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It’s been one of the greatest routs in military history, one more resembling the knights fleeing the Killer Rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail than any kind of orderly retreat. Yet Taliban leaders say that abandoning the cities and taking the fight to the mountains was always part of their plan. Sure it was. Throwing away weapons was also part of the plan, right? What better way to deceive us?
Still, it’s important to ask what threat the Taliban may pose as guerrillas. The answer appears to be: Not much.
To succeed, guerrillas need two things.
First, they require support from the population. They don’t need everybody’s hearts and minds, but they need a lot of them. Mao Zedong, in his writings on guerrilla warfare, referred to these people as the "water" in which the guerrillas would be the fish.
But as each Afghan village was liberated from the Taliban, the dancing, the men shaving their beards, and the women throwing off the hated burqa showed the contempt the Taliban have engendered even among their own Pashtun tribe. The puddles will be shallow for these fish.
Osama bin Laden
Second, despite the Hollywood characterization of rebels living entirely off the land and getting all of their weapons from attacks on government forces, guerrillas require outside aid. Virtually no guerrilla force in history has been able to sustain itself for long periods, much less prevail, without considerable outside help. (Castro’s takeover in Cuba stands out as a glaring exception.)
During the Vietnam war, China and the Soviet Union poured massive amounts of weaponry—including tanks and surface-to-air-missile batteries—into the harbor of Haiphong and down through China, whence they were brought down the Ho Chi Minh trail into the south. In the Afghan war against the Soviets, the mujahedeen received weapons from the U.S., Arab countries, Iran, and Pakistan, smuggled into the country over the vast borders with Iran and Pakistan.
But nobody is going to go to the bat for the Taliban or bin Laden.
Pakistan may have sympathy for the Taliban—though not for al Qaeda, which is sworn to bring down all moderate Islamic governments. But with India on one side and an already-hostile Afghan people on the other, Pakistan desperately needs to encourage good relations with Afghanistan and support the coalition effort to cut out the cancer of the Taliban and al Qaeda. This alone is enough to ensure the Taliban won’t succeed. But there’s more.
The Viet Cong (VC) were masters of taking advantage of jungle cover and of building extensive tunnel systems. Caught in the open, they were slaughtered just as our planes have slaughtered exposed Taliban. The Taliban and al Qaeda may try to do the same with Afghanistan’s extensive cave system.
But caves aren’t tunnels. The VC built their tunnel systems with tiny multiple openings. Although some were destroyed from the top by B-52s, deeper ones presented American troops with the nightmarish task of entering them individually to root out the enemy. The toughest, meanest soldier I ever met—a cadre at special-forces school—was one of the elite "tunnel rats" whose job it was to be the first to pop down the hole. Unlike tunnels, cave mouths can be widened, but not narrowed.
How many habitable cave systems are there in Afghanistan? Estimates vary, but it’s a lot. On the other hand, it’s also finite. The best caves are natural or they were laboriously hallowed out during previous wars, whether against the Soviets or even the Mongol warriors. You can’t just go and dig and willy-nilly dig a new complex like the VC did.
At that, only a limited number of these cave complexes are available for enemy use. We can cross the caves in the entire northern part of the country off the list, because of tremendous local hostility. Many of the best of the remaining caves are already known to the CIA, since they helped set them up during the war against the Soviet Union. Mujahedeen who fought the Soviets or more recently fought with the Taliban should be systematically interrogated with bounties paid for each inhabited or stocked cave they reveal.
Regarding the rest of the caves, every time anybody enters or exits one, they expose the opening to satellite cameras, Predator reconnaissance planes armed with Hellfire missiles, helicopters, troops on the ground and other forms of observation. Another idea would be to use native Afghans, who have probably developed practically a sixth sense for where cave openings might be. Our night-vision equipment is incredible, amplifying the light of a few stars into a view that’s practically like daylight. (One legacy of the Vietnam War is that the U.S. military has become the best night-fighting force in the world.)
The dreaded oncoming winter we keep hearing about will be our friend. The colder it gets, the bigger the infrared heat signatures at cave openings and ventilation ducts far easier. A fire just big enough to provide warmth for a few men will look like a neon sign reading: "Bomb here!"
Finally, every time a unit goes out to set an ambush or get supplies or even orders the Afghan version of Domino’s pizza, the hideout will be subject to betrayal by any hostile or reward-seeking villager.
The F-16 hunting its prey
There are lots of ways to skin this cat.
Caves have yet another disadvantage in that the hard rock makes them easy prey for destruction by a single warhead. The literally rock-hard walls will contain the blast, multiplying the shock wave many times over. Warheads can dropped through the top with those laser-guided "bunker-buster" GBU-28 5,000-pound bombs, or they can be fired in horizontally by F-15s using AGM-130 missiles or various aircraft with AGM-65 missiles. Whatever the weapon, its destructive power will be vastly disproportionate to its size.
Finally, don’t forget that we gained extensive cave-fighting experience against Japan in World War II and tunnel-fighting experience in Vietnam. Those skilled and fanatical cave fighters slowed us up and initially caused serious casualties, but continually fewer and fewer as we develop ways of sealing caves up without ever having to deal with the enemy inside. It would be ludicrous to think that at this stage of the fighting we’ll be able to continue to keep combat casualties at zero. But rarely will there be a need for soldiers to enter caves that haven’t already been blown out.
Conclusion: It may be slow and laborious, but each and every cave hideout the Taliban and al Qaeda try to operate out of can be systematically destroyed and the process has already begun. If the remaining Taliban and terrorists in Afghanistan think they have any chance of winning a guerrilla war, they’re wrong. If it’s martyrdom they seek, we’ll be happy to oblige.