Old Man Winter could be U.S. ally in Afghanistan

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Old Man Winter could be U.S. ally in Afghanistan


Scripps Howard News Service September 05, 2001

- Granite peaks jut out of the Hindu Kush mountains like jagged teeth two miles above sea level. Narrow, twisting trails are an invader's only option for a northern assault on Afghanistan's capital of Kabul.

And as if perilous terrain weren't enough, here comes winter.

Icy winds, blinding snow and temperatures dropping well below zero are just weeks away in the rugged range that has helped fend off invaders going back to Alexander the Great.

That fact is not lost on U.S. military planners as they consider targeting Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militias in the wider war on terrorism.

Military analysts say brutal winter conditions could paralyze massive ground invasions. However, the types of limited, more targeted raids now being considered might even benefit from the snow.

"It would have a much more significant effect if it were broad-scale operations, but if you're thinking a pick-and-choose, narrow scope, we could very well exploit those opportunities," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tad Oelstrom, now director of the national security program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Weather is always a prime consideration in wartime.

In the Persian Gulf War, the deadly heat of Iraq's wide-open deserts gave planners a narrow window of winter months to launch the decisive ground campaign, said retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Christman, who led the Army's strategic planning group for the assault.

"Weather always constricts military operations. That's as old as Napoleon," Christman said. "In this particular instance, my sense is we're not going to be nearly as constrained as we were in the Gulf War simply because the likelihood of entering Afghanistan with massed ground operations are nil."

Most experts expect the United States and its allies to launch targeted aerial attacks on Taliban military assets and conduct small-scale raids designed to track down reputed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network. U.S. officials consider bin Laden the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The weather could pose greater problems for troops from the dissident Northern Alliance, which hopes to retake the capital city of Kabul and establish a replacement government should the United States attack. Their forces control a sliver of territory in northern Afghanistan and would have to maneuver through rugged mountain passes to get to Kabul.

Average elevations there are 8,856 feet, with some areas much higher. Winter weather begins by early November, and at some elevations temperatures can reach 50 degrees below zero.

"Think of your coldest winter in the Appalachian Mountains, the Adirondacks ... the coldest winter in the Rocky Mountains," said Richard Heim, a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center. "Then you might begin to get some idea of what it will be like in the mountains of Afghanistan."

Now imagine fighting a war in that, he said.

Afghan militias are more accustomed to the conditions, and that's considered a factor in the former Soviet Union's failed invasion in the 1980s. If the United States avoids a large-scale invasion, its Special Forces units can mount clandestine missions under cover of darkness, clouds and fog, and exploit superior technology, Christman said.

He believes that U.S. forces will rely more than ever on J-STARS, the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar Systems. Mounted aboard aircraft, such systems track ground movements and identify targets whatever the weather conditions might be.

Weather is so important for battle planning that in 1996 the Air Force commissioned a study of how high-technology could let the military "own the weather." Using "storm-modification" concepts that sound like something out of science fiction, the report said that by 2025 there could be "small-scale tailoring" of localized weather systems to help friendly forces and disrupt foes.

With Afghanistan, weather conditions are just one of many factors that must be considered when planning a campaign, said retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander for NATO in Europe.

"It's an impediment, but it's not decisive for us," Clark said


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 04, 2001

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