The Fall of Kabul

Another plane has crashed in New York City. Vladimir Putin is in Crawford, Texas, eating barbecued steaks with George Bush. Al Gore might have won the election after all—or perhaps not. Anthrax has been discovered in a State Department mailroom. I realize there is a lot happening at the moment. But before we all move swiftly on to the next series of news events, I feel that it might be worth pausing, just for a moment, to ponder how rapid and how stunning and how important was the liberation of Kabul.

In my view, only one news organization captured the full drama of the city’s fall to the Northern Alliance. This was the BBC, whose chief foreign correspondent, John Simpson, actually walked into the city ahead of the Northern Alliance commanders. As dawn broke, he was greeted by cheering crowds, the sun glinting off their machine guns. From the footage that must have been filmed by Simpson’s cameraman Peter Jouvenal—like Simpson, an old Afghan hand—it is clear that the Northern Alliance really did wait, as it had promised, before entering the city. It is also clear that the Taliban really had evacuated completely: They emptied the national treasury, got into their pickup trucks, and left, leaving weapons and possessions behind them in their haste. It is even clear that the local populace really did hate the “foreign” members of the Taliban, the Pakistanis and the Arabs who had joined the cause of radical Islam. Simpson and Jouvenal filmed some Afghan soldiers hunting down a group of Arabs who had been hiding in a ruined building, and others photographed the corpses of other such “foreigners” who didn’t get away.

Above all, it is the speed of the collapse that is so stunning. A few days ago, the Northern Alliance controlled perhaps 10 percent of the country. Now they control 60 percent and could soon control more. Rumor has it that the Taliban have abandoned not only Kabul but also Kandahar, their movement’s capital, as well as other Afghan cities. They are now retreating in what the Pentagon has described as an extremely disorganized fashion, heading for the mountains from which they will, they claim, conduct guerrilla warfare.

The rapidity of their retreat tells us something about the relationship of the Taliban to the Afghan people: When it came down to it, very, very few Afghans were willing to defend the Taliban’s regime. Other than the Pakistanis and Arabs, most of the Taliban’s support appears to have melted away.

But the speed of the fall also tells us a great deal about the relationship between the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Or perhaps “relationship” is the wrong word: When it came down to it, the Taliban refused to give Bin Laden away, even though it meant they were utterly routed. Indeed, it now looks as if they didn’t give him up because they couldn’t give him up. The Taliban were not just completely sustained and supported by Bin Laden, the Taliban and al-Qaida had become, effectively, the same organization. Without al-Qaida, the Taliban could not have held on to power at all.

The liberation of Kabul will also, within a few days, tell us a great deal about the nature of the Northern Alliance. The evidence of the first 24 hours is encouraging: The statements of Abdullah Abdullah, the alliance’s foreign minister, have been moderate and accommodating. The leadership claim they still believe in the construction of a multiethnic government under the patronage of the former king and claim they have taken over the city and its key ministry buildings simply as a temporary way of maintaining the peace. What we don’t know is whether Dr. Abdullah and the moderate-sounding commanders are really in charge. If the city’s relative order breaks down over the next few days, we’ll know they are not.

Now, of course, we have by no means “won” this strange war. To “win” we will need to find both Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. “Winning,” in these circumstances, must also include the establishment of some kind of stable regime in order to prevent Afghanistan from turning back into a lawless terrorist haven. Nevertheless, the fall of Kabul is a major military and political achievement—and the fact that we all feel surprised by it tells us something about our own attitudes. It simply isn’t true, as even I was beginning to think last week, that air campaigns aren’t effective or that high-tech weapons cannot achieve much in low-tech countries. They are and they do—if they are used with allies on the ground, in order to achieve relatively sophisticated political ends.

Lobbing missiles at a remote training camp, which was our response to al-Qaida in the past, achieved nothing at all. Working closely with the Northern Alliance, on the other hand, we achieved a great deal—and with stunning speed. We learned this lesson in Iraq—where we didn’t follow it to its logical conclusion—and we relearned it in Serbia. Now we’ve learned it again in Afghanistan. When used intelligently, America’s military power can be as effective as it is overwhelming. I hope that we always try to use it wisely.