Most of the media has given an impression of a massive air bombardment on Afghanistan, but the reality is of a fairly low-level air-war. There are two different reasons for this. The first is that the United States is unable to use bases in the region for bombers or strike aircraft - but only for special operations forces, reconnaissance aircraft and drones, or special functions such as aerial refuelling. It is therefore reliant on aircraft flying from carriers operating well offshore in the Arabian Sea, from Diego Garcia or, in the case of the B-2 stealth bomber, from bases in the United States. As a result, on some recent nights, fewer than ten targets were attacked.
While the B-2 bombers deliver large numbers of bombs, they fly from the US to Afghanistan and then on to Diego Garcia, where fresh crews fly them back to the homeland. The whole sortie takes nearly seventy hours, the planes need detailed maintenance and the US only has twenty-one of them, with perhaps fourteen operational at any one time. It is unlikely they can use more than three in any one night.
Strike aircraft launched from carriers need aerial refuelling. The carriers have a limited number of small tanker aircraft, but the US is also relying on RAF tankers flying out of Oman. It might seem extraordinary, but US air-force tankers are not configured to refuel US navy planes. Such operational difficulties severely limit the capability of the US to maintain aircraft loitering over Afghanistan looking for “targets of opportunity”.
The second reason for the limited strikes is that there are few readily available targets. The Taliban regime is not configured like a conventional army and air force - there are very few planes and helicopters and few large barracks or troop concentrations. The forces are essentially infantry and guerrilla forces. Their mode of operation stems from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, when Afghan resistance groups found it effective to organise in dispersed groups of 20-200 fighters.
In the last few days, air defences and mostly obsolete aircraft have been destroyed quickly, and the primitive command-and-control systems have also been damaged, as have the few bunkers that might have housed military commanders. Most of these are of no great value to the Taliban - in one case, a number of aircraft were destroyed on the ground in an air raid, but they had not been flown for more than a decade.
The limits of technology
There have been attempts to target troop concentrations, and the US is now using “area impact munitions” (AIMs) such as cluster-bombs for this purpose. As the name implies, these are at the opposite end of the bombing spectrum from precision-guided laser bombs. They are designed from the start to cause destruction over the greatest area, and are used against “soft” targets such as trucks, tented camps and people. A typical cluster bomb is actually a canister that dispenses around 150 “bomblets”, each of which detonates to spread up to 2,000 high-velocity shrapnel fragments, the whole bomb shredding anything or anyone within a couple of acres.
Use of AIMs, especially from high altitude, means that civilian casualties are virtually certain. In any case, up to 10% of cluster-bomb munitions can fail to detonate, leaving behind what amount to anti-personnel landmines. Such bomblets have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths months and years after their use in the 1991 Gulf war, and will do likewise in Afghanistan.
Even without the use of AIMs, there have been problems with targeting precision-guided bombs. Incidents include the deaths of four United Nations workers early last week and two more recent events, one possibly involving more than 100 people killed. One reason may be that the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (Nima) falls massively short of producing the digital databases that are needed to guide the bombs. These are rather like finely defined maps; they should give three-dimensional targeting co-ordinates accurate to within nine metres. According to a reliable report, regional commanders need 9,000 of these “maps” to provide adequate coverage. As of late September, they were 5,000 short of this figure.
In other moves, the US navy is ordering 600 more sea-launched cruise missiles to replace stocks used in recent years against Iraq, Sudan, Serbia and Afghanistan. It is also asking for $4 billion in emergency spending on base and ship security. There is currently a worry that the massive aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea might be subject to suicide attacks, analogous to the New York and Washington attacks.
The bombing may continue for some days, possibly with a pause to see if the Taliban will give up Osama bin Laden (this seems unlikely, though they may make offers chiefly for propaganda purposes). Targets will become more difficult to find. There are indications that many Taliban units have been ordered to disperse into cities, towns and villages to await American ground troops. The al-Qaida network has up to fifty-five bases throughout Afghanistan, but these are not so much fully-fledged bases as locations used often on a temporary basis.
