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In Afghan fight, geography is key

Battles on Afghan soil have challenged the world’s greatest military powers, in part because of the Hindu Kush mountain range. Of all Afghanistan’s imposing features, the Kush may best explain the country’s culture of strife. MSNBC’s Jon Bonne reports.
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When they slogged into Afghanistan two millennia ago, the Greeks named its mountains the Caucasus: literally, the “ends of the world.” Truth be told, those mountains — now called the Hindu Kush — are neither the harshest nor the tallest in that part of the world. But they divide the country like the veins of a leaf, and of all its features, the Kush’s vertiginous peaks may best define how life is lived and wars are fought in Afghanistan.

Among its many virtues for Afghans, the mountains of the Kush — many reaching above 20,000 feet — have helped repel invasions for centuries. For that reason and others, battles on Afghan soil have challenged even the world’s greatest military powers. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s recent observation — “It’s all been very clear from the beginning that this is a very difficult situation on the ground” — has been a constant for thousands of years.

In 329 B.C., Alexander the Great brought his army over the Kush on the treacherous 12,000-foot Khawak Pass, which carried his thousands of troops up into thin air. The easiest of three options over the Kush, it still took two months to cross.

The Shomali Plain, outside what is now Kabul, has long been a magnet for bloodshed: Alexander established a base camp there, and 13th-century Afghan troops rallied there to defeat Genghis Khan and his hordes. More recently, the Soviets used it as a base of operations in their ill-fated war during the 1980s.

Now it serves as one of the roughly defined front lines where the Northern Alliance and the Taliban face off.

Vanished roads
Some 180 miles north lies the alliance’s other major front line, just outside the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Between the two lies a dense expanse of jagged, often impenetrable terrain — including the important Panjshir Valley, where Alexander once marched his troops and where the alliance now struggles to keep a foothold on its territory.

There are remains of what once was a sturdy north-south road from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif, but decades of war with the Soviets and between Afghan warlords have left the route impassable. Its key passage, the Salang Tunnel, running through the top of the Kush, has been destroyed by battle and avalanches, and is kept closed by the alliance.

“That was the obvious way to the north,” said Lee Coldren, director of the State Department’s Office of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh in the mid-1990s. “That can’t be used at all anymore.”

Instead, a journey to the south relies on a circuitous 250-mile route from the northern border through the Panjshir Valley, where alliance forces can gather supplies and rally troops.

The trip can take up to a week over barely passable roads and across the 14,000-foot Anjuman Pass — a nerve-rattling trek even for an experienced Afghan driver.

“Getting stuff out of the Panjshir Valley is not that difficult,” said Coldren, who spent years posted in Kabul, “but getting stuff into the Panjshir is very difficult.”

Yet the Panjshir remains key for the alliance — or any force hoping to capture the plains and push south to Kabul — because it can be used to supply front lines in a war.

Frustrating fronts
The sharp terrain and the difficult trip between north and south have led to a geographical stalemate: Alliance troops can’t push forward and have only the mountains to fall back on. The war on the ground has largely been stagnant so far.

The front lines move only marginally, when they move at all.

Both sides struggle to resupply their ranks with food and munitions. The Taliban can quickly restock their supply lines out of Kabul, but their troops in the north are largely cut off by mountains, and by the alliance factions dominating the northeast provinces.

The alliance has just the opposite problem: Its troops in the north have some access to supplies — especially those brought over the borders from Uzbekistan or Tajikistan — but alliance troops in the south near Kabul are hundreds of miles from key supply depots; almost everything must be shipped through the Panjshir.

Winter flights
Wintry conditions are now beginning to settle in; roads will soon be covered in yards of snow, which won’t thaw until well into next spring. The Anjuman Pass, for example, will likely close within a month and stay closed until the spring thaw. Aid workers hope to buy snowplows to keep open some precipitous mountain roads and carry food into remote regions as the winter grinds much of the country to a halt.

By midwinter, large portions of the country will be well below freezing; even Kabul will average just over 20 degrees by January.

There remains an apparent solution: aircraft. The United States’ massive fleet of planes could help get food and supplies to alliance troops on both fronts — similar to recent U.S. missions to drop ammunition for alliance forces in the north.

“What we are striving for in the short term is to help the Northern Alliance reconstitute a viable ground logistics corridor,” said retired Army Col. Dan Smith, chief of research for the Center for Defense Information and an intelligence adviser in Vietnam. “They don’t have that, which is part of the reason they don’t have the food or ammunition to mount a ground assault on any of the major cities.”

The Air Force’s humanitarian food drops show how air power remains key to operations. Distributing food, a task daunting even to the most savvy logisticians, can be achieved in a handful of sorties by lumbering C-130 transports, which can cross the Kush in a few hours.

