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Afghanistan: Analysts Discuss The Next Phase Of U.S. Strikes

As the U.S. maintains pressure on the Taliban, military strikes have moved from crippling the militia's air defense systems to targeting troops, bunkers, and weapons. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with military expert Nick Cook of "Jane's Defense Weekly" about the progress of the campaign so far and where it goes from here.

Prague, 12 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S.-led forces striking targets in Afghanistan are following what officials say is a multiphase military campaign to root out accused terrorists and cripple the forces of the Taliban which shelter them.

The campaign opened on Sunday (7 October) night with bombing strikes against the Taliban's limited air defense capabilities. By 9 October, much of these had been destroyed.

Nick Cook, an aviation expert with "Jane's Defense Weekly" in London, tells RFE/RL that as the strikes continue, allied aircraft now are running out of the kind of fixed targets normally associated with bombing campaigns. He says the strikes now are focusing on "targets of opportunity," such as troops or tanks.

"Primarily, what we have been seeing struck are large, fixed targets, targets which were probably well-plotted by the American and allied strike planners several weeks before the campaign opened. But of course there are not that many large fixed targets in Afghanistan."

He continues: "So in recent days, over the last 24 hours even, we are hearing reports that troop concentrations are being attacked, tank concentrations are being attacked, and this would suggest, I think, that we are moving away from this regime of striking purely fixed, so-called 'high-value' targets to more troop-oriented targets of the Taliban, paving the way for some kind of ground operation."

Cook says that the kind of aviation the allies are using is now also changing. The strike forces are making less use of long-distance land-based heavy bombers and increasing use of carrier-based fighter aircraft.

"We are looking now at a much more mobile phase of the operation, trying to use your air assets not just to find mobile targets but, when you have found them, to attack them as quickly as you can, and that is no easy undertaking technologically."

He says these targets include not only the Taliban's conventional forces but also the bands of Al-Qaeda fighters that Washington hopes to flush out and destroy.

"What [the allies] would be expecting to do is, by sustained bombardment around the clock, accompanied by an ever-present surveillance and reconnaissance force, you would hope to flush these [Al-Qaeda] cells out into the open and when you have done that you need to attack those mobile targets very quickly."

Military experts say that to carry out that kind of operation effectively, helicopters as well as fighter aircraft will ultimately be necessary.

"One of the next components of this campaign is that once you have achieved reasonable air superiority, you would then want to put in helicopters in conjunction with special forces to really get down into the nitty-gritty of flushing out any troops or terrorist cells which have hunkered down in an attempt to escape the bombardment from the air."

Cook says that U.S. aircraft carriers based in the Indian Ocean are too distant from Afghanistan for helicopter operations. He says that, instead, the helicopters are likely to operate from behind the lines of the Afghan-opposition Northern Alliance. Or the allies may use their air power to secure areas within Taliban-controlled territory itself for use as bases by helicopter-borne special forces.

The analyst says he considers it unlikely that helicopters would be based in Pakistan because of political sensitivities. Islamabad has said that it will provide logistical support for the U.S.-led war on terror but does not want strikes on Afghanistan launched directly from its soil. Islamist militant groups in Pakistan have staged repeated protests against the U.S. operations targeting the Taliban and bin Laden.

As the strikes progress, there has been much media speculation about how much the approaching Afghan winter may limit the movements of U.S.-led forces. Cook says that, so far, U.S. and British military officials have indicated that they plan to continue operations through the winter months and into next summer as they pursue what they call an open-ended campaign.

Cook said: "We have been getting signals during British [military] briefings that this is to be a sustained campaign. They were talking yesterday even about it going through until at least next summer and possibly longer. But I think they would be mindful of what they are up against and they would not fight against the winter but would go with it."

He continues, "And you wouldn't see, I am sure, the widespread deployment of troops at large and exposed to this winter, but probably operations from secure bases which could then foray into the hinterland and conduct search-and-destroy missions to flush out terrorist and Taliban cells wherever they happen to be."

On 10 October, Pentagon officials said they planned to deploy helicopters in Afghanistan. They said these would include Apache "flying tanks," which can fire rockets at groups of Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters, and UH-60 Blackhawks, the helicopters usually favored by special forces.