More costly than Vietnam?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Sep 18 11:34:02 MDT 2001

The Independent (London), September 18, 2001, Tuesday


By Robert Fisk

PRESIDENT BUSH is talking about a "crusade" - it would be difficult to find
a word more likely to enrage Muslims - but if he plans to wage it in
Afghanistan, the United States faces a military campaign more fraught and
potentially even more costly than Vietnam.

Ground troops may be necessary to seize Osama bin Laden but they will be
entering a country containing one tenth of the world's land mines, left by
Soviet occupation forces across 80 per cent of the land.

Besides, anyone who wants to invade Afghanistan needs friends. The Russians
had the communist government of Babrak Karmal. But, with the murder of Shah
Masood, the only serious opponent of the Taliban, by Arab suicide bombers
nine days ago, the United States hasn't a single friend in that cemetery of
foreign armies. So, are the Americans planning a mere attack by cruise
missiles? They fired 70 missiles at Osama bin Laden's camps after the
bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam - they knew where
they were, of course, because the camps were built by the CIA during the
Afghan-Russian war - but they did not touch Mr bin Laden. Do they plan to
use special parachute units to descend on the areas around Kandahar where
Mr bin Laden has been known to live in the past?

And what about those mines? If the Americans are even contemplating a
ground force, it can enter only from Pakistan - the most dangerous main
supply route it would be possible to find - and up the Kabul Gorge from
Jalalabad. But the Russians seeded the perimeters of Jalalabad, Kandahar,
Khost and Herat with anti-armour mines. There are, in Afghanistan today,
more than 10 million mines. They lie in fields, on mountainsides, beside
roads, around the big cities, along irrigation ditches. On average, between
20 and 25 Afghan men, women and children are blown up by mines every day -
even if we take the lower figure, this indicates 73,000 civilian casualties
from these mines in the past 10 years alone.

A military incursion would, therefore, need an army of mine clearance
specialists as well as soldiers, men who would have to inch their way over
the roughest terrain in the world - while under attack - to make the roads
and countryside safe for the Americans and their allies. Of Afghanistan's
29 provinces, 27 are littered with mines.

During their savage 10-year occupation, the Russians also planted thousands
of mines in "security zones" around Afghanistan's airports, power stations
and government installations. Western non- governmental organisations
working in the country two years ago estimated that it would cost pounds 80
per mine to clear Afghanistan's 10 million mines - and 45 days to clear
merely a square mile of land. There are now two million disabled men, women
and children in Afghanistan. No infantry can march across this territory.

And then there is that main supply route. Pakistan has already made clear
that it will not involve its own military in a campaign, although there are
suspicions that enough money might persuade General Musharraf - now
respectfully referred to as President by the Americans even though he took
the presidency illegally - to change his mind. However, the "Jihadi"
culture has already impregnated the Pakistan army and there is a real
possibility of unrest turning to civil war if the Americans arrived to
invade Muslim Afghanistan.

The very border areas through which a Western army would have to pass are
held by men loyal to the Taliban. On the Pakistani side of the frontier,
there are now 2,000 Taliban madrassas (schools) where religious teaching is
given not only to potential mujahedin but to Chechen and Tadjik fighters as
well. The policemen who guard these madrassas constitute a mere facade of
governmental control.

Even if the Americans penetrated Afghanistan, their shells would only
plough over the ruins. The Russians tried to destroy the Taliban's
predecessors with 10 years of bombing, destroying whole villages, with
their people, farm animals, fields, trees and mud huts. And still they
could not get rid of the mujahedin, still they could not - to use Mr Bush's
inappropriately folksy phrase - "smoke them out of their holes".

With Pakistan as its only, broken ally among Afghan-istan's neighbours,
with no friends inside the country and 10 million hidden land mines lying
across its mountains and fields and cities, Mr Bush's "crusade" looks more
than dangerous. We are now being told that the United States is no longer
afraid to take casualties. America, the President says, will have to accept
losses. He'd better be right if he sends his men into Afghanistan.

Louis Proyect
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