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US ready to fight war in 'two phases'

War on terrorism: Strategy

By Kim Sengupta, 2001 October 02

The biggest movement of aircraft and munitions in Britain and America since the Gulf War is under way, amid signs that the first strikes against Afghanistan are just days away. Last weekend the skies over RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk and RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire resounded with the deep roar of giant transporters carrying Cruise missiles and JDAM satellite-guided bombs to forward air bases. Yesterday, the USS Kitty Hawk left the Yokusara naval base in Japan to join four other aircraft carriers already at battle stations.

It seems increasingly likely that the war will be in two phases, an initial missile, bomb and limited special forces attack against Taliban forces and Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network. Then, after a pause, there will be a bigger, wider conflict with the orchestration of intelligence, special forces and air power from land and sea.

Much of the intelligence for this has already been obtained, from both predictable and surprising sources. The Russians provided details of the former mujahedin fortifications now being used by the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. Intelligence has also come from Pakistan, India and friendly Arab states. The Independent has also learned that vital information has been provided by Syria, a "terrorist state" in the lexicon of some in the Pentagon.

The rationale behind the two-phased approach is to ensure that the Taliban forces are "provided with a disincentive" to help al-Qa'ida when attacks begin on their bases. Neutralising the Taliban will also be of great help to the Northern Alliance, which the West is now hastily sponsoring, but with grave doubts about its military and political capabilities. The Alliance is in the process of receiving more Russian and Iranian arms, but not soon enough, it is felt, to have any discernible effect in the immediate course of the civil war.

Taliban armour and aircraft are expected to be the first targets to be hit. Their armour consists of a few captured and abandoned Soviet tanks, mainly old T52s, and armoured cars. They also have around 130 multiple rocket launchers and about 20 Scud and Frog surface-to-surface missiles. The anti-aircraft defence is composed of Stinger hand-held missiles, supplied by the US during the days when the Afghans were "freedom fighters", and Soviet SAM missiles. The Taliban air force consists of about 19 old Soviet Migs and helicopters, although some are known to be cannibalised to keep the others flying. The aircraft were flown, until now, by Pakistanis.

The Taliban forces are preparing for war and moving their heavy weapons to the hills. The military planners in Washington and London believe this is the ideal time to catch them out on the open, before they reach the mountain hideouts. Taliban land forces are also vulnerable and exposed at present, none more so than about 15,000 soldiers who have been massed at the Pakistani border near Peshawar and Quetta.

There are other reasons advocated for a quick strike against the Taliban. Being on the receiving end of a Western attack would, it is thought, allow Mullah Omar "to recant" over his refusal to hand over Mr bin Laden. The time needed to mount the second phase will be described as the period they have to deliver him, or face further punishment. The bombing attacks will be accompanied by a "hearts and minds propaganda campaign" to further destabilise the Taliban. Leaflets will be dropped into the country, and Taliban radio broadcasts jammed. Areas which come under the control of the Northern Alliance will receive large amounts of food aid.

Allied forces are now poised to carry out this first phase of this mission. British and American special forces are already inside Afghanistan gathering intelligence. They will guide in attack aircraft as well larger units of combat troops. There are plenty of options for air strikes. At present there are four aircraft carrier battle groups in the Gulf, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean the US carriers, USS Enterprise, USS Carl Vinson and USS Theodore Roosevelt and the Royal Navy carrier HMS Illustrious which is off Oman. Along with land based planes in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia, the number of allied strike aircraft is now around 550. Missiles will play a large part in the attack, and all the US battle groups have vessels capable of firing Tomahawk Cruise missiles. The British contribution to this is likely to come from two nuclear powered submarines, HMS Triumph and HMS Trafalgar.

The land campaign is far more complicated. Despite the Americans demanding, and receiving, the acquiesence of General Pervez Musharraf for putting US forces in Pakistan, there is deep apprehension that making it the centre of operation will tear apart the political fabric of the country. The central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and to a lesser extent, Kazakhstan, provide viable alternatives. Kazakhstan has already offered the US the use of its air and military bases. However, it does not have a border with Afghanistan unlike the other three. The Turkmen government has insisted on remaining neutral and maintains a relationship with the Taliban. Uzbekistan was the choice of the Red Army when it intervened in Afghanistan in 1979. The base at Tuzel, near the capital Tashkent, can be used by up to 20,000 troops.

Yesterday, security chiefs from the central Asian republics and the director of the Russian domestic security service, FSB, met to discuss the unfolding crisis. Although they are said to be broadly supportive of attacks on the Taliban there is unease about what happens next. This is the problem of the second phase of the campaign. It still remains unclear whether the target will remain Afghanistan, as Secretary of State Colin Powell wants, or a broader offensive against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, as advocated by Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. If the hawks have their way, Operation Enduring Freedom could well sink into a very messy and enduring war.

Copyright Independent Digital (UK) Ltd, Fair Use For Educational and Research Purposes Only

-- Robert Riggs (, October 02, 2001

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