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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Tactical analysis: The military view
American soldiers
Deployment of ground troops may be the next stage
As the air strikes on Afghanistan near the end of their first week, Ian Wright, a former British Army Major in Bosnia and an expert in covert operations against terrorists, gauges the success of the military action so far.

After less than three days of the 'air war' General Richard Myres, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared: "Essentially we have air supremacy over Afghanistan."

This quick success - the air war over Kosovo lasted 70 days - shows that there was a lot less to hit in Afghanistan.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers: "We have air supremacy"
These attacks have served several purposes. They satisfy the American public's desire for action, they degrade Taleban military capability and they encourage anti-Taleban forces.

Militarily, the Taleban's dated air defence systems only ever posed a limited threat. That threat has now been removed and will not be allowed to return.

Coalition aircraft are now operating over Afghanistan, above small arms range, with impunity.

Continuous air campaign

The air campaign will continue. Targets are now Taleban and al-Qaeda infrastructure, command centres, military depots, training camps and hide-outs.

Aftermath of Herat raid
Reconnaissance images reveal a successful raid on an airfield in Herat

Aircraft will also be used to gather intelligence on ground activity.

Militarily these operations can be sustained, almost indefinitely. Politically, it might be a little harder.

So, with control of the skies achieved, how does the military campaign move towards it's objective of destroying al-Qaeda?

At some stage ground forces will have to be committed. This is where it gets complicated.

One option, which may be attractive, is to leave it to the locals. American air strikes have provided the Northern Alliance and other groups with a tactical advantage.

Limited numbers of coalition forces could now be used to increase this advantage.

Aircraft could be used to facilitate logistics - quickly moving ammunition and supplies to where there are most needed. Military advisers could be attached to opposition units to co-ordinate attacks on all fronts.

Ground advisers

Forward Air Controllers (FACs) - experts on guiding ground attack aircraft onto enemy targets - could be attached to anti-Taleban forces, dramatically increasing their attacking firepower.

Pave Hawk helicopter (Picture: Federation of American Scientists]
Special forces are also expected to play a role

Limited but direct military support to the opposition forces will hasten the demise of the Taleban.

While these options occur, special forces could be used to attack critical targets - similar to the 'Scud-busting' operations they carried out so successfully in Iraq during the Gulf War.

Another option is to conduct commando-style raids.

These are short, sharp operations designed to seize and control an area for a limited period of time, whilst achieving a specific military objective - such as capturing a terrorist target.

These will be conducted by specialist troops working with special forces.

They are complicated operations which must be initiated by good intelligence - both from technical sources and from local agents.

They have to achieve surprise, and therefore need speed of action. Parachuting into an objective would be exceptionally dangerous.

Helicopters or Hercules aircraft would be required.

Hard lessons

Both are relatively slow and, while 'air corridors' can be cleared and suppressed, the Afghans proved adept at shooting down Soviet attack helicopters with CIA-supplied Stinger missiles.

F-18 fighters
The air campaign will continue

Neither side will have forgotten such lessons.

The American military had some success with similar operations in Vietnam. However more recent attempts to conduct these operations, in Iran and Somalia, have ended in disaster.

Political factors, such as the requirement for a forward mounting base, in a neighbouring country, also have to be resolved.

A full-scale invasion does not yet appear to be an option.

History suggests that whilst it may be perfectly possible to invade Afghanistan, it is not wise to hang around.

US C-17 Transport plane
Slow-moving transport planes could be vulnerable to Stinger attack

The Soviet military, with its high-tech weaponry and acceptance of casualties, was the last army to learn this lesson.

It is vital to get the first ground operation right. Specialist troops from both the British and American armed forces are trained and capable of mounting such operations.

However no one will be in a hurry to launch the offensive. The air offensive has started well and can be sustained.

Taleban 'fragmenting'

Anti-Taleban forces are on the march towards Kabul and the Taleban is starting to fragment.

Northern Alliance gun
Advisers could help co-ordinate a Northern Alliance offensive

Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants have to be found. This will not be achieved from the air alone however, and at some stage ground forces will have to be deployed.

This will be easier to achieve, and at a lower level of risk, when the Taleban have been defeated, and there may be no need to rush into ground action.

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