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Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd: A surprising retreat

Don Shepperd is a former U.S. Air Force major general and now a military analyst for CNN.  

Update: What's happened is a much accelerated collapse of Taliban forces throughout Afghanistan. No one predicted this rapid a collapse. Just last week, we were talking about military operations extending into the spring and perhaps summer.

What normally causes such a collapse, as in Vietnam in 1975 and Iraq in 1991, is that forces lose hope. They realize they cannot talk, they cannot walk, they cannot resupply, and if they fight, they get killed. So they try to retreat to an area where they're able to regroup, which it appears the Taliban are doing toward Kandahar.

What's different in this scenario vs. Vietnam and Iraq is that in addition to the sudden military collapse and retreat, you have the population in all areas rising up and quickly joining the advancing forces -- fueling and adding to the rout of the Taliban.

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Before the war, the numbers were 50,000 Taliban troops plus about 17,000 al Qaeda fighters arrayed against 15,000 Northern Alliance. Now we see tens of thousands of troops that appear to be aiding and abetting the Northern Alliance and the populace rising up to help overthrow the Taliban and secure these cities.

Impact: Everybody was surprised, including the Pentagon and the Northern Alliance. The difficulty is that the military situation has far outrun the diplomatic solution for which we were hoping. We did not want the Northern Alliance to go into Kabul. But when they went there and found it deserted, it was almost impossible to keep them out. So now we have to go backward to find stability and a political solution.

People ask, what was the decisive thing that caused this? Air power was decisive, but also decisive was the insertion of Special Forces that got the intelligence from opposition forces and began to mark targets for airstrikes. Of course, the ground action by the Northern Alliance forces itself was vital, and their moving into these areas has made all the difference. It's the combined effects of military power that caused this rapid collapse.

Talk of the Taliban retreat from Kabul being a trap is absolute nonsense. Their communications have been cut, their military stocks have been decimated; they have no way to transport themselves and carry the things they need to fight a war. It's all been taken away from them by air power and ground power.

Tactics: What is both good and difficult about the Taliban's southward retreat is you can concentrate all your sensors on a smaller area to find Taliban military elements and search for al Qaeda cells. But as they retreat, they are mixed in with refugee columns, and you have rapid advances by Northern Alliance and opposition forces. So it becomes difficult to apply air power when things are this fluid and rapid because you don't want to hit innocent civilians or your side.

Another question is: Will large numbers of U.S. forces be inserted now? I doubt it. I think you will see the United States establishing airheads to bring in humanitarian relief. The United States would much rather see an insertion of Islamic forces from nations such as Turkey, Indonesia and other Islamic countries that are not Arab ideally under a U.N. mandate. The Arabs are associated with al Qaeda, which has occupied the country for the last few years and brought on this misery. The Afghan people do not want to see Arabs in there period.

The Afghans have a long tradition of defecting to one side, then re-defecting when the tide turned. So we're seeing a lot of defections beside the populace rising up. Normally volunteers that come into fight, like the Arab and Pakistani volunteers, are highly motivated and likely to fight harder, which is what we seem to be seeing.

Strategy: You want to establish a coalition government in Afghanistan. Then you move on to the next target against terrorism, which is probably going on out of the headlines. Obviously, you're going to be moving into other places; it remains to be seen where. It doesn't mean that you move on all of them militarily -- there will be a massive global push, using financial, military and other means to eliminate support of these terrorist cells.

Digging out all the al Qaeda cells will take some time. On the other hand, al Qaeda cells need the support of the local populace wherever they are. The locals know where they are and can provide intelligence. And they have to get supplies through and to various areas. So the popular anti-Taliban uprising in Afghanistan makes it much easier to find these terrorist cells. I predict the populace, as opposed to Northern Alliance forces alone, will be key to finding the surviving al Qaeda cells in Afghanistan and rooting them out.

Three things could logically happen next. One, you could see a massive last stand by the Taliban military, although they will be decimated by air power and ground forces as they rapidly move in. Another thing you could see is the Taliban surrender and make the best deal they can. Lastly, you could see pro-Taliban forces melting into the hills north and northeast of Kandahar to fight an extended guerrilla campaign. That sounds easy, but it makes them very ineffective as fighting forces, and they're also subject to continued airstrikes.


U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.), a former NATO supreme commander, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. David Grange (ret.) and Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd (ret.) are serving as CNN military analysts during the war against terror. Their briefings will appear daily on

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN is sensitive to reporting any information that could endanger lives or operations.


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