Finger On The Trigger : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread


(edited due to Greenspun text capacity limitations. . . . (ellipses) indicate editing.

September 30 2001 TERRORISM

It was the week the West softened its talk of war. But as diplomacy faltered, the battle fleets were gathering. Richard Woods reports Finger on the trigger Emerging faces of the fight that lies ahead

The United States aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt is almost as long as the twin towers of the World Trade Center were high. Nearly 1,100ft from stem to stern and 252ft wide, it embodies 97,000 tons of diplomatic muscle. More than 5,600 fighting men and women are on board. . . . Protecting this floating city are eight smaller warships, two submarines and three amphibious units. The carrier's own armaments include Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles and Phalanx "close-in weapons systems" that blast anything that breaks through the outer defences.

The Roosevelt and three similar battle fleets are converging on the Middle East. At the same time scores of stealth fighters, attack helicopters and heavy bombers, including B-52 strato- fortresses, are flying into airbases in the region. US airborne troops are gearing up in Pakistan, while detachments of American and British special forces have already infiltrated Afghanistan. Thousands of US marines are on the way. As this mighty war machine homes in on the terrorist fanatic Osama Bin Laden and his network, the moment of truth arrives. What do they do next? What can all this military muscle achieve?

Nobody is sure.

For the politicians, admirals and generals, the "war on terrorism" has transmogrified into the tautest game of cat and mouse that the world has seen. Their quarry is in the hills and caves of a rugged and desolate land. Its infrastructure is shot to pieces, its people face starvation, there is little left to bomb. In a few weeks heavy snow will come to Afghanistan. The passes will be blocked and only the hardy will survive. "It's bloody terrible, it's a different cold," said Tom Carew, a former SAS soldier who once trained the Afghan mujaheddin. "It's like being up in the north of Norway. The Russians say it's on a par with Siberia. In two or three weeks you'll start getting snow to your knees, to your waist, to your neck."

Under the beauty of the snow the landmines are still deadly. "You've got minefields all over the place," said Carew. Then there are the Afghan fighters. "You can't tell one from another - they don't wear a uniform," said Carew. "So you can't say he's Northern Alliance, he's Taliban. But they can tell who you are." All in all, concludes Carew, "if you are going to go storming in there, you've got a real bagload of s***".

A month after the snow appears, Ramadan will begin. America could not fight a war during this long religious festival without provoking the "clash of civilisations" that it is so keen to avoid.

The American commanders are well aware of the obstacles. They can plan accordingly, using all the high-technology that money can buy. If Bin Laden comes into the cross hairs, they know what to do. But what if the terrorist chieftain is impossible to pinpoint? What if civilians die, rather than the terrorists?

One misguided missile could detonate revolution in other Islamic lands - with terrible consequences. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia controls a quarter of the world's oil. Bin Laden has issued a fax from his hiding place calling on Muslims to "crush the new Jewish-Christian crusader campaign on the land of Pakistan and Afghanistan". At least four people have died in anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan. What if an uprising swept away Pakistan's military government and left the nuclear arsenal in fundamentalist hands? As for Saudi Arabia, investigators in the United States have noted with growing unease how many of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi-born - as is Bin Laden. There is little doubt that he hopes American retaliation in Afghanistan will ignite an uprising in his homeland, not least because American military operations could well be commanded from "sacred" Saudi soil. A full-scale ground war would almost certainly provoke rebellion.

As all these complexities surfaced, America and its allies found themselves last week in a global minefield. Which way will they turn? When George W Bush visited London earlier this year, he was keen to see the cabinet war rooms used by Winston Churchill during the second world war. He toured the bunker and was given a bust of Churchill which, Bush jokes, now keeps a watchful eye on his decisions. Sooner than Bush could ever have expected, he was convening his own war cabinet. The twin towers had been destroyed and the Pentagon breached. The world seemed susceptible to Churchillian action. . . . The terrorists had to be brought to justice - and if that meant using all of America's military power, so be it. But this was two weeks ago, when America was in shock and the complexity of the task it was setting itself had not yet sunk in. For seven hours that weekend Bush's national security team pored over maps and charts at Camp David, planning the superpower's response. Among some advisers the mood was for a wide-ranging assault on countries harbouring terrorists.

