taliban fighters might not have been as easily dislodged by the Northern Alliance and its American supporters.  The alliance has had great success, all the more praiseworthy for being so unexpected.  It is doubtful whether anyone in Washington or London expected their makeshift allies to prove so effective in combat.  It is doubtful, however, whether success can be sustained on an equal scale henceforth.  As the Northern Alliance enters the south, it leaves its own ethnic heartland and enters that of the Taliban, which is mainly Pathan and Pushtu-speaking.

 Not all Pathans are pro-Taliban. Its puritanism and disregard for tribal political practice ensure that.  The non-Pathan elements - Arabs, Chechens, Sudanese and Punjabis - also helped to make it unpopular with the Pathans, who are intensely tribal and are used to exercising a commanding role in Afghan affairs.  The Northern Alliance and their Western allies must recognize, however, that the easy part of the campaign, even if an easy part was not expected, is now over.  

As the alliance moves south, it will encounter increasing resistance and decreasing support.  Despite this, al-Qa'eda and Osama bin Laden still find themselves in a much weaker position. The realignment of fronts may force him to change his hiding place. It has certainly unsettled his personal and political arrangements.  We may hear less in future of his odious arrogance and the tide of approval he has enjoyed in the Muslim world will probably now wane.  The success of the Northern Alliance is not only to the West's advantage. It is also to the advantage of moderate Muslims everywhere. In recent weeks, Islamic triumphalism has been offset by the voices of westernized Muslims who insist they are loyal to their countries of immigration and settlement.  

The Northern Alliance 's advance also brings assistance to the Pakistan government, which has ridden out a difficult period and whose alliance the West needs.  The doubters in the West have also suffered a gratifying setback.  Those who were calling for a settlement with irrational fanatics by reasoned diplomacy may have to think again and those who thought peace could be achieved by dropping food parcels may be forced to recognize, however much against their will, that bombing has its uses.


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