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Sunday, 14 October, 2001, 06:16 GMT 07:16 UK
Military campaign: One week on
An F-14 crew member
The US has claimed air supremacy in first week
By military analyst Dr John Gearson

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, George Bush declared a "war on terrorism".

One week into the military phase of hostilities, how is that war going and to what extent have the alliance's objectives been met?

Making an assessment was always going to be difficult, not least as US objectives have not really been declared. But it is made more difficult by the fact that the war is one of the most starkly "asymmetric" conflicts of modern times.

It is asymmetric because a first world military is having to adapt its strategies and tactics to a developing world conflict in which the opponent will be seeking to exploit any weakness that presents itself from the American side, but otherwise will avoid any direct military clashes.

Afghan radio station after attack
The US insists the targets are all military
The initial focus of the Anglo-American action has been on a fairly traditional air campaign, although not an especially large one compared with previous conflicts.

Mindful of the political costs in causing any significant civilian casualties, the Americans have expended their efforts on conventionally identifiable military assets, avoiding normal infra-structure targets such as roads and bridges.

However, in trying to destroy deep reinforced bunkers and command centres they may have to adopt targeting strategies and weapons which by their nature are less discreet and therefore more dangerous to civilians.

'Supremacy' not 'command'

The target set used by the planners appears to have begun, predictably enough, with those Taleban assets that can pose a threat to the US and coalition forces themselves - surface to air missiles, radar facilities and command and control functions - what is known as a counter-air campaign.

The problem for the Americans is that this is an asymmetric conflict and the Taleban have not come out to fight.

After initially declaring that "command" of the air had been achieved, US commanders soon declared that "control" of the air had been achieved.

Afghan fighter with howitzer
The Northern Alliance is also fighting against the Taleban
The danger that the Taleban may still have military assets which could threaten their forces has led the US leadership to drop the term "control" of the air and instead focus on "air supremacy" as their initial achievement.

Hence what to the outsider appears to be the bombing of bomb sites may in fact be an attempt to root out the assets which have not yet presented themselves.

The other targets have been Bin Laden's network of bases, training facilities and previously known locations which have been struck to little obvious effect as yet.

'Ground action'

However, this does not mean that American objectives are not being met, since the ability of the organisation to function in any meaningful way is likely to have been severely degraded and will remain so as long as the air campaign continues.

Strategically, George Bush's campaign will only be deemed a success if the military strikes succeed in "smoking out" the terrorists from their tunnels and bunkers.

How this may be achieved through air power alone is unclear and hence the focus on some sort of ground action to come.

Much has been written of the special forces' role to date, but it is in the next phase that special forces - or more broadly elite units - may make a decisive contribution, possibly through quite extensive search and destroy missions against suspected terrorist and Taleban strongholds.

This may require bases to be established at least temporarily in Afghanistan itself, a politically and logistically tricky undertaking.


The only way that this may be avoided is if the Taleban regime implodes under the combined pressure of American air strikes and ground action by anti-Taleban forces in Afghanistan.

The problem is that everyone, including the Taleban and their opponents, is waiting for some sort of American intervention on the ground with all its attendant risks.

It is in this respect that George Bush has mentioned avoiding repeating the mistakes of Vietnam - although America has since won a war in the Gulf, exorcising some of those Vietnam ghosts.

Following 11 September the American people may accept nothing less than total victory, thanks in part to the expectations the Bush administration has raised of winning the war on terrorism and so a new and more dangerous stage in military operations may be unavoidable.

If ground action is initiated, the military will need to be given specific objectives to meet and a minimum of political interference in achieving them - fine, except that is very unlikely in this most political of wars.

Dr John Gearson is a senior lecturer in defence studies at the Kings College London.

See also:

12 Oct 01 | Americas
Tactical analysis: The military view
12 Oct 01 | South Asia
What next for Afghanistan?
10 Oct 01 | South Asia
Summary of targets so far
11 Oct 01 | Americas
Analysis: Washington's next phase
11 Oct 01 | South Asia
Mapping Afghanistan's political future
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