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Jewish World Review Nov. 6, 2001 / 20 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Morton Kondracke

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It's time to capture bases for ground war -- After a month of bombing, it's time for the United States to help anti-Taliban rebels seize some ground in Afghanistan, according to one of America's foremost academic experts on that country.

"We need to be inside Afghanistan, conducting guerrilla raids - not just bombing from a safe distance," said Professor Thomas Gouttierre of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Afghanistan Studies.

Promising targets include not only the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif, a much-publicized objective of the Northern Alliance, but also the large Shinand airfield near the northwestern city of Herat, which is under attack by forces under rebel leader Ismael Khan.

The Pentagon announced Tuesday that U.S. ground forces are assisting the Northern Alliance, but other experts say Khan so far is getting no aid from the United States.

In an interview, Gouttierre said the United States should try to win support among Afghan groups by offering weapons and money and by making it clear their country will be rebuilt after the war and that its post-Taliban government will not be dominated by Pakistan.

"They are all sticking their fingers in the wind to see what trends are building," Gouttierre said, referring to Afghanistan's disparate ethnic leaders. "They are waiting to see how committed we are going to be."

Although elite opinion in Washington, both liberal and conservative, is beginning to question the Bush administration's war plans, Gouttierre said, "It's premature to say it's not working. We didn't have plans in place on September 11."

A colleague of Gouttierre's, former U.S. Ambassador Peter Tomsen, said U.S. bombing has weakened the Taliban and predicted that "If we handle this right, we could win in the North by the start of Ramadan [Nov. 17] and defeat the Taliban by the end of the year."

Tomsen was the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992 and is now ambassador in residence at the center Gouttierre heads.

A former Peace Corps volunteer and graduate student in Afghanistan, Gouttierre speaks two Afghan languages and was a United Nations political officer there from 1996 to 1997.

With liberals in Washington calling for a bombing halt to avoid civilian casualties, and conservatives pressing for ground troops and intensified bombing, Gouttierre and Tomsen recommend a third course: less bombing of civilian areas and more Special Forces to equip Afghan rebels and go on raids with them to rout out Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and theTaliban regime.

"Bombing civilian areas is a public- relations disaster," Tomsen said. Gouttierre suggested that bombing during Ramadan be limited to "pinpoint attacks against Taliban military targets" and close air support of anti-Taliban rebels.

"We don't want to repeat the mistakes of the Russians by just bombing from a distance," Gouttierre said. "We have the advantage of not wanting to occupy the country. We need to make allies and be better guerrillas than the Taliban."

As a first step, he said, the United States should help the Northern Alliance capture Mazar-e-Sharif and help Ismael Khan capture Shinand.

Khan, an ethnic Tajik, was a leading commander in the war against the Soviet Union who later resisted the Taliban. They captured him, but he escaped and now is leading a rebellion that's captured the Northwest province of Ghor, near Herat.

Mazar-e-Sharif and Shinand are "reasonably unassailable redoubts which could serve as supply depots and staging points for raids elsewhere," Gouttierre said. "From Shinand it's a straight shot to Kandahar," the Taliban stronghold in Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan.

"We could get a lot of Pashtuns on our side," he said, referring to the dominant Southern tribe that so far has not rebelled against the Taliban.

"They hate having their foreign policy and social customs dictated by Arabs," he said, referring to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization, which finances and ideologically influences the Taliban.

To enlist the Pashtuns, he said, "We have to talk to them ourselves, not work through Pakistan. The Taliban, when it took over the country, disarmed other groups, so we have to rearm them and give them food and money.

"Most importantly, we have to say it over and over again: 'We're going to be there after this war and help reconstruct the country,' which we didn't do after the Soviets were driven out."

Gouttierre pointed out that it didn't help U.S. credibility when Pashtun rebel leader Abdul Haq was allowed to be captured and executed by the Taliban last week, with the CIA calling for a protective airstrike too late to save him. "It looked like Keystone Kops."

But he said another important Pashtun rebel, Hamid Qarzai, has returned to southern Afghanistan and may be able to rally his people against the Taliban.

Both Gouttierre and Tomsen stressed the importance of allowing Afghans to run their country after the war, not be dominated by Pakistan, whose intelligence service, the ISI, helped install the Taliban.

Gouttierre and Tomsen's advice seems sound to me. President Bush should listen to it.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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