Covert raids are key to U.S. strategy

Experts emphasize commandos' value

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

October 05, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- One thing seems certain about the anticipated attack on Afghanistan: It will take place under cover of darkness.

The U.S. military is fond of saying that in wartime it "owns the night," with its night vision goggles, infrared sensors and precision-guided munitions. The initial attacks on Serbia in 1999 and the invasion of Iraq in 1991 all occurred in the evening or in the early morning blackness.

But military experts doubt that the expected campaign against the Taliban militia and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist camps will mirror the weeks-long aerial bombardments that characterized Operation Allied Force and the Persian Gulf war.

The more likely scenario is surgical airstrikes against terrorist camps as well as Taliban military and government targets, coupled with raids by special operations commandos to root out terrorists or Taliban fighters in the rugged hills of Afghanistan. Helicopter gunships and infantry troops may later be used, they said.

Retired Air Force Gen. Merrill "Tony" McPeak, who was the service's top officer during the gulf war, said the combination of stealth and precision weaponry in the U.S. arsenal means an enemy can say goodbye to any fixed targets such as tanks, radar sites and command centers.

"The problem is, I don't see many fixed targets in Afghanistan," he said. "It doesn't make any sense to me to do massive aerial attacks." Moreover, he said, the lightly armed terrorists are constantly on the move, and it's difficult to target them. While high-tech wizardry can help a pilot zero in on a tank or a truck, McPeak said, "we don't have the sensors in the cockpit that track bin Laden around on the ground."

One special operations officer with experience in the region also predicted the air attacks would likely be more surgical than sweeping. "It's going to be like trying to find a cancer, or a melanoma," he said.

Ground targets exist

Still, Pentagon officials say there are a number of targets in Afghanistan for the U.S. military to home in on. The first would certainly be the limited radar equipment, surface-to-air missile sites, anti-aircraft artillery batteries and aging Soviet-era fighter aircraft operated by the Taliban, they said. That would allow U.S. warplanes to quickly gain control of the skies.

The Taliban is an "infantry-heavy force" that does not have many tanks or heavy armor, said one military officer familiar with the likely targets. Still, he said, Pentagon war planners are talking about targeting specific units, such as mechanized forces, meaning tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Haron Amin, a spokesman for the Afghan mission to the United Nations, the government in exile, said the Taliban has scores of tanks on two fronts, around the war-torn capital city of Kabul and near the Tajikistan border to the north. Moreover, there are Soviet MiG warplanes at the international airport in Kabul, he said.

As for Kabul itself, most of the government and military activities have moved south to Kandahar, which is now "the main venue for all activities," Amin said.

Government buildings in the cross hairs there would certainly include those overseeing such crucial operations as intelligence, defense and police forces, officials said. And bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network has more than two dozen training camps that U.S. forces can target, stretching from those around Khowst, 94 miles south of Kabul, to others outside Herat in the western edge of the country not far from the Iranian border.

Several officials cautioned that any airstrikes must be careful to limit noncombatant casualties. Televised pictures of civilian carnage would certainly fuel the anti-American sentiment already present in Afghanistan and throughout the region. "Terrorists often count on a disproportionate response," McPeak said. "The Sheriff of Nottingham is always getting into trouble trying to lean on villagers to try to get Robin Hood."

With all the precision weaponry in the U.S. arsenal, "there is no reason for us to have wholesale slaughter of innocent bystanders," added one high-ranking military officer.

The United States has enough firepower in the region to pummel targets in Afghanistan. There are about 350 warplanes, including Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighters, B-1B and B-52 bombers and the Navy's carrier-based F/A-18 and F-14 fighters.

Both the B-52s and Navy ships are able to launch 1,000-pound to 2,000-pound cruise missiles.

Some of the aircraft can carry such munitions as the GBU-24, a bomb that can burrow into deep bunkers and reinforced targets.

"You've got a lot of air power, a lot of options," said one military officer.

There are about 30,000 U.S. military personnel in the region, including Marines and sailors in the northern Arabian Sea. One carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, is steaming to the area without its strike aircraft and is expected to be used for troops and helicopters.

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