Meanwhile, there is a divergence in Washington between military chiefs and the Pentagon’s politicians. The military want to continue the bombing rather than risk their elite special forces in any numbers, in view of the risk of a costly guerrilla war with winter coming on. Their political masters want special forces action. Increasingly, they see the military as out of touch with political realities.
Within Afghanistan, there is considerable integration of the bin Laden forces into the Taliban armed forces. There is little doubt that they, too, will have spread out widely. There are also reports that much of the network has dispersed, many of its personnel even quietly leaving Afghanistan for neighbouring countries to the north and east. A dispersal could last months or years. Given local support in countries such as Pakistan, network personnel would be almost impossible to track down. If the US does deploy forces in Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaida, there may be little to find.
In the immediate future, the US will attempt to seek and destroy units of the Taliban’s fifty-fifth brigade, several thousand troops including many Arabs and other foreign supporters. While this is the most effective Taliban group, it is reported to be widely spread, with only a few hundred concerned with guarding the al-Qaida leadership (including bin Laden). The use of helicopter-borne troops and C-130 gunships is likely. But there is no certainty that the fifty-fifth brigade and other elements of the Taliban militia can be found and attacked within the next four weeks, before the start of Ramadan and then the onset of winter.
According to the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “continuous pressure” will be maintained on the Taliban and elements of the network, but the limited availability of air bases in the region from which to operate makes this questionable. Moreover, the use of Pakistani bases even for helicopter and special-forces operations may become problematic, given the current development of opposition to the US military operations in Pakistan.
It is possible that the Taliban might still give up bin Laden. It is also possible that a US air strike or special-forces operation might destroy him and the network leadership. Both are unlikely. It is more probable that the war will continue for several weeks before being scaled down over the winter. During a much longer time-frame of several months, the extent of troop movements from the United States will give a clear indication of whether the US is planning major and persistent military interventions in Afghanistan next year.
The region, especially Iraq
Street-level opposition to US action is growing in a number of countries in the middle east and southwest Asia. States such as Pakistan and Jordan are moving fast to detain the more militant local leaders. Such action may ensure short-term stability at the risk of longer-term problems, especially if the war stretches over many months.
On the other hand, intense US pressure on Israel is having some effect - the Israeli army has withdrawn armoured units from key areas around Hebron, and two hard-line members of Sharon’s cabinet are likely to resign their posts in protest.
Among the Arab states, Saudi Arabia is particularly sensitive, especially in relation to possible military action against Iraq. A powerful group in Washington sees as essential an Iraq offensive, combining extensive air strikes with, in due course, military occupation of Iraq’s southern oilfields, support for Kurdish rebels in the north and Shi’a forces in the south. While the latter action would be months away, there are reports of the build-up of substantial Turkish armed forces units on the Turkish-Iraqi border. This might be part of such a plan, but could instead be designed to prevent Iraqi Kurds linking up with Kurdish opposition forces in southeast Turkey.
The group of US hawks centres around the Defense Policy Board (DPB), a bipartisan group of hardline security advisers. These include Richard Perle, Newt Gingrich, Henry Kissinger, Dan Quayle, and former CIA director James Woolsey (who has recently been in Britain seeking evidence of an Iraqi link with the attacks of 11 September 2001). Both Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz attended a recent two-day meeting of the DPB that largely excluded participation from the state department (which takes a much more cautious view, as does the British government).
The war is in its early stages, is taking place in a region of hugely complex politics and is following a course that is extraordinarily difficult to predict. Even so, four issues are relevant:
- There are substantial limitations on US military action because of the unavailability of local bases.
- Opposition to the United States in the region is growing quite rapidly.
- The al-Qaida network is being more successful than expected in portraying the war as “the west versus Islam”.
- A powerful lobby in Washington wants to extend the war to Iraq.
The “Iraq hawks” will probably not succeed, not least because of opposition from the Saudi authorities who fear strong internal opposition to any such US move. This, though, is the very reason why the Saddam Hussein regime may deliberately seek to provoke such a reaction, either by substantial infringements of the no-fly zones or else by an apparent military move towards Kuwait. While all the attention is being paid to the conflict in Afghanistan, it is worth watching Iraq.