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U.S.: Reaching Potential Targets Poses Problems

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Planning is under way in the United States for a military response to last week's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Although preparations are proceeding under strict secrecy, it is apparent that Afghanistan is the most likely target. That's the country where the chief terrorist suspect, Osama bin Laden, is believed to be hiding with the assent of the Taliban authorities. But effective military strikes against Afghanistan will not be easy for the U.S. military. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke speaks to strategic experts about how such a task could be accomplished.

Prague, 18 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In any given crisis involving military action, political leaders set out their aims and expectations. It is then up to the military to translate those policy goals into reality.

This is no easy task, especially when a new type of warfare is envisaged. In this case, it is a sustained campaign against international terrorism, pledged by U.S. President George W. Bush following last week's devastating terror attacks on New York and Washington.

How does a conventional military force strike effectively at terrorists, who by their nature work alone or in small groups, hidden deep in a twilight world? This is one of the thoughts currently focusing the minds of military planners in the U.S. Defense Department. They are now preparing anti-terrorist operations, with Afghanistan as a likely first target, although perhaps not the only one.

Whatever targets the U.S. selects, they must be hit effectively to demonstrate Washington's determination to eradicate terrorism. As independent London-based defense consultant Alexandra Ashbourne puts it:

"This is going to be such a critical mission -- and such a complicated mission. I mean, there is no clearly defined target, as regards people. They are always on the move, and there is not the infrastructure in either Afghanistan and [for instance] Syria, that could be destroyed. I mean, when you have people hiding in caves and in the mountains, it is much harder to launch a strike than for example on Belgrade, where there were clearly defined targets."

Another military expert, London-based Charles Heyman, says the U.S. will face the difficult logistics of mounting such an operation. He sees initial action as being carried out by planes flying from aircraft carriers cruising off the coast of Pakistan. But the range of the missions will be a problem. Heyman:

"That is quite a distance -- seven to eight hundred miles (900 to 1,000 km) to Afghanistan, plus the transit time into Afghanistan. They are [therefore] going to have [only] a small number of aircraft, which are going to be retanked by air-to-air refueling aircraft."

That, of course, would require overfly permission from Pakistan. If the Pakistanis were, in addition, to grant actual landing rights, then the American aircraft would be able to operate much closer to the Afghan border.

The other option, according to Heyman, is for aircraft to fly into Afghanistan from the territory of neighboring Tajikistan. But that, too, would be difficult and time-consuming, requiring a prior buildup of material in Tajikistan to support the aircraft.

Tajik authorities last weekend ruled out the possibility of hosting American forces, but Heyman says the word is that Russia has been "leaning on" the Tajiks. Tajik officials now say they have changed their minds on this question.

Military aviation expert Nic Cook says Washington can opt for precision strikes or some type of saturation bombing. If precision is required, Cook envisages the use of long-range aircraft, probably the radar-avoiding "Stealth" aircraft based in the United States.

"I imagine the B2 Stealth bombers, currently based in [the U.S. state of] Missouri, would be called upon, as would Stealth fighters. It's that kind of operation," he said.

The Stealth aircraft would refuel in mid-air and probably not land in Asia. If saturation bombing is chosen, Cook says the older B-52 bombers could be deployed and fly, for instance, from the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Cruise missiles could also be used.

Cook notes that -- although the Taliban does have surface-to-air missiles -- there appears little chance that incoming U.S. aircraft would face any real opposition.

Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based defense analyst for Jane's military publishing group. Davis says air strikes alone will not be sufficient:

"Air strikes have a limited operational benefit. But by the same token, I would imagine that the Americans would be exceedingly reluctant to get involved in the deployment of large-scale forces on the ground, for three reasons. One, it would take some time to assemble such forces in Pakistan. Secondly, the deployment of forces in Pakistan, prior to moving into Afghanistan, would have very dangerous repercussions in Pakistan politically. And thirdly, the deployment of American forces in Afghanistan, or in the south of Afghanistan, which is where they would go from Pakistan, raises the prospect of the Taliban being able to rally a degree of popular support behind them, and the Americans [therefore] becoming bogged down in a protracted conflict."

Davis foresees the use on the ground of small units of elite commando troops, able to move quickly to seek out terrorists.

Analyst Heyman, who is editor of the "Jane's World Armies" publication, also sees ground troops as necessary, though he sees a different pattern of deployment:

"There is going to be a land operation of some sort, but it is going to take a while to put it together. Various commentators are now beginning to think that U.S. allied forces will probably move into one of the areas held by the northern [Afghan, anti-Taliban] coalition, where we know there is a reasonable airfield, and create a forward operating base there, and operate from inside what is basically a safe northern area. And then strike into the Taliban-held areas in the south, going after the people that they want to remove from Afghanistan."

American's NATO allies are pledging to help militarily if required, but analyst Ashbourne sees little scope for them to act on a large scale in either Afghanistan or, for instance, in Syria, which has been mentioned unofficially as another possible target for retribution because of its alleged links to terrorists.

Ashbourne added: "The complications of the mission will mean that it will be very select [allied] troops that would be assisting America. I could imagine that the British SAS and some of the [elite] French troops would be helping, but I honestly do not see at the moment that there is a need for other forces from other NATO members."

So the planning moves forward in Washington, with many different factors under consideration. As analyst Heyman put it, the only certain result of any military operation is that the result is uncertain.