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Financial Times (London) November 24, 2001

End in sight for first phase of US campaign

TALIBAN'S REMOVAL: The US has so far been able to act largely unaided but the next stage will require far greater reliance on coalition solidarity


The end is in sight for phase one of the US war on terrorism. It will be reached once Washington has secured the Taliban's removal as a political force - a process that would be brought about by the fall of its stronghold in Kandahar - and has either eliminated Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan or concluded he has moved his headquarters elsewhere.

The pace of events in the past fortnight leads analysts to believe there might be a result in a matter of weeks or even days. The appetite of the US for military involvement in Afghanistan beyond that point appears limited. US officials foresee that the next, wider phase will take much longer. But it will require a different approach from the almost single-handed way the US has conducted its Afghan campaign.

The war's swift development has given US defence chiefs a huge injection of confidence after earlier criticism of their strategy. The effect of long-distance air raids in turning the balance of power provides a vindication of military policies, a staff-college model for future interventions.

But experts said from the beginning that this would be the easy part, and it has been easy to an extent that the US would be unlikely to find elsewhere.

Francois Heisbourg, director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, says: "Overthrowing a tinpot regime in Kabul is not exactly a major military undertaking." The isolation of the Taliban regime, cut off from political or other support from outside governments, made it an exceptional case.

With marginal assistance from allies, the US asserted absolute superiority at little cost to itself. Unless there have been unreported casualties among special forces, the only deaths on the US side so far were two army Rangers killed in a helicopter accident in Pakistan. Losses on the Taliban side are uncertain, but run into thousands.

US jets have faced no enemy aircraft, and no reported attack by surface-to-air missiles. This contrasts, experts say, with some 700 hostile missile launches during Nato's Kosovo campaign in 1999.

The air strikes, which hollowed out Taliban defences, were much less intense than in the Kosovo campaign or the Gulf war against Iraq eight years earlier. Despite its high profile, this air campaign has been more on the level of Nato's 1995 Deliberate Force operation against the Bosnian Serbs.

It has taken as long as it has only because of the political constraints on the way the US used its firepower in the initial stage. Mr Heisbourg reckons the caution may have been misplaced. "If the bombing had been serious early on then, there would have been less collateral damage (civilian casualties) and the Taliban would have fallen earlier," he says.

The disparity between military capabilities has been grotesque - on one level the old, ill-maintained and improvised weaponry of the Afghan civil war, on another the full US display-case of advanced sensors, guidance systems, both manned and unmanned spy platforms and co-ordination with covert units on the ground.

In the words of John Pike, US defence analyst, these provided "a level of surveillance on the battlefield that simply was unanticipated by the Taliban, could not have been done by any other country, couldn't even have been done by the US prior to a few years ago".

To all intents and purposes, the US has carried out the campaign unilaterally. But that proved to be no handicap. Apart from a handful of special forces, allies have played only token parts, with Britain assisting in air-to-air refuelling and the French in refuelling at sea.

But the remaining fronts of the war, as well as being more complicated, imply greater reliance on coalition solidarity - whether in intelligence, police operations, financial crackdowns or further military actions against al-Qaeda and associated groups. These actions could include countries where the US is not facing a hostile government, such as the Philippines. They could involve Somalia, in which case the US might enlist French co-operation to operate from Djibouti.

Afghanistan has proved the US can conduct a sophisticated air campaign at long range. But for helicopter operations, it still needs facilities close to target areas.

In Iraq, continued enforcement by the US and Britain of no-fly zones provides a framework for air strikes. But any temptation to raise the stakes through a direct attempt to oust Saddam Hussein is tempered by the risk of losing international support. Efforts to close loopholes on finance for international terrorists stand little chance of success without the broadest possible global coalition.

Copyright 2001 The Financial Times Limited