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Down in the dirt: how and when might the war in Afghanistan end? Here's an inside look from a Special Forces expert.


THE U.S. CAMPAIGN AGAINST TERRORISM THAT BEGAN with weeks of intense bombing in Afghanistan may appear to be striking blows at random. But there is an unseen order to the battle that is likely to become evident over the coming weeks and months.

America's high-tech array of surveillance equipment and advanced weapons will play a role in attacking those believed responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yet it will be the foot soldiers in the dirt and the darkness who will ultimately put their training, their motivation, and their ingenuity on the line.

The tip of America's spear has already been revealed in lightning-quick night assaults by Special Operations forces, elite units of the Army, Navy, and Air Force trained for unconventional missions.

The full force of the U.S. attacks will commence when political conditions are right and when the forces have enough information to virtually ensure the capture or killing of suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, destruction of his Al Qaeda terror network, and removal of the Taliban, the current rulers of Afghanistan, who have harbored bin Laden and his followers.

THE MOST LIKELY APPROACH OF THE MILITARY operation involves throwing an ever-tightening net around the Taliban and Al Qaeda with the ongoing bombing campaign; repeated quick assaults that inflict losses and gather intelligence, coupled with help from Afghan fighters opposed to the Taliban; and finally rooting out bin Laden and his leadership in a direct attack.

But mission planners know that any campaign can encounter unforeseen, sometimes huge risks. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces face a harsh, mountainous geography, a fierce climate, an unstable political situation, and the likelihood of cave-to-cave warfare that may be needed to flush out Al Qaeda. Taliban fighters are battle-hardened by 20 years of continuous fighting, including 10 years against the Soviet Union (now Russia), which they defeated. For that reason, U.S. planners would be likely to offer an alternative: the Special Operations units.

SPECIAL OPERATIONS SOLDIERS ARE VOLUNTEERS, selected under stringent standards for intelligence, physical fitness, and judgment. Special Operations include these units:

* Army Rangers, small infantry units that pack light, travel fast, and specialize in night operations.

* Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets, experts at organizing, training, and directing military operations of guerrilla groups behind enemy lines.

* Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) teams trained and equipped for raids, assaults, and reconnaissance missions.

* Air Force Special Operations, equipped with unusual aircraft such as the AC-130 Spectre gunship that can circle a battlefield for hours, firing machine guns and other weapons, including a cannon usually mounted on tanks.

* The Army's Delta Force, a highly classified Special Forces unit that operates in the shadowy land of counter-terrorist operations.

In the meantime, the enemy is dug-in and prepared for a ground attack. While U.S. military planners have devised several options, such missions often follow a certain trajectory. Here is one scenario--admittedly, a best-case version--of how such an operation might unfold:

As air strikes increase pressure on Taliban fighters, their opponents in the Northern Alliance, a coalition of tribal groups, advance on the capital city of Kabul. During the move, they gain intelligence information from informers and prisoners about bin Laden's whereabouts. Special Forces advisory teams with the Northern Alliance relay that information by radio to the United States Joint Headquarters on an aircraft carrier steaming in the Indian Ocean, some 600 miles from Afghanistan's southern border.

Once the report is corroborated by electronic intelligence, satellite imagery, and carefully hidden Long Range Surveillance Units that have been infiltrating Afghanistan since shortly after September 11, the decision is made to strike bin Laden's hideout--most likely located in a well-concealed cave complex deep in the arid central mountains.

IN THE FIRST PHASE, AFTER INTENSIVE BOMBING around the airport at Kandahar, the headquarters of the Taliban, a Ranger battalion seizes the field by rappelling from specially equipped transport helicopters. Overhead, two AC-130 Spectre gunships provide covering fire for the troops. The night is pitch-black, but the troops are equipped with night-vision goggles. They quickly secure the airport, allowing transport planes based in Uzbekistan to bring in ammunition stockpiles and large bladders of fuel for helicopters.

Phase two of the operation kicks off with air strikes in the vicinity of the cave complex to prepare three landing zones--two to cut off enemy reinforcements, and the third at the entrance to the caves. Smart bombs lock on to laser beams pointed by the reconnaissance teams hiding miles away, and they pepper the cave entrances with direct hits by explosives designed to penetrate the rock.