The following day Bush asked for a first draft of the speech he would deliver to Congress. Impossible, said his aides. "By 7pm," he insisted. The speechwriters delivered a draft that night. In bold, heroic terms it called for the handing over of Bin Laden, the destruction of his terrorist camps and a war that "would not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated". He told American soldiers: "Be ready, the hour is coming." A two-day meeting of the Pentagon defence policy board, a body that includes Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle and Henry Kissinger, concluded that after Afghanistan the United States should target Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz, the hawkish deputy defence secretary, was keen to topple America's old foe, Saddam Hussein, whom he accuses of conniving with Bin Laden. Wolfowitz, a conservative ideologue, is a mathematician by training. His analysis points to Saddam as the principal threat to peace in the Middle East. As Bush gave vent to the popular mood through warlike words, the military planners were hard at work. Within a week General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was reviewing a possible strategy. It was Shelton's last big battle plan; he retires this week. Nine days ago he and his team took their maps to the White House.

Bush had already approved the deployment of special forces and other preparatory measures. If a genuine target had presented itself, said one Pentagon official last week, Bush would have said: "Go." Not all generals were convinced that American might would prevail in the deserts and mountains of Asia, despite the success of the Gulf war in 1991. That victory, said General Anthony Zinni, former commander of US forces in the Middle East, was almost an aberration. "The only reason why Desert Storm [codename of the Gulf war attack] worked," he said, "was because we managed to go up against the only jerk on the planet who was stupid enough to confront us symmetrically." Saddam and the Iraqi army were no match for the allies in a set-piece battle - "symmetrical warfare" in defence speak. Bin Laden and his terrorist bands, skulking in Afghanistan, are more elusive. As the Soviet forces discovered when they tried to tame Afghanistan, conventional forces flounder. "When I was there we said that you can't conquer this country, you can only buy it," said General Alexander Lyakhovski, who served in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "Fighting in the mountains rules out any use of wheels and armour. Unless you mount fortified checkpoints all along your lines, everything will be blown up, destroyed or stolen."

At Camp David and the White House, the first to recognise the hurdles was Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the Gulf war and now secretary of state. Powell knew, too, that America had to avoid inflaming Muslim radicals elsewhere if it was to retain its allies in the Middle East. Pulverising a nation of destitute Afghans was a non-starter. He took the lead in opposing Wolfowitz and other hawks. In front of Bush he warned that the international coalition against terrorism would be "wrecked" if Iraq was added to the immediate list of targets. Any attacks, argued Powell, should be directed at destroying Bin Laden's bases, not trying to punish whole countries. Powell gave his name to the "Powell doctrine" of using overwhelming force to achieve clearly defined goals during the Gulf war; but the main lesson he has remembered is the importance of having a broad alliance in achieving those goals. Powell provided a persuasive alternative to the Pentagon's messier uncertainties. His strategy would not lead to a large-scale ground war. But Wolfowitz's proposals, Powell pointed out, certainly could. Sensing that they were losing the policy battle, the hawks went public last week. William Kristol, a conservative polemicist, accused Powell of undermining the president. He wrote in The Washington Post: "Virtually every major political figure has gone out of his way to support the president. Except for his secretary of state." Memories were revived of Powell's role in America's last attempt at a high-profile snatch operation, the Mogadishu debacle of 1993, when its special forces were humiliated by Somali gunmen. Powell retired as chairman of the joint chiefs during the operation; the date had long been fixed, but critics say he should have stuck with his men.

