Frame Game

The Incredible Shrinking Taliban

Mazar-i-Sharif. Herat. Kabul. Jalalabad. Kandahar. Faster than you can say ” quagmire,” the Taliban is fleeing cities across Afghanistan. A week ago, critics of the U.S.-led military campaign were insisting that the Taliban wouldn’t budge, that American bombs were only killing civilians, that Ramadan and winter would lock in place the Taliban’s advantage on the ground, and that the coalition supporting the war was disintegrating. Now the Taliban is disintegrating. Why? Because the crisis of confidence Osama Bin Laden sought to foment in the West has taken hold in Afghanistan instead. The Taliban’s aura of invincibility has burst like a stock bubble. Everyone, including the Taliban, is selling.

Bin Laden’s game plan was the opposite. The purpose of the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., wasn’t just to kill 5,000 people. It was to intimidate and demoralize 5 billion. That’s the point of terrorism. Al-Qaida targeted the most powerful country on Earth and hit it hard enough to send the world a message: Nobody is safe from us. Do as we say.

The videotaped speeches released by al-Qaida over the past month have hammered this theme. “There is America, full of fear,” Bin Laden boasted at the beginning of his first speech on Oct. 7. In a tape released two days later, spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith warned, “The Americans must know that the storm of airplanes will not stop, God willing, and there are thousands of young people who are as keen about death as Americans are about life.” In a third video, Ghaith proclaimed, “The storms of planes will not stop until you drag your defeated tails from Afghanistan, not until you raise your hands from the Jews in Palestine, not until you lift the embargo on the Iraqi people.” He even alluded to the stock market plunge triggered by the Sept. 11 attacks. By supporting Israel, President Bush “has sacrificed his people and his country’s economy,” said Ghaith. The allusion to the U.S. economic slide, coupled with the use of that slide to undermine Bush’s domestic political support, underscored al-Qaida’s strategy of magnifying the damage of Sept. 11 through a self-fulfilling cycle of fear, defeatism, and decline.

The same cycle was supposed to undo the military campaign in Afghanistan. In the Oct. 7 video, senior al-Qaida strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri told Americans, “Your government left afraid from Lebanon and from Somalia and from Afghanistan. And today, your government is leading you to another lost battle where you will lose your sons and your money.” Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar scoffed that American invaders would “find the same destiny as the communists.” Taliban spokesman Abdul Salam Zaeef told reporters that the regime had a waiting list of volunteers and was ready for “a long war.” He boasted that the Taliban had shot down U.S. aircraft and killed supporters of a southern rebellion. The message to domestic opponents was to lie low. The message to the United States was to give up.

It almost worked. In the north, the Taliban’s enemies failed to advance. In the south, they failed to speak up. The American press suggested that the war had “bogged down,” that the United States had “underestimated” the Taliban, and that the U.S.-led coalition was “falling apart.” Complaints of futility and pointless bloodshed grew into an outcry to halt the bombing.

Then, last Friday, Mazar-i-Sharif fell. The Taliban’s aura was punctured. In accelerating succession, other cities fell. War can’t move that fast. It takes days to move your own tanks and troops, much less to push back the enemy’s. But even in Afghanistan, the information age has arrived. What traveled from city to city in minutes wasn’t the armies of the Northern Alliance, but the news of the Taliban’s defeat. Civilians and Taliban soldiers who had resented the regime lost their fear of it. Those who had supported the regime lost their confidence in it. Taliban armies didn’t lose their cities in battle; they defected or fled. Each flight or defection, in turn, provoked others. Sell, sell, sell.

Now the rout has turned south. Pashtun warlords who refused to stand up to the Taliban a week ago are rushing to claim pieces of its carcass. Some Taliban troops fleeing cities are being wiped out by U.S. bombers. Others are regrouping in the mountains, forgetting that they lack the supply lines and popular support to win the kind of guerrilla war they waged against the Soviets. The rest, according to today’s New York Times and Washington Post, are “fading away,” “disappearing,” “vanishing,” “dissipating,” “becoming phantoms,” and “returning to their home villages.”

Morale matters. The army that loses self-confidence and the confidence of its people loses the war. Slobodan Milosevic used that weapon against us in Kosovo. Bin Laden and the Taliban tried the same thing in Afghanistan. In Kosovo, we refused to buckle, and the Serbs gave way. The same is now happening in Afghanistan. “I’m not a psychiatrist,” U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shrugged yesterday when asked about the enemy’s flight. Maybe not, but the Taliban is definitely getting shrunk.