In the next phase of the war in Afghanistan, Pentagon strategists are faced with ousting the Taliban from its southern stronghold without an organized Afghan opposition force on the ground. That leaves U.S. policymakers fighting with air power, gifts of money and appeals to disaffected Pashtuns.
A southern strategy based on financial inducements and the momentum from this week's dramatic anti-Taliban victories in the north could persuade leaders among ethnic Pashtuns, who dominate the south and the Taliban, to forge their own infantry, according to some military strategists.
Until that happens, an air war without ground troops in the inhospitable south is likely to look much like the first three weeks of the northern campaign, military analysts said. With ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the Northern Alliance promising not to head south, Taliban forces face a daily rain of U.S. bombs that Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says has left them "severely weakened."
"You don't want to lose the sense that this war has an inevitability about it, and our side is going to win," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution.
The speed with which Northern Alliance forces dropped an anti-Taliban curtain across the middle of Afghanistan has given the U.S.-led campaign momentum and a psychological advantage over demoralized Taliban troops. Thus Pentagon strategists are expected to continue unrelenting airstrikes to keep up the pressure and encourage southern Afghan leaders to change sides.
"There's a greater likelihood now that the Afghans can do this themselves," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "The southern tribes and forces could gradually move in our direction."
U.S. special forces have led just one known mission in southern Afghanistan, raiding Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's home last month. But a small number continue to operate in the region, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday. Opposition Pashtun leaders continue their own clandestine missions to convert disaffected Taliban supporters into an opposition military and political coalition.
The northern sweep has brought military as well as psychological advantages. Although captured airfields in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul would need to be rebuilt, they could soon serve as resupply depots and host U.S. warplanes that now must fly hundreds or even thousands of miles.
"The fact that we have places to hold is going to give us some leverage," said Cindy Williams, a former director of national security studies with the Congressional Budget Office who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While defense strategists haven't ruled out the use of U.S. ground forces, they would much rather have a proxy army on the ground to extend the anti-Taliban gains of the Northern Alliance.
Hamid Karzai, a U.S.-backed Pashtun tribal leader, is among those hoping to lure disaffected Taliban supporters into an opposition military and political alliance. Those close to Karzai say he is calling on tribal allegiances. It remains unclear what promises the United States is making to prospective Pashtun turncoats, but O'Hanlon said it should include promises of physical security, military aid and humanitarian aid doled out locally rather than through a future government in Kabul.
Military analysts say the United States also is relying more on a tool that has greased new Afghan alliances for decades: Money.
"They'll switch sides at the drop of a hat and go for winners," said William Taylor, a retired Army colonel with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy group. "And they go for money. And if you can get the two going at the same time, you've got something going. This is what we're doing in the south now."
Rumsfeld suggested a different kind of financial consideration might make a difference: Rewards for the capture of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida leaders.
"It may very well be that money will talk at some point," Rumsfeld said, adding that wartime hardships have begun to drive a wedge between Omar and bin Laden.