washington -- by sunday morn-ing, Washington time, the aerial bombardment of Afghanistan was underway. But by Sunday night the question still remained: what difference did it make? In a refreshing change of pace from previous exercises in cruise missile diplomacy, the Bush administration seems aware that a torrential downpour of aerial ordinance won't be enough to deal with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But according to a number of career military and intelligence officers interviewed, the real thrust of the bombing has considerably less to do with physical demolition than with psychological and political warfare.
"Let's be clear. There is no infrastructure over there," says Mel Goodman, a professor at the National Defense University and former chief of the CIA's Soviet/Third World analysis desk. "There's so little to bomb. Their air defences aren't that formidable. Neither is their air force. You can break communications, but that's temporary."
A veteran officer of the CIA's Directorate of Operations (DO) with extensive South Asian experience concurs. "You can batter that ground to death and eliminate what few facilities there are for training terrorists," the officer said, necessarily requesting anonymity. "And maybe you take out some ammo dumps and generators. But I don't know that that's really going to make much difference. So you knock out the electricity in Kabul and Kandahar. Big deal. Most of the country doesn't have electricity anyway, and electricity was never key to mujahedeen victory."
The real question, old spooks and soldiers say, is how the bombing will affect the notoriously fickle relationships between certain tribal factions that constantly shift allegiances between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance/United Front.
Spies and diplomats who worked in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s or during the Taliban's ascent in the 90s, my sources tell me, used to say, "You don't buy an Afghan, you rent him."
While the Taliban are certainly battle-hardened, Goodman points out that in the entire decade the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, "they (the Soviets) never brought anything to bear on the mujahedeen like what the U.S. unleashed today." He suspects the bombardment will cause some tribal commanders to throw in their lot with the Alliance.
According to the veteran DO officer, this is "exactly what we're after. We want to get them to go do it themselves. We're not screaming to send in the army, because it's an extremely difficult place to supply, and armour and artillery are almost useless."
Just how much assistance the Alliance is likely to get from U.S. and British special operations troops isn't clear, but some defence observers believe soldiers from U.S. Special Forces and Britain's Special Air Service are already on the ground, engaged at the very least in training Northern Alliance soldiers in the use of laser targeting devices, or perhaps conducting forward air control operations themselves.
According to the DO officer, while several television stories have shown elements of U.S. Special Forces training, conveying the notion that they're ready for covert missions in Afghanistan, he believes their role should be minimal because, despite their superior training, "they're going to get their clocks cleaned. All the training Special Forces have done will not, in my humble opinion, have them prepared, because they don't know that terrain."
Both Goodman and his anonymous former colleague are also concerned that too visibly close cooperation between the Northern Alliance and foreign troops could drive capricious freelance commanders into the arms of the Taliban. The Afghans have historically been hostile to outside invaders above anyone else, yet another reason Goodman says he "hopes to hell we don't put any of our own on the ground," except perhaps as forward air controllers.
These are all reasons, the veteran DO officer says, "to start the whole process (of the 1980s) over, only try to start it this time with somebody who subscribes to a different brand of Islam and who looks at running the country differently."
But to many, this is a proposition fraught with peril. During their brief time in power from 1992 to 96, the Northern Alliance hardly distinguished itself (except badly) in the peaceful governance and human rights departments. And while intense efforts are underway to form a broad pan-Afghan political coalition of anti-Taliban parties, some veteran diplomats and intelligence officers are skeptical that such a confederation would survive after a victory over the Taliban.
Says the veteran CIA officer, "(In the 80s) we eventually discovered that the mujahedeen factions were caching a substantial amount of the weapons and supplies we were providing through ISI (Pakistani intelligence), in anticipation of fighting each other after they got rid of the Soviets. I mean, they had a longer view than we did."