PARIS – Call Sigmund Freud: America is back in Vietnam. In one of his daily briefings earlier this week, Tommy Franks, America’s “Afghan General” – orchestrating the war from his room at the US Central Command in Tampa, Florida – said that he was confident of the success of his new campaign “in Vietnam.” Tommy’s Freudian slip may be more self-fulfilling than he would ever suspect.
We’ve seen this movie before. Now it’s back, renamed “Anaconda.” And any resemblance to a creepy Hollywood B-grade movie remake is not just mere coincidence. Just like in the Tora Bora, Afghans enveloped in their blankets huddled against a backdrop of snowy mountains once again contemplate the rumbling aerial parade of B-52s, F-16s, AC-130s, and gaze at the smoke mushrooms originated by relentless bombing.
According to the new script, coalition forces led by the US – a total of more than 2,000 impeccably-equipped men backed by deadly airpower – are fighting against a force of only hundreds of hardcore Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters dug deep into the snowy mountains of Paktia province at more than 9,000 feet. Operation Anaconda has been in the pipeline since January, and final planning was completed in the last two weeks of February.
Critics of America’s war on terrorism might agree with what lieutenant-general Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine commander, said, that there is “the belief that Americans can only fight from 35,000 feet.” In the small 180-square-kilometer theater of war in which the latest engagement in the east of Afghanistan is taking place, America is using nothing less than 10 B-52s, more than 30 F-16s and two AC-130 Special Operation gunships, plus eight Apache helicopters providing support. France is contributing 16 fighter jets plus six Mirages based in Kyrgyzstan. Thus, the fact remains: the bulk of Anaconda is being fought from 35,000 feet. It’s still essentially an air war. The difference is that the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are now using their shoulder-fired Russian SA-7 surface-to-air missiles to deadly effect.
What’s happening on the ground follows almost to the letter the script at the Tora Bora in December. Local elders say that more than half of the Afghan mujahideen involved on the US are opportunists swarming in from other provinces – obviously lured by the promise of fistfuls of dollars. Tribal warfare is the norm in Paktia province – just like everywhere else in Afghanistan.
Commanders are said to be passing disinformation to the Americans to get some easy cash and to settle scores with their opponents. A commander in Gardez, the capital of the province, said that the coalition forces supposedly captured dozens of “Chechens.” In Afghanspeak, by this he does not necessarily mean fighters from Chechnya, but foreign non-Arab fighters. The foreigners are now being held by the Americans. There’s absolutely no information about their identity. Inevitably they’ll soon end up in the American gulag in Guantanamo in Cuba.
Asia Times Online learned that local populations in and around the battleground, in Shah Kot, assure that there are no terrorists or al-Qaeda fighters in the region. Take that with a pinch of salt. They insist that the villages being destroyed are Afghan, and not controlled by Arab-Afghans; and they say that Americans are paying US$200 a day per Afghan mujahideen so that they can kill other Afghans. This is no Disneyland: no well-intentioned and sharply-dressed Hamid Karzai would be able to say that the locals are in tune with Kabul. In this remote tribal area, being pro-American is almost as tricky as being an al-Qaeda operative. Journalists – especially American – could end up like Daniel Pearl: dead.
On a more cultural note, France’s special envoy, media-hungry writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, has claimed at the French Cultural Center in Kabul that there is a third “hidden Buddha” in Bamiyan – a contemporary of the 1,500-year-old twin masterpieces bombed into smithereens by the Taliban in March of last year. Levy says that the Buddha has been buried “for centuries, and had been referred to by Chinese pilgrims.”
He could be referring to Hiuan Tsang, one of the great Chinese masters of Buddhism, but Tsang does not say anything about a buried Buddha in his famous 7th century pilgrimage in the “Greco-Buddhist” country (northern Afghanistan). Levy says that the Taliban didn’t know about the Buddha either, and he adds that the Guimet Museum in Paris is now trying to organize a French archeological mission to find the hidden Buddha.
But pacifist hidden Buddhas are obviously far from the thoughts of American troops who for the first time since 1993 are involved in real ground combat. Almost 10 years ago the fighting took place in Mogadishu, Somalia. The episode of the downing of two US helicopters that left 18 soldiers dead ended up – where else – in Hollywood, where it turned into an even bigger cinematic flop, although directed not by a Pentagon general but by Ridley Scott of Gladiator fame.
After the debacle in Mogadishu, the US withdrew from Somalia – something that the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, never failed to emphasize. The 10th Mountain Division and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment were present in Mogadishu. Now they also have soldiers in the Paktia mountains.
They’re facing a puzzle. No one knows how to sort out friend from foe. But one thing is sure. America will have to get ready to fight a real guerrilla war all over Afghanistan. The Taliban and pockets of al-Qaeda counteroffensives have already started in Paktia and Khost. These are moving to Logar province, south of Kabul, and they will soon move to Wardaz province, and then to Kunar. The resistance is likely to spread to Uruzgan province – where Taliban leader Mullah Omar is in hiding – and to Helmand province, from where the opium flows west, and from where bin Laden and selected al-Qaeda leadership may have crossed to southeast Iran en route to Iraq.
Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul is trying to put the bravest possible face on what is in essence a total breakdown of law in countless Afghan provinces. Even an official campaign to “chase al-Qaeda terrorists” has been set up. It seems as if Kabul is learning fast how to use Washington’s tactics.
Over a copy of an afghani banknote offering a reward of 150 million afghani (about $4,000), one can read the following statement, in Pashto and in Dari: “Dear citizens, the al-Qaeda terrorists are the enemies of your independence and your freedom. Come and find them, and tell the information services so you can collect the great prize.” We’ve seen this movie before. The Pentagon believes it is squeezing the enemy. But Anaconda might just be the first chapter of Tommy’s Vietnam.