October 8, 2001


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

The Taleban will be no pushover

Nearly a month after terrorist bombings in New York and Washington, the balloon has finally gone up in Afghanistan. But the truth is that the clandestine war there started a week ago with special forces from the US, UK and Russia penetrating the Hindu Kush mountains, scouting for Osama bin Laden.

Once Prime Minister Tony Blair rushed back from Delhi on Saturday in a chartered British Airways flight abandoning his VC 10, and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld returned to Washington, it was clear D Day and H Hour had arrived. October 7, 10 pm.

Having declared war on terrorism and forfeiting strategic surprise the US was not going to lose the element of tactical surprise, that is the time and place of air strikes and ground operations. This information was withheld till the very last from their own military, as well as the close allies of the US.

But the inevitability of an expeditionary force with its objectives drastically scaled down from the ones conceived initially, was never in doubt. A Kosovo-type operations was neither necessary nor likely to be effective. George Bush had said: 'I'm not gonna fire a $ 2 million missile in a $ 10 tent and hit a camel in the butt,' bin Laden and his supporters are going to be smoked out of their holes.

The initial attacks have been launched by 15 land-based and 25 ship-based aircraft firing precision-guided weapons that included 50 Cruise missiles. B1 and B2 (flown from US bases) were employed in the attacks designed to suppress Taleban air defence and ensure their aircraft are unable to take to the skies. At least two waves of aircraft targeted Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad. Following these aerial attacks mainly by US aircraft and a few Cruise missiles launched from British submarines, the air forces have launched a hefty humanitarian assistance programme by dropping food and leaflets

The preparation for battle was preceded by intense political, diplomatic and intelligence networking in garnering a global consensus on the fight against terrorism. Strengthening the home base -- in military parlance the firm base -- as a prelude to military operations was completed last week. The first priority for the US was to ensure the safety of the continent of the United States.

A cataclysmic attack like the one in Manhattan had not happened in the homeland since the civil war or the British raids in 1812. Even Pearl Harbour was not as cathartic as it happened an ocean away and the casualties were less than two thousand. The four weeks after Terror Tuesday were invested in preparation for the long haul, collecting evidence, a coalition of support and intelligence, the key to unravelling terrorist networks worldwide.

Further, US public opinion was marshalled for the riposte to terrorism, scrupulously distinguished from an attack on Islam or any religion. Further Capitol Hill authorised the president to wage war and NATO threw in its lot with the US. At the same time, UN Security Council resolution 1373 came out strongly against countries that support, finance and harbour terrorists. Almost all the 189 countries in the UN are believed to have supported the resolution and those that default will face sanctions.

The first battle of any military campaign has to be won. A military commander cannot countenance failure on the start line. It is vital for the morale of soldiers, and the country. The US can't afford not to win the chase for bin Laden because as Henry Kissinger once said, if the guerrilla does not lose, he wins; if security forces do not win they lose. It is for this reason the military assets of the US were assembled carefully and over a period of four weeks. Since terrorist targets are no longer in place, the initial attacks have been limited and proportionate.

It is now clear that the military objectives of the US are threefold: Seizure of bin Laden, destruction and verification of terrorists training facilities and dismantling the Taleban regime, including destroying its military machine.

The five-party Northern Alliance under its commanders Ismael Khan, General Dostum, General Fahim, Khalili and Qadir is standing by to make a renewed bid for Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharief assisted by the US, Russia, Iran, India and Central Asian republics. Toppling the Taleban could lead to protracted guerrilla warfare if the Taleban does not split. Pakistan can help in their early capitulation by switching off the tap. A civil war in Afghanistan will result in a flood of refugees, fleeing towards Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian republics in that order for which humanitarian relief operations are being conducted concurrent with military strikes.

From what is unfolding the US and UK expeditionary forces are launching Enduring Freedom in three phases, one overlapping the other. The first phase of operations which has commenced, is softening surgical strikes on military infrastructure like runways, bridges, missile sites, radars and guns at Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar. The aim is to destroy missiles and guns that could interfere in the flight of attacking aircraft. The Taleban are known to have about 500 tanks, 1000 pieces of artillery, about 50 Stingers and nearly 50 aircraft. The air and missile strikes are expected to be extended to suspected terrorist training bases and facilities. This phase could last from five to seven days depending on the success of strikes.

The second phase will be a special operation by US-UK led forces to pluck out Laden. Several mercenaries are in the Osama hunt which has a $ 25 million bounty. Several diversionary helicopter-borne missions will accompany the main launch. In deference to Pakistan's sensitivities about staging operations from its soil, the Laden mission will be launched from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Pakistan is unlikely to be used as a staging base for any military operations.

A joint US-UK mission with Russian logistic support to capture Laden was planned last year from the north but abandoned due to inadequate intelligence.

The final phase of operations to dismantle the Taleban regime will be coordinated with operations of the Northern Alliance. Simultaneously carrier-borne US and UK forces operating from the Gulf of Oman will try to seize the Taleban stronghold, Kandahar, in the south. This is likely to be accompanied by employing US 101 or 82 Airborne Divisions, once ground fire in the selected dropping zones has been eliminated.

The ground operations will develop from the north and the south to take Kabul and Kandahar and later, link up. It is possible that after the initial bombing attacks, the Taleban may lose nerve, defect and disintegrate. This will then allow the US led coalition against terrorism to set up a new broad based government in Kabul and avoid unnecessary bloodshed.

It would be a mistake to believe the Taleban will be a pushover. Osama bin Laden has made his final call to Muslims of the world to unite to fight the evil of America. But as even President Pervez Musharraf admitted, his days and those of the Taleban are numbered.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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