Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mission Impossible?

Even as the rebel Northern Alliance celebrates its first significant victory in Mazar-i-Sharif, it is important not to lose sight of the real goal for the military campaign in Afghanistan.

The task for the U.S. forces -- fighting primarily from the air -- and the rebels operating on the ground is not just to drive the Taliban from Afghanistan's major cities and establish a new government, difficult as that alone might be. Top U.S. officials acknowledge the war won't be successful unless it also prevents the Taliban from holding enough territory in the vast countryside to shelter Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. And that could prove a much more daunting assignment for the Northern Alliance without greater U.S. help on the ground.

"Remember, the goal of this mission is to make it impossible to use Afghanistan as a terrorist base for al-Qaida," says a senior U.S. official. "So a circumstance in which he can use part of the country is not acceptable."

That's a real danger, though. Afghanistan has suffered through virtually uninterrupted civil war since the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989 after itself failing to subjugate the countryside. The conflict has been perpetuated primarily because none of the interests involved have been strong enough to completely subdue the others.

When the forces that now constitute the Northern Alliance ruled the country in the early 1990s, "Afghanistan was in a state of virtual disintegration," writes Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his compelling book "Taliban." "The country was divided into warlord fiefdoms and all the warlords had fought, switched sides and fought again in a bewildering array of alliances, betrayals and bloodshed."

The Taliban exerted more effective control after they swept into power in 1996. But even they were never able to dislodge the Northern Alliance -- the remnants of the old government -- from the northern strongholds, where they controlled from 10 percent to 15 percent of the country (more by their estimation). When the United States intervened last month, the two sides had been stalemated for years, neither able to roll back the other.

Even if the Northern Alliance, with U.S. help, ultimately drives the Taliban from power, the risk is that the two sides will simply trade places. The Northern Alliance, operating with the broader political coalition that the United Nations is now working to assemble, could move into Kabul and control much of the country. But the Taliban, reversing the Northern Alliance's own exodus, could take to the hills, probably around Kandahar -- the movement's spiritual home in the southeastern corner of the country.

Unless the Northern Alliance could hunt down the Taliban remnant more effectively than the Taliban pursued the Northern Alliance when the roles were reversed, that could leave the radical Islamic movement with control of enough territory both to threaten the new government with guerrilla attacks and continue sheltering bin Laden.

These are some of the reasons that a senior U.S. intelligence official, briefing reporters earlier in the war, warned that it will be much more difficult to eliminate the Taliban as an effective force than it will be to drive them from unified control of the country. The good news is that American officials recognize the danger and flatly insist that an informal partition of Afghanistan is unacceptable.

That could be quite a bit more than the United States has been willing to do so far. American officials acknowledge they have made little progress in encouraging an indigenous opposition in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest. And the Northern Alliance, which has little representation from the Pashtun tribes that dominate the south, is unlikely to launch a full-scale southern invasion on its own. Indeed, such an attack could prove counterproductive by encouraging Pashtun nationalists to rally around the Taliban.

If all goes well in the coming months, the Northern Alliance may broaden its control over the northern half of the country and force the Taliban from Kabul. But it is difficult to imagine the rebels completely subduing the Taliban -- first in Kandahar and then as a guerrilla force in the hills -- on their own.

It may take American boots, in the snow and the dust, to truly stamp out this threat.

Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, to which he contributed this comment.