Bombing weakens Taliban for U.S. land attack

Fighting experienced troops on their ground requires skill, risks

War On Terrorism

The World

October 14, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Now comes the hard part in Afghanistan.

In the shadows, U.S. and British special operations forces are gearing up to go in on the ground.

Citing the need for secrecy, Pentagon officials are reluctant to talk about the prospect of Green Beret troops and other special operators who can be expected to soon swoop in low on heavily armored helicopters from Uzbekistan or the USS Kitty Hawk in the north Arabian Sea. They may even slip across the border by truck or beast of burden, dressed in native garb.

Anti-Taliban rebels say that U.S. and British special operations troops linked with them weeks ago, collecting targeting information and other intelligence. "There is a limited presence of special troops with us in Afghanistan," said Daoud Mir, a special envoy in Washington for the anti-Taliban United Front, also called the Northern Alliance.

Pentagon officials say that Navy strike aircraft and Air Force bombers rule the skies in Afghanistan, after using precision weaponry for the past week to damage the Taliban regime's armaments, radar facilities and aircraft.

Appearing on a Pentagon video, those shattered warplanes looked like a child's broken toys on a beige carpet. There has been little Taliban resistance, save for a few rockets and some anti-aircraft artillery that exploded in puffs far below the high-flying U.S. planes.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the air attacks are "stage-setters for follow-on operations."

"Some of these efforts will be visible, but many will not," he told reporters.

`You increase the risk'

Current and former military officers realize the relatively safe aspect of Operation Enduring Freedom is coming to an end. The scores or hundreds of special operators on the ground will face tenacious and hunkered-down terrorists and Taliban militia, a forbidding climate and terrain, millions of land mines, an uncertain amount of workable intelligence and a disparate group of anti-Taliban rebels whose loyalty and military skills are not fully known.

"Any time you put feet on the ground, you increase the risk," said retired Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the former commandant of the Marine Corps. "There are so many things that can happen."

One special operations officer who has worked in the region said the ground effort is doable but difficult.

"It's going to take time. It's going to take a long period, months," he said. "What's the whole goal? It's not just Osama Bin Laden but the whole network. They've been at this thing for years. They know the caves. They have comfortable, well-stocked hideouts."

`All depends on intelligence'

The officer said victory "all depends on intelligence" - in other words, pinpointing the location of the terrorists. So far, Pentagon officials say, they always seem to be a step behind bin Laden; he never sleeps in the same place twice.

The special forces bring to the fight hand-to-hand combat and weapons skills. Their units operate with a dozen or fewer soldiers, from snipers and medics to experts in communications, weaponry and demolition. They boast that they can adapt to any situation.

"They're trained to shoot and survive and be stealthy and fast," the officer said. "The thing that makes them so different is they plan to the nth degree and they rehearse every single contingency, every single what-if."

Still, there have been times when the special operations forces have let their guard down. "Not having contingency plans is what killed them in Somalia. Two helicopters down and no contingency," said one retired officer who served with a Special Forces Group, referring to the deaths of 18 Army Rangers and elite Delta Force commandos in the disastrous search for Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in 1993.

It was rocket-propelled grenades that brought down those Blackhawk helicopters in Somalia. In Afghanistan similar grenades and more-feared Stinger shoulder-fired missiles that have a range of 15,000 feet could prove deadly to helicopters, which normally fly below that altitude. "Those things would be something the helicopters would worry about," said the special operations officer.

At the same time, the twin scourges of terrain and weather in Afghanistan could hamper military operations, some suggest.

The landscape is brown and treeless, with mountains in northern Afghanistan rising to about 18,000 feet. November snows in some of the handful of mountain passes make transportation all but impossible. Temperatures can fall well below zero.

The troops need to move in on the ground "fairly quickly," a retired senior officer said. If operations are not well along by the onset of winter, "the psychological advantage goes to the other side." Another retired officer said that special operators are skilled in mountains, deserts, woodlands and swamps but doubted that they have much experience in caves, where bin Laden and his network are thought to be hiding.

"We don't do caves," said the officer. "I don't remember a cave training site."

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