Some aid agencies have condemned U.S. military efforts, but even they resort to planes when delivering food — usually months’ worth — to the country’s remote central highlands, which remain all but cut off by snows nearly half the year. When a ground trip is possible, food often must travel thousands of miles by road or rail to get inside the landlocked nation, said Khaled Mansour, spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program in Islamabad.

“There are areas which are not accessible by cars, there are areas that are closed off in the winters, and it’s one of the most heavily mined countries in the world,” Mansour said. “I think this is one of our worst logistical nightmares.”

Placing ground troops
Using U.S. planes to shuttle supplies is one thing; setting up a permanent base of ground troops is entirely another. The Pentagon has placed what it has described as “handfuls” of troops in northern regions, and plans to bolster their ranks. Bringing troops in from the north is a relatively straightforward process, since the United States has relatively friendly territory to the north and east, and has the Kush as a natural barrier in case of an assault from the south.

That advantage would be erased should U.S. troops make their own push south toward Kabul. Military commanders suggest they have units ready for this sort of terrain — including the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which reportedly has members deployed in Uzbekistan — as well as Army Rangers and other special units. Even so, they may hesitate to engage in extended ground battles.

“You don’t want to get bogged down that way in Afghanistan,” Smith said. “The whole need there is to be able to move quickly and with sufficient firepower to finish the mission but not to resort to conventional tactics.”

Even with mountain combat tactics, the unfamiliar terrain might make a ground fight in the Kush seem like a shooting-war version of Lewis and Clark’s treacherous slog through the peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains in what is now Montana.

Supplies in the highlands often are toted by donkey or mule. At best, the ground is suited for guerrilla warfare; most who have witnessed battles on Afghan soil acknowledge that solid front lines remain elusive.

A heavy ground presence, as some have suggested, also has drawbacks — including the difficulty in fortifying a front line or setting up camp. Despite committing more than 100,000 troops on the ground over a decade, the Soviets never succeeded in their military goals.

Options in the west
Not all of Afghanistan is this way. As a traveler moves west, sharp peaks flatten into dusty steppe and desert; boiling summers average well over 90 degrees, and temperatures in the chilly winters plummet well below freezing.

Several key cities are in the west, surrounded by terrain far more passable to ground troops: Kandahar, the spiritual center of the Taliban and a strategic focus of U.S. efforts, and Herat, the largest city in northwest Afghanistan. Russian-built roads make travel in the west comparatively easy. U.S. operatives used routes from the southwest to help supply the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in the 1980s.

The terrain may be more hospitable, but the politics are not. Beyond the western Afghan desert lies Iran, a longtime American nemesis. Though Pakistan has pledged support, its willingness to allow strikes from its airbases is still unclear. Moreover, its western provinces are home to numerous cells of pro-Taliban support — especially in Quetta, the largest Pakistani city in the region and the first major stop for Afghans coming south from Kandahar.

Southwest Afghanistan and western Pakistan are also home to the ethnic Beluchi people. The Beluchi still feel “very much abused” after the U.S. role there in the 1980s, said Ron Wixman, an expert on central Asian geography at the University of Oregon.

“The Beluchi have no trust in America,” Wixman said.

With such hostile surrounding territory, U.S. commanders will step carefully if they choose to strike there. There is the potential for a base camp — supplied by air — to be set up inside Afghanistan, but it would put troops in a situation akin to the 1948-49 Berlin airlift: an oasis of allied strength in the midst of hostile territory.

“That’s a very bad idea,” Wixman said.

The war underground
Then, of course, there are the caves: networks of limestone tunnels in the east apparently used by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network and the Taliban, and soft sandstone caverns in the west, once used by Afghans to repel the hordes of Genghis Khan. Even if U.S. forces push their Afghan enemies out of cities and garrisons, they must still pry them out or blow them out of these extensive underground honeycombs — a task that has already begun, according to recent Pentagon briefings. The cave hunt may not end with bombs: Retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf recently suggested infrared imagery could be used throughout the Afghan winter to find the enemy using their campfires.

Other concerns remain: The checkered pasts of some alliance generals who have at times terrorized the majority ethnic Pashtuns (one observer called alliance Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum “something you scare your children with at night”); local warlords whose allegiance is notoriously fluid; uncertain support from civilians; and subtle tribal and ethnic tensions that remain difficult for many Westerners to understand.

That isn’t to say the United States won’t find support on the ground, especially if it makes clear it has no plans — unlike the Soviets — to remain and carry out a political agenda.

But U.S. troops face battle on terrain that has fueled foreigners’ fears for thousands of years. When the Greeks saw the peaks of the Kush, they believed they were headed into the mountains where Zeus himself chained Prometheus so an eagle could eat the titan’s liver each day for 30 years — not the end of the world, perhaps, but a land where even the gods faced torture.