Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Geography and the Centers of Taliban Gravity

Geography and the Centers of Taliban Gravity

A month into the war on terrorism, criticism of the Bush administration has begun to mount. Critics on the left are decrying the loss of innocent lives; critics on the right are asking why more is not being done. Additional tensions arise over the question of whether the United States and Britain should continue the conflict through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. And concerns grow over whether the Northern Alliance is the ally the United States needs on the Sground.

To date the combination of aerial bombardment, Northern Alliance ground assaults, and the deployment of a small number of American and British special operations personnel is not producing noticeable results in defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Recent statements by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggest that the introduction of American and allied ground troops is now on the table. As the harsh Afghan winter approaches, however, the introduction of large numbers of ground troops may not be necessary to ensure victory. A limited but direct approach may plant the seeds for victory in Afghanistan come spring.

The Geography of War

Several commentators are now estimating that it will take up to 500,000 ground troops to seize and hold Afghanistan. These numbers would probably be accurate if the U.S. wanted to occupy the country. Afghanistan, slightly smaller than the state of Texas, has always justified its reputation as a geographic nightmare. Bordering six nations (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Pakistan, and Iran), the interior region of the country is predominantly mountainous—high elevations spreading southwest from the Hindu Kush and slightly lower elevations along the northeastern border with Pakistan—and a large degree of temperature variance. Internal lines of communication and transportation are highly constricted. There are roughly 21,000 kilometers worth of highways (with less than 3,000 km being paved), less than 30 km of railways that enter the country from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and 45 airfields, only 10 of which are paved. The Amu Darya River along the Turkmenistan and Uzbek border is the only navigable waterway for trade purposes. Lastly, approximately 180 km of natural gas pipelines enter the country from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Afghanistan’s demographics also make matters difficult. According to CIA figures, its population of roughly 27 million people is made up of the Pashtun (38 percent), Tajiks (25 percent), Hazara (19 percent), Uzbeks (6 percent), and other minor ethnic groups (12 percent). The Taliban is composed mainly of the Pashtuns, who also make up a sizeable population across the border in Pakistan. The Taliban in fact emerged from the religious schools in the Peshawar region of northern Pakistan. The Northern Alliance conversely is predominantly composed of Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. This explains Pakistan’s sensitivity toward the non- Pashtun Northern Alliance faction and its years of tacit and covert support for the Taliban. Simply put, Islamabad fears a state not aligned with its interests as its northern neighbor.

The Centers of Taliban Gravity

The American task is to lay its hands on the Taliban and uproot Osama bin Laden without leaving Afghanistan even more of a disturbance to its neighbors or a future base for terrorism. Thus far the U.S. has focused its efforts primarily on aerial bombardment of Taliban air defense, command and control, airfields, fixed military installations, and, more recently, deployed troop formations. Special operations personnel have conducted special reconnaissance, targeting, training and advising the Northern Alliance, and limited direct action missions such as the Ranger raid on the airfield at Kandahar. The hope thus far has been that such actions would give momentum to Northern Alliance military operations and shake loose Pashtun opposition to the much-disliked Taliban. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

The stakes of the current war on terrorism dictate that the U.S. must use all means necessary to eliminate Afghanistan as a safe harbor for the leadership of the al-Qaeda network. Therefore, it must act before the spring to make progress toward the goal of eliminating the Taliban sanctuary. Airpower alone, as demonstrated earlier in Iraq and the Balkans, will not achieve U.S. objectives. The introduction of U.S. and allied ground forces supported by air assets will be the only way to ensure success. While this war will not be easy or quick, three important centers of gravity in the Afghan theater of operations should be taken or attacked before the onset of winter.

  1. Kandahar. Kandahar is the political and cultural key to the Taliban regime. This city in southern Afghanistan is the home of Mullah Muhammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban. Seizing this city either by encirclement or direct occupation would do much to undermine the Taliban’s misconception that Americans are a feckless and weak enemy. Seizing the city would also open a second ground front for the Taliban, who are now being effectively engaged only by the Northern Alliance in the upper northern reaches of the country, and create a site for internal logistical and air support. An American and British airborne or heliborne assault against the city would be the only practical means of initial entry. After the airfield is taken, units specializing in military operations in urban terrain, such as the Marines, should be brought in to take the city itself. Pakistan certainly would not be happy, and so diplomacy with Islamabad will be crucial, but this consideration cannot take precedence over urgent strategic needs in the war on terrorism.
  2. Mazar-e Sharif. Much attention has been placed on Northern Alliance operations to take this town and its large Soviet-made airfield. Mazar-e Sharif would provide a major logistical site for American and allied military operations in Afghanistan. An added benefit is that the city is in close proximity to Kheyrabad, which would provide a railhead to the city of Termiz in southern Uzbekistan. With Uzbek cooperation this would allow for troop, equipment, and logistical resupply and open a major internal airfield for use in offensive military operations. If the city is taken in conjunction with Kandahar, the U.S. and its allies would have effectively split the country.
  3. Poppy Fields. The third major center of Taliban gravity is its drug trade. In 1999 Afghanistan surpassed Burma as the world’s largest producer of opium— approximately 1,670 metric tons cultivated on over 50,000 hectares. Reports vary, but it is said that these poppy fields supply at least $1 billion to the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda. In order to end this source of revenue, the use of weapons such as napalm and fuel air explosives should be used to wipe out both the fields and the storage facilities within Afghanistan. Special operations forces should be used for the delicate work of finding and targeting such assets to minimize collateral damage.

This strategy would allow the U.S. to avoid large-scale ground operations in the mountainous regions of the country— Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif are situated on relatively flat ground. The seizure of these two cities, moreover, would create forward operating bases for special operations units to conduct small-scale operations throughout the country as well as allow for the rapid deployment of combat search-and-rescue personnel should planes be shot down. Seizing these two cities would also force the Taliban to deploy their forces making them more vulnerable to attacks from the air, or yield their positions and retreat to the mountains. Finally, an additional benefit would be to coordinate and provide aid to displaced Afghans and show them that Taliban propaganda is patently false.


The United States does not have to introduce large numbers of ground troops in order do the job outlined above. Approximately 30,000 to 40,000 ground troops should suffice to seize and hold the cities of Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif. Such actions would deprive the Taliban of a claim of moral victory, and weaken both their strength and political momentum over the harsh winter months. In addition, the seizure of those two cities would reduce the logistical footprint of American facilities in the Gulf states and therefore create fewer points of friction between those regimes and their populaces. The introduction of American and allied ground troops would also provide a major boost for the forces of the Northern Alliance and allow them to take the war to the Taliban in other parts of the country. Last but not least, the suddenness and shock of such actions would encourage defections from the Taliban by those, always numerous in Afghanistan, who want to be with the winners, once the U.S. appears to be winning. At this juncture, too, Osama bin Laden’s own forces — the Arabs and other volunteers known as Brigade 055—would have been bloodied.

All of the above said, none of this will be easy or without casualties. But now is the time for American action. We have shed the illusion that we are invulnerable to terrorist attack. We must also shed the illusion that airpower alone will do the job. If the United States is to win the war on terrorism then it must begin the dirty work on the ground that will lead to victory in this first, but certainly not last, theater of operations.