When President George Bush told Americans this would be an unconventional war, that was no overstatement. U.S. special forces riding horses call for air support via satellite phone. With Taliban fighters on the run after the mid-November fall of Kabul, American ground units use both pack mules and GPS to track the retreating enemy. The Taliban by turn melt into caves in the ground or sink into bordering countries supposedly allied with the United States.
Meanwhile, Pop Tarts and peanut butter rained from the sky last week as U.S. planes kept providing a steady supply of food packets for the country's growing numbers-6 million-of starving homeless. In these climactic days of fighting, the panorama in Afghanistan is Stone Age one second and Brave New World the next, Flintstones one minute and Monty Python the next. And like all wars, this one is hell.
After five weeks of pounding by U.S. air forces paired with ground assaults from impatient Afghan raiders, the Taliban regime gave up most of the cities it for six years held captive to an unreasonable Islamic code. Fleeing soldiers of the Taliban left behind gored opponents in mass graves and well-thumbed terrorism manuals. They took refuge in the southern city of Kandahar, long the stronghold of both the Taliban and of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorists. Anti-Taliban militias, along with increasing numbers of U.S. ground forces, moved southward, too, closing in on Taliban commander Mullah Mohammed Omar and-the Bush administration hoped-Mr. bin Laden.
For a country stooped under two decades of civil war, the taste of liberation was sweet. Skies over Kabul filled with kites and barbershop floors filled with hair. Kite-flying, along with playing chess, keeping pigeons, and listening to music, were featured prohibitions under the Taliban. Now the rules could come off, along with the fist-length beards the Taliban required all men to wear.
For women, instant changes were not only cosmetic. Many lost their burqas, the head-to-toe covering required in public, and found old jobs still waiting, even though education and work outside the home remained, technically speaking, outlawed under the Taliban. At least one girls' school near Kabul promises to reopen after the winter term.
Alliance troops entered Kabul to a victorious welcome. A country said to hate America welcomed Westerners with handshakes and a greeting, "Zindabad!"-long life. Shopkeepers invited reporters in for tea. Pundits predicted even a wider war that could free other nations from radical Muslim tyranny. "This is not a manhunt, it is the opening salvo of a great revolutionary war that will transform the Middle East," said American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen.
The liberation of Afghanistan coincided with the beginning of Ramadan for the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. Leading clerics in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, spotted the pale sliver of the new moon, which marks the start of a month of fasting, on Nov. 15. Traditionally, Muslims celebrate by fasting from dawn until sunset, followed by nights of feasting. To fast in Ramadan achieves one of the five pillars of Islam (professing to "no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet"; praying; giving money to the poor; and performing the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime are the other four).
In Afghanistan, Ramadan will be no holiday. "For my family, and probably for many people, every day of our lives is like Ramadan, because we have been living for years on tea and bread," said one elderly man in Kabul.
For Osama bin Laden, there will be no time off, either. U.S. forces believed the terrorist mastermind was trapped in a mountain region east of Kandahar and they reportedly had tracked him to a 30-square-mile area at one point. Leaders in the opposition Northern Alliance said they had information he was "still in Kandahar province in Maruf, some [80 miles] east of Kandahar city." They were using a $25 million reward to tempt Taliban defectors into pinpointing his precise location. "We are going to dig him out of his hole," vowed Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Mr. bin Laden has built his reputation on the hillside redoubts that have helped him elude capture since the United States put a price on his head three years ago. At one time his headquarters near Jalalabad consisted of three rooms hollowed into rock face. One room contained a control and communications center stocked with laptop computers, fax machines, and a satellite telephone system. A second room housed the al-Qaeda arsenal, including assault rifles, mortar rounds, and machine guns. And the third room was private quarters-a library filled with Islamic classics and thin mattresses with wool blankets. Nearby were caves for top aides.
Experts believe the same arrangement with only minor modification holds in wartime. "He still has the same capabilities, but is keeping the functions in separate locations," Yossef Bodansky, director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, told WORLD. That way, if U.S. intelligence forces hone in on al-Qaeda e-mail or phone transmissions, they won't necessarily find him.
Mr. Bodansky said public pronouncements from bin Laden associates indicate his high-tech equipment is intact and they "are hearing the news that we are hearing, watching the news that we are watching."
