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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
Analysis: Role of the elite troops
RAF regiment training
British troops in training
Jonathan Marcus

America's military preparations seem familiar - carrier battle groups are under way and warplanes are deploying to overseas bases.

But military action, when it comes, is likely to be very different from anything we have seen before. Certainly air power will be used but the real action will be on the ground.

Many experts believe that this could involve one of the largest special forces operations in recent years.

The attacks on Washington and New York killed thousands of people and changed once and for all the reluctance of America's political leaders to risk soldiers in ground combat.

Casualty risk

This reluctance to put its troops "in harm's way" was often more apparent than real. It is clear, for example, that President George Bush senior was quite prepared to suffer US casualties in the Gulf War.

But as things turned out the ground campaign was so quick that US casualties were in fact minimal. Now, with so many US civilian lives lost, there is no question about accepting the risk of military casualties.

Northern Alliance troops
Special forces may work alongside the Northern Alliance
Special forces are the ideal ground troops for what lies ahead.

The Pentagon does not want to invade Afghanistan. It has studied the Soviet army's operations there and knows that a long stay would play to the Taleban's strengths. It also doesn't want to flatten large areas of the country with bombing. There will be no Iraq-style air campaign.

For one thing, there are just not the equivalent targets in Afghanistan - the country is poor and much of its infrastructure has already been destroyed in years of civil war.

But if the US is to carry the international diplomatic coalition it has forged, it needs to make its strikes judicious, clearly focused and with every effort to avoid civilian loss of life - once again suggesting that it would be better to go in on the ground.

Everything of course depends upon adequate intelligence. Many reports suggest that Western special forces - possibly Britain's Special Air Service, the SAS, or US units - are already in place on the ground gathering information.

Highly trained

It would not be surprising but defence ministries simply don't speak about that type of operation. But if special forces are to play a key role in the days ahead the Pentagon can draw on a variety of highly trained units.

As if to underline the growing importance of this kind of warfare, the US Special Operations Command was established as a separate entity in 1987. It is responsible for army, navy and air force special forces.

They include the 75th Ranger Regiment - the premier light infantry unit in the US Army and the so-called Delta Force, an elite anti-terrorist unit.

Special forces from America's allies - especially some of its Nato allies might also be involved with particular attention focused on Britain's SAS which has long-operational experience of this part of the world and is widely regarded by professionals as "one of the best in the business".

Close-quarter struggle

The exact nature of the operation is unclear. It might involve sweeps of key areas of Afghanistan or it might involve the seizure of territory and the holding of a "box" for some days while other teams scoured the terrain for the hiding places of Osama Bin Laden's followers.

High-technology will give the US forces many advantages over their Soviet equivalents.

They have highly sophisticated helicopters with tailor-made navigational and electronic systems to insert, supply and recover special forces teams. But this will be no "Rambo" movie.

Afghan fighters know the terrain well and will see themselves as confronting an invading force.

Technology is important but is not always relevant in this grim and determined close-quarters struggle.

US and other Western leaders are already warning of potential casualties readying public opinion to realise that this really is a new kind of warfare from what has been seen in the past decade.


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24 Sep 01 | Americas
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