There was another key adviser talking to Bush, however: his father, the 41st president. Bush senior had been steadfast in expelling Iraqi invaders from Kuwait during the Gulf war a decade ago, but it had been his decision to stop there. He had chosen not to topple the Iraqi tyrant. Now the former president again counselled caution. According to family friends, he advised his son to tone down his bellicose language. In an interview he explained the difference between his war and the one his son faces: "I knew who the enemy was. I knew what our mission was."

As the bombs failed to drop, it became clear that the chattering classes of the western world had underestimated the "cowboy" president from Texas. They had raised their hands in horror at his initial talk of catching Bin Laden "dead or alive". Now they found that while Dubya talked tough, he acted subtle. He was not going to rush into a military adventure. The "Potus" - as the president of the United States is sometimes abbreviated - also made a point of publicising the remarkably calm daily schedule that he has been maintaining during this crisis. . . .

Some 3,000 miles away, Tony Blair has not attempted such hokum. His role has been that of the burdened statesman. His face clouded with concern, he has come across as the most combative European leader, declaring that Bin Laden's terrorist network must be destroyed. "Military conflict there will be - unless the Taliban change and respond to the ultimatum given to them," he told a press conference in the sun-dappled garden of No 10 last week. However, in private he, too, has been treading ever more carefully as the complexities of the crisis grow. "If you want to draw a vulgar distinction between hawks and doves then yes, Tony is more of a dove than a hawk. So is everyone else in this government," said a minister involved in planning Britain's response to the terror attacks.

"There has been talk in America about ending states which sponsor terrorism and people were whipped up to the point where they expected a carpet-bombing of Kabul. That was never what Tony wanted to see." Early on, Blair told Bush that proof against Bin Laden was needed before action should be taken and that they must be sensitive to Muslim opinion across the world. "My sense is he was pushing at an open door because Bush told Tony that he didn't want to bomb sand," said the minister. To press the point, Blair sent Jack Straw, his foreign secretary, to visit Iran. Once regarded as a pariah state and a sponsor of terrorism, Iran was now offering to help the allied coalition. During the Kosovo crisis, Blair invited television crews to film him in the "war" bunker under the Ministry of Defence; this time he has not bothered to use it. Nor has he formed a war cabinet, preferring instead to have occasional meetings and frequent telephone conversations with ministers such as Straw, Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, and David Blunkett, the home secretary.

The strongest message that no action was imminent came from Donald Rumsfeld, the American defence secretary, demonised as an ultra-hawk until this crisis revealed the suppleness of the real man. Shortly before he walked into the Pentagon briefing room on Wednesday, aides attended to the board behind the podium. Gone were the usual satellite pictures of enemy positions; in their place was a gift from a local school - a poster of children's handprints. There was "not going to be a D-Day as such", Rumsfeld told the bemused press corps. The coming campaign "is by its very nature something that cannot be dealt with by some sort of a massive attack or invasion. It is a much more subtle, nuanced, difficult, shadowy set of problems". To be sure, Rumsfeld insisted, the United States would be "taking the fight to the terrorists", but it was not going "to be over in five minutes or five months". The situation in Afghanistan was "a little like a billiard table: the balls careen around for a while and you don't know what they'll do".

While Washington waited, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, mulled over his options in the ruins of Afghanistan. He is not known as an easy man to negotiate with. During a discussion about Bin Laden with a Pakistani diplomat, Omar once called for a bucket of water and tipped it over his own head. How would he react under the heat of the allied demands? He began to play a game of bluff for the highest stakes. Surrender Bin Laden? We don't know where he is, said a Taliban spokesman, he might have left the country. Omar declared he was mobilising 300,000 men to fight any invaders. The reality was that tens of thousands of Afghan refugees were on the move, desperate for food and sanctuary away from the expected Armageddon. Some walked for days with nothing to eat, hoping to reach Pakistan. Others made their way to rebel-held territory in the north and spoke of press gangs roaming Kabul. "The Taliban are taking all the young men during the night," said Abdulhamid, a 45-year-old man who made it to the rebel-held territory. "I thought they were going to take me, too," said Wahidullah, another escapee. "That was when I decided to leave."

