The Associated Press November 2, 2001
Don't expect a quick end to American attacks in Afghanistan
By MATT KELLEY
The war in Afghanistan will be long, U.S. officials keep stressing, and the reasons are clear: The mission, more of a dragnet for terrorists than a conventional war, is difficult. The helpers, the northern alliance, have fewer guns and fighters and less equipment than the enemy. And the key to an endgame - finding Osama bin Laden - takes extraordinary intelligence information that America so far has lacked.
"We're still in the very, very early stages of this conflict," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday. He noted that the World Trade Center ruins are still smoldering and said the United States didn't bomb Japan in retaliation for Pearl Harbor until four months later. A few world leaders have called for a quick end to the conflict.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said continued fighting will hamper efforts to deliver food and other humanitarian supplies to starving Afghans. "We would want to see this whole military operation ended as soon as possible, particularly the air action, so that we can begin to move in our supplies," Annan said this week.
In addition, some of America's Muslim allies, such as Pakistan, have said they would like the strikes on Afghanistan to end before the mid-November start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But Pentagon officials and military analysts say the mission will continue for at least several months.
"President Bush's objective is to catch bin Laden and his associates, with replacement of the Taliban regime a close second," said retired Army Col. Daniel Smith. "So, if he sticks to his guns, the effort overall will last through the wintertime - unless we get awfully lucky."
Why is this going to be a long war? The main reason is simple: Wiping out a relatively small and mobile group of terrorists in a large, rugged country like Afghanistan is difficult.
"You're looking for about 2,000 (al-Qaida) people in a country of 22 million," said analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org. "It's going to take a long time."
Dislodging the Taliban, which have ruled most of the country since 1996, has proved difficult as well. There have been no high-level Taliban officials killed or persuaded to switch sides during the four-week bombing campaign, for example.
By the start of Ramadan, analysts say, airstrikes will probably be winding down in favor of special forces operations on the ground - such as the raid earlier this month by 100 Army Rangers and others on two sites near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
"Given the primitive state of the Taliban command and control and air defenses ... regular bombing raids probably would be yielding very minimal results by the end of another two weeks," said Smith, a researcher at the Center for Defense Information.
Winter weather will be an added challenge. It makes flying airplanes and helicopters more difficult; on the ground, snow slows commando units. "One of the things about special operations is that they absolutely rely on surprise," Smith said. "Anything that slows them down starts to work against successful completion of the mission." Cold and snow would give the Americans some benefits, however. It's easier to use infrared equipment to spot the heat from a campfire or a person. Snow would either keep enemies in place or slow them down.
Another factor slowing the campaign is the condition of the anti-Taliban forces the United States is trying to help. The rebels have fewer guns, fighters, equipment - even less food - than the Taliban. The Taliban's capture and execution of prominent opposition figure Abdul Haq last week also showed the rebels' vulnerability.
A small number of U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, helping the northern alliance with training and tactics and giving American pilots precise information on Taliban targets. The United States also has been supplying rebel groups with weapons, food and other material.
To get bin Laden or any high-ranking terrorist, the military needs very specific information about where he is, where he's going, how many people are with him, his daily schedule and whether areas around him are booby-trapped. That's something the United States has been unable to do so far.
"It's not good enough to know where he is at the moment," said retired Gen. Fred Woerner, former head of the U.S. Southern Command. "To conduct a snatch operation you have to know where your target is going to be. And Lord, that takes intelligence preparation to an extraordinary level."
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press