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Analysis: Taliban in retreat -- or regrouping?

Soviet troops were forced to retreat
Soviet troops were forced to retreat  

By CNN's Avril Stephens

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The speed of the Taliban's pull-back from major Afghan towns and cities has left some world leaders fearing the withdrawal may be strategic.

In the 1980s, the former Soviet Union swept through Afghanistan, taking Kabul in about two days -- similar to the current rout by the Northern Alliance.

But after a protracted and agonising 10-year war, the Soviets withdrew defeated, having suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the smaller Mujahadeen who had deployed deadly guerrilla tactics from the mountains.

Some world leaders in the global coalition against terror, including the UK's Tony Blair, have predicted the Taliban pull-back to the mountainous south signals a "collapse."

But others, including high military-ranking officials in Pakistan, Russia and the United States, caution against triumphalism, saying the "retreat" is just a prelude to a sustained guerrilla-type war.

The Taliban is not finished, Russia's President Vladimir Putin has said, referring back to the Soviet experience.

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U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem has said it is premature to characterise the Taliban's losses as a total collapse.

"We still have the job of finding and getting al Qaeda. We still have the job of finding and getting the Taliban, the leadership specifically," he added.

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Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, Chief of the Defence Staff, recently pointed out that the past experience of wars in Afghanistan should serve as a warning to the U.S.-led coalition while examining the options for sending in ground troops.

The Taliban itself has warned that it is just re-grouping. The supreme leader of the Taliban Mullah Omar warned the U.S. would learn a "tougher lesson" in Afghanistan than the Soviets.

The Soviets occupied the whole of Afghanistan after a lightning war in 1978. But within about a year the Mujahadeen had developed its military tactics, with devastating effect.

However, Andrew Garfield, Director of the International Centre for Security Analysis, at King's College, London, says comparisons with today's conflict are unhelpful.

He said: "The experience of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan is far more about the inadequacies of their strategy, tactics and capabilities than it is about the effectiveness of the Mujahadeen."

He said Putin was currently promoting the lurking danger of the Taliban because "the Russians find it extremely difficult to admit how very bad they fought their war in its early stages."

Garfield said the U.S. was reluctant to admit the Taliban were in total collapse because, he said, they "did not want to send in ground troops."

The global coalition can succeed where the Soviets -- and before them, the British -- had failed, because of superior equipment, forces, and the recognition of the need to win over the Afghan minds, he added.

The Soviet invasion alienated the vast majority of the indigenous Muslim population and provided a common cause that united the many disparate and often-warring tribes in that country, Garfield said.

As a result, they were unable to secure the support of any segment of the Afghan population -- unlike the Northern Alliance, which has been greeted by cheering Afghans as well as defections from the Taliban during the journey south to Kabul.

Also the Soviets had deployed ill-equipped and badly trained forces from the eastern part of their empire, he said.

It was only later that the Soviets refined their tactics, bringing in their Spetsnaz special forces and surveillance technology which enabled them to pinpoint their targets more accurately.

But by then, the war had been lost in the minds of the Soviet public, and with the arrival of Mikhail Gorbechev in Moscow and the introduction of perestroika, or restructuring, the campaign was sure to end.

The Mujahadeen had also received enormous support from the West and Pakistan in terms of equipment, knowledge and training.

Now, the Taliban "can only call upon a fragmented army of poorly-trained troops with inferior command and control capabilities, poorly maintained and largely obsolete equipment and weapons, limited supplies, inadequate transport and no external support," Garfield said.

"Also the capabilities of the coalition are many times greater than those of the Soviets, even at the end of their occupation."

Garfield said he supported the use of coalition ground force troops as it would give superior power, flexibility, speed and precision firepower.

"In contrast, the Taliban will have to move largely by foot, will be forced to hide in the mountains and cities, will have little access to supplies and virtually no intelligence on which to plan and act," he said.

"It is also worth noting that unlike Vietnam, with its sub-tropical rain forests, movement in mountainous terrain and across deserts is highly visible."

The Taliban is also unlikely to receive the same support the Mujahadeen had been given by locals -- even in the Pashtun areas, he said.


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