The attack force of about 500 lands as armed helicopters keep the enemy pinned down. The soldiers in the main attack blast their way into the caves. In brutal hand-to-hand fighting against a determined foe, the attack force locates and terminates Osama bin Laden. Soon, resistance ceases, and surviving members of Al Qaeda surrender. After a search of the headquarters for documents on past and planned terrorist strikes, the attack force quickly withdraws. They will have been on the ground for a few hours at most.

WITH THE AL QAEDA LEADERSHIP ELIMINATED, THE role of U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan will likely become one of securing and supporting the political, diplomatic, humanitarian, and cultural activities that will be necessary to put the country back together as a viable state. Later, U.S. military involvement in that country will likely be under a United Nations flag.

What can go wrong with this rosy scenario? Nearly everything. Winter began arriving last month in the high mountains, where peaks range up to 24,000 feet. If the battle must be carried there, U.S. troops will face subzero temperatures, cloud cover that could hamper air support, and deep snow.

They will also face fighters who outlasted a former superpower, the Soviet Union. During a 10-year campaign to subdue Afghan resistance, the Soviets suffered horrible casualties. The Afghan guerrillas, known as mujahideen and armed in part by the U.S., shot down helicopters and made bloody work of long lines of Soviet troops and vehicles trying to wind their way through the narrow mountain passes.

So far, the U.S. strategy of quick night strikes seems carefully calibrated to avoid the fate of the Soviets, who retreated in 1989. But the U.S. faces new risks. The bombing campaign, with an increasing toll of civilian casualties from bombs that go astray from their intended targets, is causing consternation among some U.S. allies in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

U.S. planners have already seen hopes fade for a quick move by anti-Taliban forces. The scenario by which opposition forces put the Taliban on the run and then deliver critical intelligence about bin Laden's whereabouts may be overly optimistic. Reports say that the Taliban have executed people suspected of sympathizing with the rebels, which will make the task of finding willing informants more difficult.

IN ADDITION, THE COMPLEX weave of tribal factions, some of which change sides frequently, will make it hard for the U.S. to organize the political successors to the Taliban. Former fighters for the Soviet Union found brutality and betrayal at the hands of Afghans they thought were allies. Such stories conjure images of the U.S. fight in Vietnam 30 years ago, when some peaceful villagers by day turned into Vietcong guerrilla fighters by night, attacking U.S. troops.

Even top defense officials acknowledge that finding bin Laden may be easier said than done. The U.S. has been trying to catch or kill him since his Al Qaeda organization was linked to the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa. But the U.S. has so far given evidence of great patience and determination to root out the Al Qaeda network, and with the right luck, the U.S. military will eventually find bin Laden in its sights.

Retired Colonel RICHARD GUTHRIE served as a Ranger, Airborne, and Special Forces officer. He enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was 17 and later attended West Point. He served in Vietnam, Panama, and other posts in the U.S. and overseas.

Down in the Dirt

FOCUS: Military Expert Provides a Guide to the U.S. Ground War in Afghanistan


To help students understand the military strategy the U.S. is using in its assault against terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, his Al Qaeda network, and the Taliban.

Discussion Questions:

* Some Americans, as well as people in other countries, have protested against the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan because innocent people are killed along with the Taliban. What is your view on this subject?

* Suppose the U.S. succeeds in crushing the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden. Should U.S. troops stay on peacekeeping duty in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future?

* Why do you believe Osama bin Laden has been so difficult to find?


Critical Thinking: This article teaches an important lesson: There are no easy answers--even for experts. Note first that Col. Guthrie says the full force of U.S. attacks will launch when "political conditions are right." Discuss what he means. Is he talking about political support among Americans? (Probably not, since President Bush's popularity ratings three weeks into the fight were in the 90 percent range.)

The comment about political conditions can help students understand that the U.S. military operation depends heavily on the cooperation of neighboring states, especially Muslim countries like Pakistan. Ask: How important is it for there to be a government ready to step in and take control in Afghanistan after the Taliban are overthrown? Role-play: Ask students to play devil's advocate, reminding them that this is an important job in any strategy design, military or otherwise. Have them identify anything that could go wrong with the following scenarios:

* U.S. intelligence depends on local people to tell them where Osama bin Laden is hiding.

* Hovering helicopters lower U.S. Army Rangers at Kandahar airport, near Taliban headquarters.

* Taliban military resistance ceases following the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden.

* After the Taliban are overthrown, all the tribes of the anti-Taliban forces join together to share equally in a new, democratic government.
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Article Details
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Author:Guthrie, Richard
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 26, 2001
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