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Monday, 17 September, 2001, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
Afghanistan - a tough military option
Afghan-Pakistan border
Afghanistan is a rugged and inhospitable country
By BBC Eurasia analyst Malcolm Haslett

Superpowers of the past - from Imperial Britain to the Soviet Union - have found that military involvement in Afghanistan is full of danger.

The aim of any United States or international strike on Afghanistan in the present context would be rather different from previous foreign involvements in the country.

British and Soviet attempts to subdue the Afghans in the last two centuries aimed to establish imperial or ideological control.

Taleban fighters sitting on a Russian-made tank
Largely a guerrilla army, with a few tanks and aircraft attached

The expected aim of any strike in 2001 would be more limited, to force the Taleban authorities to stop harbouring Osama Bin Laden, the man blamed for master-minding terrorist attacks round the world.

But this more refined objective probably only makes its achievement even more complicated.

Afghanistan is a rugged, largely inhospitable country, whose land communications are severely hampered by the mountainous terrain which occupies much of its territory, especially in the centre and north-east.

High ridges divide the country into many valleys, most of them leading outwards from the centre.

Ethnic diversity

The fragmented nature of the terrain is complicated further by ethnic diversity.

Pashtus, the largest ethnic group, among whom the Taleban have their strongest support, make up almost 40% of the total population.

But Tajiks form a quarter and many of them are loyal to the opposition northern alliance - as are the Shiite Hazaras in the centre of the country, who form almost 20% of the population, and the Uzbeks, with over 5%.

So any land invasion would be fraught with difficulty, especially if it came from the plains of northern Pakistan to the south-east of Afghanistan.

Here Afghanistan is protected by a series of easily defensible mountain ridges.

General Mohammed Fahim, who replaced opposition leader Ahmed Shah Masood
Will the new northern alliance leader, Mohammed Fahim, be able to rally his forces?

Invasion from the north, across the river Pyanzh, might be easier - but Tajikistan and Russia have both ruled out co-operation with any international operation from this direction.

So could America and its allies try mounting a series of high-precision air raids using both planes and missiles?

This is possible for Afghanistan lacks any sophisticated system of defence installations. Air bases and ammunition dumps could be eliminated.

But Taleban military power depends much less on such things than on the passion of their fighting men and their ability to live off the land.

Fighting passion

Theirs is still largely a guerrilla army, with a few tanks and aeroplanes attached.

The only man to have successfully resisted the Taleban in recent years was the northern alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masood, who was assassinated last week - quite possibly by Bin Laden's emissaries.

His elimination makes plans for any meaningful military strike at the Taleban more difficult.

Masood might, with greatly increased international support, have turned the tables on the Taleban.

Whether his successors will be able to rally their forces to do the same seems doubtful.

Robert McNamara, former US Defense Secretary
"The Russians tried [to invade Afghanistan] and failed"
The BBC's Rob Parsons
"Afghanistan was Russia's Vietnam"
Defence Analyst, Robert Hewson
"It took the Soviets just a few days to reach Kabul and 10 years to get back out again."
See also:

13 Sep 01 | South Asia
Kabul braces for US attack
12 Sep 01 | South Asia
Taleban tense as US seeks targets
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