DEBKAfile, October 28, 2001

"The United States-led Afghanistan campaign is facing grave difficulties as it enters its fourth week, notwithstanding the many tons of ordnance dropped on key Taliban targets. Saturday, the Taliban claimed to have repulsed an opposition offensive backed by US air strikes in the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sherif. While Kabul suffered its heaviest US air pounding yet, the Taliban claimed to have captured and hanged five opposition Northern Alliance commanders, a day after executing the Pashtun guerrilla leader Abdul Haq. This was a serious blow to US plans for Afghanistan’s post-war government. Haq’s body will be handed to his relatives in Kabul who will take it to Peshawar Sunday for burial.

In another tribally-related event, thousands of Pakistani Pashtuns, whose cousins dominate the Afghanistan Taliban, attempted to cross into Afghanistan Saturday to join the war against the United States. They crossed paths with the millions of Afghan refugees heading in the opposite direction away from the fighting.  By mistake, US warplanes blitzed the third Red Cross food relief store.

In these circumstances, the strategists in Washington plotting the next stages of the war are, according to DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence experts, considering the possibility of turning to tactical nuclear weapons and assigning Russian troops a larger Russian battlefield role. Friday, October 26, Russia launched its newest military satellite, Molniya (Lightning), which is equipped for military communications as well as intelligence gathering and surveillance, a necessary appurtenance for the introduction of large-scale Russian forces into Afghanistan via Tajikistan.

Saturday, October 27, British premier Tony Blair spoke of the danger of Osama bin Laden acquiring chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons. The British leader is unlikely to have raised this dire possibility spontaneously, without prior consultation with the White House. The events leading up to the contemplation of nuclear warfare in Washington and London include also the spreading of anthrax contamination and the rising menace of further terrorist strikes inside the United States.

The four central difficulties facing the US-led campaign as it goes into its fourth week are:

A. Two obstacles in the military sphere: The intense bombardment – by bomber and missile - of the Taliban’s political and military backbone has proved ineffective. Physical structures were demolished, but the regime’s political and religious leadership, its military command, its fighting strength and its arsenals, remain virtually unscathed. Notwithstanding the massive concentration of troops around Afghanistan, the United States and its allies are clearly short of the ground strength for conducting a full-scale military campaign inside Afghanistan.
US military strength in its present field strength has no way of “smoking the terrorists out of their holes” as President Bush promised the nation at the outset of the war.

B. One intelligence obstacle: The United lacks a sufficient number of counter-intelligence agents inside Afghanistan – or even competent professionals in the surrounding countries, Pakistan and Central Asia. The Al Qaeda network and the allied Egyptian Jihad Islami field double as many intelligence operatives, or spies, as the West can muster in the target areas, enabling their leaders to stay one or more steps ahead of the United States.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly ’s terrorism experts, in special report, describes how the bin Laden counterintelligence apparatus functions: In addition to Afghanistan, bin Laden runs agents in Somalia, the Comoro Islands, the Hadramauth region of Yemen , Kosovo, Chechnya, the Ferghana Valley of Central Asia, the Philippines and Lebanon.

As approved charities, many of apparently innocent Islamic societies subsist on local public funds, municipal and national – or even international allocations as UN-approved non-governmental bodies. As such, these Islamic societies appoint representatives or envoys, who act secretly as bin Laden’s liaison agents with the undercover operatives he maintains on the staffs of various international bodies.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly ’s terrorism experts reveal that bin Laden’s spy networks operate under cover at UN Headquarters in Manhattan and Geneva. US and Pakistani intelligence are certain that the many of the relief workers in the Afghan refugee camps are clandestine Al Qaeda agents, who exploit international food, medical care and personnel carriers to transfer people and messages to sensitive corners of war-struck Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the 1993 Somali civil war, Bin Laden took advantage of UN and US relief programs around the country to move his fighting strength from region to region, feed them and provide them with medical care.

C. Musharref’s shaky situation : President Pervez Musharref is deeply worried about the hardiness of his regime – even after the parade of diplomatic cheerleaders who visited him last week, including Saudi foreign minister Saudi al-Faisal and Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer – with German chancellor Schroeder due next week.
Musharref has little or no support in the streets of Pakistan and is losing ground among his army officers too. The most dangerous development is the decision of Pakistan’s anti-Taliban Pashtun clans, together with the Baluchs, to withhold their support from US efforts to unseat the Taliban in Kabul.

D. Terror at home: The dread in America generated by the outbreak of anthrax in US power and media centers. The infection is spreading slowly but insidiously, accompanied by forecasts of more terror attacks awaiting the American people.

Political pressure is building up in Washington to deflect the ferocity of the world war President Bush declared on terror. Reports appearing in the Washington press – in today’s Washington Post, for instance - quote US intelligence as attributing the anthrax attack to domestic right-wing extremists. Earlier, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden warned that the US risked being perceived as a “hi-tech bully” if it did not shift the emphasis from air attack to ground operations.

DEBKAfile ’s military experts believe that America’s problems with fielding large-scale ground forces are only beginning. As of Tuesday, October 23, the Taliban have been taking the initiative. Ignoring the America bombers overhead and taking advantage of the first winter storms in east and central Afghanistan, they managed to plant small groups of spies behind Northern Alliance front lines, a feat that would not have been feasible without inside help from Pashtun tribal kinsmen willing to betray their commanders.

These plants and turncoats made it possible to corner Abdul Haq, one of the mujaheddin heroes of the anti-Soviet war, who entered Afghanistan secretly last week on a mission to persuade Afghan tribal chiefs to support a new government. He and his two companions were summarily executed, as were five of the Northern Alliance commanders taken captive Saturday.

These moves left the Northern Alliance in serious disarray.

At the same time, Taliban undercover agents infiltrated the Pashtun areas on the Pakistan side of the frontier, some disguised as refugees, and are stirring up a movement of volunteers to join the Taliban battle against the Americans. They are also provoking agitation inside Pakistan against the Musharref government’s support for the US campaign.

In a separate joint pro-Taliban operation, Pakistani Pashtuns blocked the key transport link, the Karakoram Highway, between Afghanistan and China.

In short, the Taliban has developed the means for responding to a heavy US-led ground action in Afghanistan, if one can be developed, by expanding its military and subversive operations both inside Pakistan and behind Northern Alliance lines. It is also capable of painful sabotage operations to obstruct US ground troops.

Therefore the talk about the United States preparing for war in Afghanistan’s caves – as though the main body of Al Qaeda and Taliban combatants have taken refuge in caves – does not fit the facts. The first early snowfall in the northern mountains and valleys may be the worst obstacle the US ground campaign will have to contend with.