US B-52 bombers from Diego Garcia, F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers and British Tornados from air bases in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar are likely to be utilised for delivering heavier payloads against larger targets such as air strips. Contrary to popular perceptions, the US is unlikely to risk using the Peshawar airfield in Pakistan for launching either air strikes or commando raids, as the area comprises mainly the Pushtun tribe that is known for its hostility and may be armed with Stinger SAMs. However, the Quetta, Sargodha and Bahawalpur airbases and other Pakistani air bases in central and western Pakistan are likely to be used as launch pads for special forces operations.
The first war of the 21st century began the day the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon building in Washington, DC were terror bombed by a virulent Islamic fundamentalist network that now girdles the globe. President George W Bush has declared war on terrorism and warned his countrymen, allies and friends that operation “Enduring Freedom” will be a long drawn affair. In this “conflict without battlefields and beach-heads” while the real war will be against the vast global terror network of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and its many associate terrorist organisations and will undoubtedly require time, patience and painstaking effort to succeed, the ministry will feel compelled to show some early results to assuage; the wave of anger and bitterness still sweeping across America. To this end, the US and allied forces military juggernaut is rolling forward and the Taliban militia in Afghanistan will bear the brunt of its massive firepower.
The initial US military objectives will be two-fold. First, to destroy the Taliban’s war waging potential so that a more representative and moderate regime can be eventually installed in Kabul. Secondly, to destroy bin Laden’s known training camps and hideouts and bring him to justice. The Taliban’s military arsenal comprises combat aircraft (10 to lo SU-22 fighter bombers, five to 10 MiG-21 fighters, about 40 transport aircraft and 10 cargo helicopters), 20 to 30 Scud surface-to-surface missiles, 500 tanks, assorted artillery pieces including rocket launchers and air defence weapons such as the ZU-23 twin barrel portable gun and Frog short-range surface-to-air missiles.
These and the airstrips at Kabul, Kandahar and Bagram will be the primary targets for stand off weapons like air-to surface missiles and even tomahawk cruise missiles on the first few days after air strikes are launched. The shoulder fired Stinger surface-to-air missiles approximately 80 of which are still held by the Taliban, will impose considerable caution on US pilots. These missiles were given by the CIA to Pakistan’s ISI during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and were passed on by the ISI to the Taliban as well as the militant outfits that it sponsors in Kashmir.
The secondary target list will include previously identified headquarters and communications centres, known fuel dumps, arms and ammunition stores and related military assets, especially those in the old Afghan military bases. Most of these will be hit on subsequent days after the Taliban’s air defence resources have been credibly destroyed. For these strikes the US will employ fighter ground-attack aircraft like the Warthog that will not only come screaming in to launch close range rocket attacks but also take pictures of the devastation that they cause so that people back home get to see that America is getting even.
While the US and its allies will take care to avoid causing civilian casualties, considerable collateral damage may be expected to occur. The Algnans fleeing from their homes will run into the countless landmines that have been carelessly strewn over the countryside over two decades of bitter fighting. Depending on the ferocity of the air strikes, a humanitarian disaster of huge proportions may be expected to unfold.
The initial air strikes will be multi-directional and will be launched from different types of weapons platforms. The three aircraft carrier battle groups (USS Enterprise, Theodore Roosevelt and Carl Vinson), deployed in the Persian Gulf and northern Arabian Sea, will employ F-18 Hornet fighter ground attack aircraft for ground strikes and F-14 Tomcats for air defence escorts. Early warning and control wu be provided by E-2C Hawkeye AWACS aircraft. Besides nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the battle groups comprise cruisers, destroyers, frigates, attack submarines and support ships.
British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and its sister ships are also likely to pitch in for the strikes with Sea Harrier jump jets. Most of these aircraft will have to overfly Pakistani airspace, as Iran is not willing to extend military cooperation to the US and allied forces. Tomahawk cruise missiles will again be used though not in very large numbers. Each Tomahawk costs about $1 million.
US B-52 bombers from Diego Garcia, F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers and British Tornados from air bases in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar are likely to be utilised for delivering heavier payloads against larger targets such as air strips. If Saudi Arabia continues to deny the use of its air bases, long-range B-2 bombers from bases as far away as Turkey and Germany may also be employed to launch ground strikes, especially against targets in northern Afghanistan. In some cases, air-ro-air refuelling may be necessary. Airbases have also been offered by Uzbekistan (near Tashkent and Termez) and the Dushanbe military airbase of Tajikistan may also be made available.
Contrary to popular perceptions, the US is unlikely to risk using the Peshawar airfield in Pakistan for launching either air strikes or commando raids, as the area comprises mainly the Pushtun tribe that is known for its hostility and may be armed with Stinger SAMs. However, the Quetta, Sargodha and Bahawalpur airbases and other Pakistani air bases in central and western Pakistan are likely to be used as launch pads for special forces operations. The USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier, is reported to have been modified to carry assault helicopters before being dispatched to the scene of action from its Japanese base at Yokosuka. The aim can only be to reduce dependence on Pakistani airbases for launching heliborne operations in. the Kandahar area.
While a large-scale ground invasion by the US and its allies can be ruled out, a number of surgical strikes will be launched by special forces to raid Osama bin Laden’s hideouts and those of his associates. The US special forces commandos like the Delta Force and the Rangers and the British SAS will be dropped by air or inserted by helicopters close to the suspected hideouts. Most such operations will be of short duration (24 to 72 hours) and helicopters will again be employed to extricate the commandos. However, in all cases commando operations will be launched only after gaining accurate intelligence. In a few cases, long duration operations may be planned in which the commandos will be expected to melt into the countryside, live off the land, gain intelligence, build a network of sources, buy out the local warlords and prepare the ground for subsequent surgical strikes.
Looking for Osama bin Laden and his unholy warriors in the numerous folds, ravines, valleys and caves of the rugged mountainous terrain of the Hindu Kush will prove to be a daunting venture. The winter that will arrive in early October will make the task even more hazardous and make the logistics effort considerably more complex. Eventually, the US and its allies may be left with no option but to establish a forward airhead as a launch pad for heliborne special forces operations. The Bagram air base north of Kabul would be ideal for the purpose.
As the Soviet Spetznas discovered in the 1980s, special forces operations against the hardy Afghans in the terrain that they know so well will not be a piece of cake. Approximately 10 million landmines have been indiscriminately laid all over the Afghan countryside over the last three decades. The movement of special forces will be severely restricted as it will be limited to tracks which can be kept under surveillance by the Taliban militiamen and bin Laden’s terrorists from vantage points of their choosing. Cross-country forays will result in heavy landmine casualties.
Euphemistically called “collateral damage”, the unavoidable spillover of the air strikes into civilian areas will hurt the weakest sections of society the most. Thousands of refugees can be expected to begin streaming into the neighbouring countries. Even as the US and its allies pound selected targets repeatedly, their aircraft will be simultaneously engaged in air dropping food packets and other humanitarian aid to the hapless people. Osama bin Laden could not have posed a more complex and daunting challenge to the international community — except if he had used nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. He and his cohorts must be stopped from doing so in future.