They also are capable of responding with their own spin. Taliban leaders claimed that Mr. bin Laden is no longer in their territory and they don't know his whereabouts. Iran radio said he had fled Afghanistan for a safe area in Pakistan. Reports of mysterious crossings persist. In the southwest border town of Chaman, 60 miles from Kandahar, a trainload of soldiers arrived in Pakistan along with half a dozen tanks. Thousands of soldiers under the direction of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf moved in to secure the country's 1,300-mile border with Afghanistan.
A different battle for Afghanistan's future is also underway. On Nov. 1 a Washington public-relations firm, Philip S. Smith & Associates, registered under federal law as a lobbyist for Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. Disclosure forms filed with Congress give the client's address as "front lines (battle lines) estimated 43 miles from Mazar-e-Sharif city." The firm's principal client is Gen. Rashid Dostum, who, according to the documents, will pay $150,000 for its services.
Mr. Dostum's stated causes are "opposition to the Taliban regime" and "support of military and humanitarian aid to Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban opposition forces." He is not the only Afghan warlord who wants the United States to support (and fund) his campaign to control a post-Taliban country. His preemptive push for clout on Capitol Hill is but one sign of the power struggle ahead.
Mr. Dostum, who led the successful takeover of Mazar-e-Sharif Nov. 10, is part of a volatile ethnic mix of Northern Alliance commanders who want a stake in a new regime. Little unites them but opposition to the Taliban.
Mr. Dostum is a former communist who became a freedom fighter after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. But he and other militia commanders mastered infighting and brutality not so distant from the tactics of the Muslim hardliners. When reporter Ahmed Rashid of the Far Eastern Economic Review visited Mr. Dostum's headquarters in 1997, he saw bits of flesh and bloodstains in the muddy courtyard outside his compound. Earlier that morning the general had ordered a soldier caught stealing to be tied to the track of a tank and driven around the courtyard until his body was ground to mincemeat.
Battling for power in addition to Mr. Dostum, a Sunni Muslim Uzbek, will be Atta Mohammed, a Tajik fighter; Karim Khalili, who heads a group of Shia Muslim fighters in central Afghanistan; Ustad Mohaqiq, another Shia commander; and Ismael Khan, an independent warlord who successfully overtook the western city of Herat.
Asking the fighters to unite under a political leader, such as former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, is a tall order. Mr. Rabbani returned to Afghanistan last week, claiming he is the rightful head of state and taking control of several ministries and broadcasting services in Kabul. Mr. Rabbani was notably unsuccessful at uniting military factions during his four-year tenure, a failure that led to the takeover by the Taliban in 1996.
The fighters are more inclined to unite under a government formed by exiled king Mohammad Zahir Shah. Mr. Shah, at 86, is not physically strong enough to lead the country on his own. Popular military leaders worthy of U.S. support have been assassinated. The Taliban captured and killed Abdul Haq, a leader from the Pashtun majority, after he crossed into Afghanistan on Oct. 21 with 100 armed men seeking to ignite opposition to the Taliban. Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massood died days after a Sept. 10 suicide bomb attack.
In the battle heat, focusing narrowly on U.S. interests will become more challenging for the Bush administration. "The cells that feed the [bin Laden] network are the real base," noted Mr. Bodansky. "Sponsoring states really make the network function. If Osama bin Laden or any others in leadership are eliminated, the state sponsors can call up zillions of volunteers to avenge their deaths."
Experts boil down the list of bin Laden sponsors to Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan. Afghanistan, while obvious, doesn't count in the long run, said Mr. Bodansky. "Afghanistan is a non-country, a piece of real estate the size of Texas without civilized order of any kind. It has nothing to sustain [bin Laden]."
To take out bin Laden headquarters, however, the Bush administration made a deal with one bin Laden sponsor, Pakistan. Its border is bleeding terrorist supporters and Taliban fighters because many Pakistanis, including the government's intelligence service, have been on their side. Mr. Bodansky and other experts want the Bush administration to treat other sponsors-particularly Iraq-like the enemies they are.
Evidence against Saddam Hussein only grows. Czech officials confirm that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence agent (and consular affairs chief at its embassy) Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani in June 2000 and again last April, just before he was deported for spying. Iraqi National Congress officials, exiled in London, say they have information from a veteran intelligence officer who recently escaped Baghdad, indicating Saddam Hussein has bankrolled and controlled al-Qaeda since 1998. And other defectors are now corroborating reports that Iraq is operating a terrorist training camp in Salman Pak south of Baghdad, with a Boeing 707 fuselage and a chemical-weapons lab.
If kite-fliers in Kabul know anything, they will tell their counterparts in Baghdad: Give freedom a chance.