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'Cosmetic' strike against Afghanistan predicted.

Byline: SAM GREENHILL

THE US and Britain are shaping up for a brief "cosmetic" strike against Afghanistan followed by a longer campaign of attrition, military experts predicted yesterday.

As the ruling Taliban showed no sign of giving up terror suspect Osama bin Laden, options for taking him by force were being drawn up by strategists on both sides of the Atlantic. Their main difficulty may be knowing precisely where he is hiding.

Although the Saudi-born renegade - "wanted dead or alive" by US President George Bush - has a personal following of up to 2,000 Mujahideen militiamen, he is unlikely to have sought their protection.

Instead, he is "probably roaming the countryside with about six or seven people in a couple of Toyota pick-up trucks" to avoid drawing attention to himself, according to Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies.

"The Americans have probably lost him. Bin Laden has a great ability to vanish into the hills, " he said.

With the operation to locate and seize the terror chief looking decidedly long-term, the US is likely to launch a largely cosmetic strike in the next few days for the benefit of public opinion, said Major Heyman.

"They're not going to hit much, but will launch some sort of air attack using cruise missiles or artillery."

The targets would be a Taliban regional headquarters or perhaps a car park full of armoured vehicles which is known to exist outside Kabul.

After that, a longer campaign would set in. Opinions on its nature vary, but one possibility is to mount a month-to-six-week offensive from the northern part of the country controlled by the Northern Alliance, a loose collection of groups opposed to the Taliban.

This would involve setting up a forward operating base from which to launch helicopter sorties carrying special forces. Up to 10,000 servicemen, including British and American infantrymen, would be used to defend the base to a 15-mile radius, said Major Heyman.

With a series of raids against the Taliban army, this tactic could destabilise the regime to the extent that it toppled from power and made way for another group.

Whatever their political make-up, the new group would be obliged to have one crucial policy: to hand over bin Laden if they ever had the chance.

Major Heyman predicted an operation of this type would be carried out by Americans and British forces in a ratio of about five-to-one. But others said overthrowing the Taliban in this way was too simplistic and unlikely to succeed because the regime is by its nature already a fragmented organisation, with decisions taken locally.

Action by the West, after an initial air strike to satisfy American public opinion, could instead consist of a campaign by special forces to try to pinpoint bin Laden himself.

Paul Burton, co-ordinating editor of Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, a monthly online magazine, said, "I think a covert operation to find bin Laden is the most likely but it will be very difficult."

Observers agree that a prolonged ground war involving British and American troops is unlikely. Both governments are acutely aware that it took the Soviet Union 10 days to capture the capital Kabul but 10 years to finally pull out realising they could not control the country.

Whatever military chiefs decide, the firepower at their command is formidable. The US is assembling two battle groups in the Gulf, headed by aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise.

Britain has a naval task force of 27 ships led by carrier HMS Illustrious on its way to the region to take part in a joint military exercise with Oman.

Two nuclear-powered submarines, one equipped with land-attack cruise missiles, and two Royal Marine commando units form a part of this. The SAS is also reportedly already in the region, with the elite soldiers understood to have been training in Pakistan for some time, said Mr Burton.

Ranged against this, the Taliban armed forces are tiny. "Conventional forces would cut through them like a knife through butter, " said Major Heyman.

The Taliban's air defences consist of a handful of heat-seeking missiles, such as Stinger, and anti-aircraft guns which are thought to be so short of ammunition that they would soon run out of 20mm and 30mm shells to fire at any invading Allied planes.

In any case, a campaign of air strikes against infrastructure in Afghanistan would be virtually pointless, an exercise in "turning rubble into rubble, " as schools, homes and hospitals have scarcely been rebuilt since being razed by the Soviets.

The Taliban army is estimated to consist of 45,000 men armed with Kalashnikov rifles, recoilless rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers and grenade launchers. It also has several hundred tanks - though only about 100 are thought to be serviceable - and 250 armoured fighting vehicles, according to a survey by Jane's, the defence publications group.

Several hundred artillery pieces, truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers and heavy mortars are also at the Taliban's disposal, as well as the scud missile systems that are reported to be lining up along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

The country's air force is believed to consist of fewer than 80 planes, including 15 ground attack fighters and 45 transport planes, plus a handful of helicopters - six for transport and five for attack.

In the north, the Northern Alliance's strengths have also been assessed by Jane's.

It is thought to have 12,000 to 15,000 armed soldiers, 60 to 70 tanks and armoured vehicles, some light artillery and about 30 fighter aircraft.

The danger posed by the Taliban is not in their firepower or troops but in the lie of the land and its ability to harbour guerillas. To avoid a drawnout and costly confrontation, the West must ensure it does not get sucked into a ground war.

CAPTION(S):

READY FOR BATTLE: Flight-deck shooters signal a plane is cleared to launch from USS Enterprise, which is conducting operations in the Northern Arabian Sea
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 19, 2001
Words:990
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