The long-awaited US attack on Afghanistan appears imminent.
In a repeat of the 1991 Gulf War, the US has completed building a coalition to back its military aims, and has pressured two key nations, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, into reluctant participation in President Bushs `crusade.
The US has two war aims. First, capture or kill Osama bin Laden, who is hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan. Second, overthrow Afghanistans de facto government, Taliban, and replace it by the US and Russian backed Northern Alliance, which will open the way for American-owned oil and gas pipelines running south from Uzbekistan.
As of this writing, the US apparently lacks precise information on bin Ladens whereabouts. He may be hiding in the extensive network of caves and tunnels in the Hindu Kush mountains that he helped construct during the 1980s war against Soviet occupation. Some reports put him in the remote Wakhan Corridor, a wild, uncharted, region of high, snow-capped mountains that extends northeast to the Chinese border. I know this remote area because in the early 1980s, I helped get China to deliver machine guns and mortars across Wakhan by yak trains to Afghan mujihadin forces battling the Soviets invaders.
Washington intends to send commandos into Afghanistan, backed by 350-400 warplanes, C-130U `Spooky gunships, and helicopter gunships flying from former Soviet bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Delta Force, Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Marine recon units, and light infantry from the 10th Mountain Division are slated to be used ensuring all services get a share of the action and glory. US units will work with Britains elite SAS, whose primary mission is reconnaissance and targeting. Russia may send in its Spetsnaz commandos, and KGBs elite Alpha assault team.
These forces are adequate for lightening raids, but not for large- scale, sustained operations inside Afghanistan, even against Talibans ragtag, lightly-armed, 30,000 tribal warriors. A massive, Iraq-style bombing campaign is unlikely: medieval, famine-stricken Afghanistan offers few military targets. Bin Ladens lair, and Taliban HQs in Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar will be the main targets for air and ground assaults.
But locating bin Laden will be difficult; capturing him, far harder. Afghanistans mountains are wild and jagged. Frequent dust storms pose major dangers to helicopter operations. Inserting helicopter-born troops into a narrow valley is perilous, particularly if enemy forces control the high ground and can fire down at the aircraft with heavy machine guns and RPG anti-tank rockets. This writer saw heavily armored Soviet HIND helicopter gunships destroyed in this manner during the 1980s war.
If bin Laden can be located but not snatched, the US could attack him with still secret bombs that can penetrate up to 30 meters of rock and earth and/or deadly fuel air explosives(FAE). These `mini-A bombs release an aerosol of vaporized gasoline over a large area, then detonate. The result is huge, lethal overpressure that ruptures the lungs and other internal organs of anyone below, even those sheltered in bunkers, caves, or basements of concrete buildings. The Russians make extensive use of FAEs against Chechen independence fighters and civilians.
Failure to swiftly kill or capture bin Laden has his few hundred armed supporters means the US may have to deploy many more troops in Afghanistan likely from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions -and hunt for the elusive militant. Sweep operations seeking the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Hind Kush would expose American soldiers to clashes with Afghan fighters, accidents, and the 10 million or more mines left behind by the Soviets. The US could quickly get bogged down in a chaotic, lethal Beirut or Somalia-like situation where it is impossible to tell friend from foe.
Washington clearly intends to put the Northern Alliance into power. But this unsavory collection of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks cannot hope to rule over Afghanistans majority Pakhtuns. The last time a Tajik-led government held Kabul in 1994-5, it refused to share power. The result was civil war. The Northern Alliance may have to rely for survival on the bayonets of US and British troops.
Talibans Pashtuns say they will take to the hills and wage guerrilla war against the Alliance, which is widely viewed in Afghanistan as a creature of the Russians and Americans. Dj vu. In 1983, US Marines were sent to Beirut to prop up a minority regime in the midst of civil war. Hundreds of US Marines died.
Traditional warfare in Afghanistan involves bribing tribal leaders to switch sides. This is how Taliban got into power. US threats and money may induce some Pashtun tribes to ditch Taliban and, if the US is very lucky, hand over bin Laden, dead or alive. Pakistans intelligence agency, ISI, could play a key role in getting tribes to abandon Taliban, though its level of cooperation with Americas war remains in question.
War always has unpredictable consequences. Once combat begins, the best laid plans go awry. The US must strike quickly and decisively, or risk getting bogged down in an aimless war in one of the world least accessible nations whose reputation as graveyard of invaders is well and richly deserved.