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Friday, 21 September, 2001, 13:44 GMT 14:44 UK
Q&A: Military options
Following the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the United States is considering military options for responding to those it deems responsible for the atrocities. No-one knows what contingencies the US military is preparing for, but BBC News Online looks at some of the more likely scenarios.

Is the US about to go to war?

Many Americans, in their anger and grief, have been calling for a robust and quick response to attacks which have left more than 6,000 dead.

Within days of the attacks, President George W Bush said that the country was at war.

However, this is not a conventional conflict - no country has declared war on the United States.

The US is holding individuals and organisations responsible, but has also said it will act against those states harbouring or backing those who attacked the America.

What will the US do?

Washington has identified the Saudi-born Islamic militant, Osama Bin Laden, as a key suspect behind the attacks.

The US has specifically threatened military action against Afghanistan, where he lives, if the country's Taleban leaders do not hand him over.

The Pentagon is moving about 100 US warplanes toward the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

It has an air force base in the Indian Ocean at Diego Garcia, from which strikes against Afghanistan could easily be launched.

Two US carrier battle groups, the USS Enterprise and the USS Carl Vinson, are in the area.

Any response is expected to be far more severe and drawn out than previous cruise missile strikes against Bin Laden, which were seen as inadequate and counterproductive.

Officials have gone on record as saying that the action taken against America's attackers will be a lengthy campaign extending over years, not just a short-term military riposte.

However, the initial US response might well include missile and fighter jet strikes.

What would bombing achieve?

President Bush has said that he wants Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive".

But no one knows exactly where he is, so there is no certainty that air strikes would successfully target him.

The US might use other military means to try and force the Taleban to co-operate and deliver up Bin Laden, or offer useful information.

In the meantime, thousands of Afghans are leaving the country, crowding into already packed refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan.

Aid agencies are warning of a human catastrophe in the country. They say about one million refugees are on the move, joining another million people already displaced by fighting and a severe drought.

Iran, where many Afghan refugees already live, has closed its borders since the attacks.

What are America's other military options?

Other than missile attacks, one option open to the US is an operation by commando squads to kill or arrest those behind the atrocities.

Press reports have talked of US officials looking into the constitutional implications of clandestine operations against particular individuals.

Increasingly there is speculation about a substantial land deployment by US and allied troops in Afghanistan.

Under this scenario, US forces would take up position in territory held by the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance.

The forces might then move against Taleban military positions and carry out a search of areas in which Bin Laden and his organisation might be hiding.

Such operations would require extensive co-operation and coordination with the forces of the Northern Alliance, and a US ground troop deployment in the country that might last weeks and months, rather than days.

What else can the US do?

The military dimension will be only part of a much broader effort to disrupt and destroy the shadowy networks behind the US hijackings.

Intelligence agencies and law-enforcement organisations in several countries will have a part to play.

The diplomatic coalition being forged to back Washington has a practical side as well as the purely rhetorical.

Information exchanges will have to be stepped up and computer and financial experts deployed to track terrorist funds.

It is easy to concentrate on the movement of military hardware - aircraft carriers leaving port cannot be hidden. But much of the real war will be taking place in the shadows and it will not be talked about in the press briefings either.

Will the US risk military casualties?

There has been great wariness on the part of Washington to risk US soldiers' lives in such operations abroad.

And Afghanistan has proved almost impossible terrain for many foreign armies - most recently, the Soviet Union, which invaded the country in 1979.

But now that the US mainland itself has come under such devastating attack, such considerations may no longer apply, and military planners may be asked to assess the risks of sending troops in on the ground.

What about the international coalition against terrorism?

Diplomatic pressure, as well as economic and political sanctions, will all play a part.

The US has been gathering support from its traditional allies within Nato, and seeking backing from other key countries.

Despite tensions in their diplomatic relationships, Russian and China have pledged support for Washington and are likely to have key roles in this coalition. Without them, joint international action will be very difficult.

Will the US seek unlikely allies?

Pakistan, whose recent relations with Washington have not been smooth, has been asked for intelligence and logistical support.

President Bush has stressed that the US response to the terrorist attacks is not a war on Islam.

He has courted Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the world's most populous Islamic nation.

The US may also be ready to talk to countries with whom it has had very tense relations.

Following Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's condemnation of the terror attacks, the US is pondering a new approach to Tehran.


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