Taking on the Taliban: A Pushover for a Superpower?

Category: World Affairs Topics: Afghanistan, Conflicts And War, Taliban Views: 1588

A soldier belonging to the ruling Taliban militia adjusts his multi-barrel rocket launcher at the northern frontline of Afghanistan capital Kabul, 12 August.

ISLAMABAD, Sept 18 (AFP) - During their meteoric rise to power, a typical Taliban offensive went something like this: after communication with a rival commander, Taliban jeeps would chase up a road, often carrying a bag of cash, and hence the frontline moved.

Whenever resistance was met, it was time to dig in and sit tight for a heavy rocket bombardment by the militia's fleets of mobile heavy rocket launchers, while the Taliban bandwagon sought out a weak or cash-hungry flank.

Since the collapse of Kabul's Russian-backed regime in 1992 and the rise of the Taliban in 1994, switching sides has been a central feature of Afghanistan's civil war, winning the so-called army of "religious students" control of close to 90 percent of the war-ravaged country.

For now, the Taliban are easily holding their own, in part thanks to their superior financing (and therefore firepower), and in part to a hopelessly divided opposition who have spent as much time fighting among themselves.

The Taliban's reclusive leadership commands an estimated 40-60,000 strong turban-clad army, to which can be added -- according to Jane's Intelligence Review -- a "Jehadi foreign legion" of Arabs from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Egypt, numbering around 8-12,000, all loyal to Saudi-born alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Their army's transport of choice is a huge fleet of Japanese-made pick-ups, backed up by rocket launchers and a number of rusty Soviet tanks.

And then there is the fleet of aged Soviet era jets -- Mig-21's, SU-22's and L-39's -- piloted by ex-communist army pilots who have flown for almost any side in Afghanistan's civil war that has paid their salaries.

They also operate a handful of creaky Russian helicopters, some Scud missiles (used for display purposes only) and just a handful of CIA-donated Stinger missiles.

All in all, the Taliban could easily be seen as no match for the world's most advanced superpower, thirsty for revenge after the September 11 kamikaze passenger jet attacks on New York and Washington for which bin Laden is the prime suspect.

In the event of a US attack, few analysts consider the Taliban hardy enough to enter into a conventional battle.

But taking to the hills, Afghan style, they would be a formidable -- or at least invisible -- opponent.

"American troops would not last five minutes in Afghanistan on their own,"

Pakistani intelligence source told AFP.

Any foreign invader also has history going against them: the British, the Iranians, the Soviets and now the Pakistanis have all discovered that meddling in the country can deliver little more than humiliation.

With any planning for a military operation fraught with pitfalls, analysts and intelligence sources suggest that one option under consideration is an attempt to unravel the Taliban by exploiting the more 'moderate' elements within their ranks.

In their rise to power, the Taliban have absorbed elements including ex-communists, royalists, Pashtun nationalists and traditionalists -- bringing together a veritable mix of diverse interests.

Furthermore, given the Taliban's initial ambition of opening up the country to transit trade and therefore peace is now all but buried, analysts believe the movement is a candidate for a split that could see bin Laden and his associates handed over.

"In case the Pakistani delegation fails in its current efforts with the Taliban, some sections of the Pakistani military could be tempted to propose the staging of a coup within the Taliban," a Pakistani source explained.

Such an effort may buy time, and if successful could maintain a pro-Pakistani regime across the border, but as Pakistan's Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar has warned: "Time is running short."

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Afghanistan, Conflicts And War, Taliban
Views: 1588

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