The Taliban threatened to execute anyone communicating with the outside world. Women, who have traditionally been ignored, began to be searched in case they were foreigners in disguise. As the pressures mounted, the Taliban leaders suddenly conceded that Bin Laden was still in Afghanistan. They had sent a message to him relaying the judgment of the country's ruling clerics that he should leave Afghanistan voluntarily. And what had been Bin Laden's response? "The message had to be sent through a messenger who probably took some time to find him," said Qudrutullah Jamal, the Taliban information minister. "And he has not returned."

Losing the messenger was not good enough. Pakistan, fearing for its own stability, dispatched a delegation of leading Muslim clerics who are friendly to the Taliban, accompanied by General Mahmood Ahmed, the extremely powerful Pakistani head of intelligence. For a day they met with the one-eyed Omar in Kandahar. They discussed the stability of their two countries, but Omar would hear nothing about handing over Bin Laden. According to one of the Pakistani clerics, Omar insisted that it was America that "should give up its stubbornness".

As the delegation returned empty-handed to Islamabad, American and British special forces units were already on reconnaissance missions inside Afghanistan. Even if they cannot find Bin Laden, they can identify his terrorist training bases and the forces of the Taliban. Once those targets are pinpointed, Bush may give the order to attack. Military analysts believe that when the time comes the bombers and fighter jets could target the dozen or so airstrips that the Taliban have across the country. Its small force of helicopters and Soviet MiG fighters would be destroyed. Bin Laden's training camps would be the next to be hit, along with the Taliban forces which are equipped with ageing Soviet armour.

Rebel groups such as the Northern Alliance would push forward threatening Kabul; already they are little more than 20 miles away. Much of the Taliban army of about 50,000 men would be disrupted, said Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghanistan army colonel. "Only the core elements around the leaders, not more than 10,000 or 15,000, will fight," he predicted. Small bands of allied special forces would mount raids with back-up cover from helicopters and fighter jets. They might establish a forward military base within Afghanistan, perhaps with the help of rebels who already control a former Soviet airfield at Bagram in the north. From there they could stalk Bin Laden. It is not impossible that they would find him. Special forces found and seized war criminals in the Balkans.

The allies have taken on a much greater burden than just hunting for this one man, however. America has been condemned in retrospect for leaving Afganistan to its chaotic fate more than a decade ago after helping the mujaheddin to expel the Russians. It knows it cannot do so again.

What happens if the Taliban government falls? The search is already on to identify a replacement leader acceptable to the majority Pashtun population. The octogenarian former king, exiled in Rome, and his son have been mentioned. But the real task is the rebuilding of Afghanistan from the ground up, physically and administratively. A civil administration mandated by the United Nations, similar to Kosovo's, is mooted; but the most blighted corner of former Yugoslavia is a model of civic engagement compared with Afghanistan.

The allies are preparing a huge aid programme, a war of "bread as well as bombs". As millions of Afghans face famine, Blair has urged the formation of a "humanitarian coalition" to cope with millions of refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is launching an appeal and the UN Children's fund said it would use 4,000 donkeys to send 200 tons of supplies through the mountains into the north of Afghanistan.

With all eyes on Afghanistan, the Pentagon tries to conduct business as usual. . . . Reports were coming in that a special forces unit had been captured in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld has warned that it will "not be antiseptic war. It will be difficult, it will be dangerous". People will be "lost". How difficult, how dangerous? In the end only one person will decide whether all the battle fleets, the fighter jets and special forces will be for show or for action. While the world waits nervously, the president has much to ponder as he walks his dog and checks the baseball scores.

Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd. Fair Use for Educational and Research Purposes Only

-- Robert Riggs (, September 30, 2001


email address correction

-- (, September 30, 2001.

Robert- Another excellent article. Thank you for posting this.

-- Swissrose (, September 30, 2001.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