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Tuesday, 18 September, 2001, 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK
The Taleban military machine
Members of the Taleban
The Taleban are preparing to take on the US
By BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus

Drawing up a military balance between the United States with its colossal firepower and Afghanistan's Taleban with their increasingly ageing stock-pile of weaponry is almost meaningless.

Numbers alone tell only part of the story.

The question that really needs to be asked is what the United States intends to do militarily and to what extent do the Taleban have the means to thwart the Pentagon's plans?

The Americans would be foolish to stay long in Afghanistan

Much is made of the Afghan guerrillas' resolute struggle against the occupying Soviet forces during the declining years of the Cold War.

The Soviet Army suffered a terrible defeat - its bases and supply columns were attacked and ambushed and its helicopter gun ships were often knocked from the sky with shoulder-fired missiles.

All sorts of lessons could be learnt from the Russians' experience; chief among them being that it is a very bad idea to invade Afghanistan and seek to establish a new regime there by force.

This would be playing to the Taleban's strengths; its tough fighters with supreme local knowledge of the difficult terrain are quite capable of playing a game of hit-and-run with even a sophisticated western army.

Unlikely choice

This of course is not what the United States is likely to do.

Everything at the moment is in the realm of speculation.

But should the Americans decide to attack Afghanistan they have essentially three options.

The first is a long-range strike using air power and cruise missiles.

A protester with a 'Bomb the Taleban' poster
America wants revenge for the attacks
Within a matter of days the United States will have two aircraft carriers and supporting vessels in the Arabian Sea - including submarines.

Both the submarines and many of the surface vessels can launch Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles.

An air-launched version of the cruise missile could be fired from B-52H bombers operating from the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia.

It is possible that long-range B-2 bombers could attack targets in Afghanistan flying the round trip from bases in the United States.

No infrastructure

The problem with all of this is that Afghanistan hardly has a developed infrastructure - either civilian or military - that can be struck.

It is no Iraq. There is no integrated air defence system to speak of.

There are some military bases. The Taleban have a sizeable quantity of Soviet-era tanks and artillery, but much of this arsenal, if serviceable, will probably have been dispersed.

The next option for the Americans is to insert special forces to carry out missions on the ground.

Osama Bin Laden
The Taleban must turn over Bin Laden to avoid war

These would have to be staged from neighbouring countries and it is here perhaps that the Taleban could threaten to use its small arsenal of Scud ground-to-ground missiles.

These are an elderly version of the weapon, perhaps 20 or so in number, with a range of about 200 kilometres.

Any country assisting the Americans would probably want to see sophisticated anti-aircraft or anti-missile systems like the Patriot deployed to protect their base facilities.

There are two possible ground intervention operations.

One would be "intervention light" relying upon speed, surprise and the pin-point nature of the operation for success.

The other would be "intervention heavy"; the Americans might decide to go in with a large number of air assault troops to secure a box of territory for a few days, within which the special forces would then operate.

Air battle

The Taleban's air power would not be much of a problem.

It has up to 20 fixed wing jets - Mig-21's and early Sukhoi ground-attack aircraft, plus some helicopters.

Destroying these on the ground would present few problems.

Much more serious for a US helicopter-borne operation would be the widespread shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile systems of which the Taleban have large numbers.

Taleban soldiers
Taleban fighters are tough and know their territory
In Kosovo fears of such weapons prevented the Americans deploying attack helicopters.

All one can say is that this is a very different case.

The United States has been attacked; thousands killed; there is no question of where America's vital interests lie.


The military is already warning that there will be casualties. General Joseph Ralston - an American officer who is also Nato's Supreme Allied Commander Europe - spelled this out in clear-cut terms.

The military balance suggests that the Americans would be foolish to stay long in Afghanistan - it was Russia's mistake to become embroiled in a lengthy campaign of attrition.

There are many things the Americans might do militarily - if they know where to strike.

And this is the key problem.

Success in such an operation depends not just on firepower but on superior information.

Many wonder whether sufficient detailed intelligence is available to sustain the sort of operation that may be being planned.

The BBC's Lucy Atherton
"No reason has been given for the delay in deciding Osama Bin Laden's fate"
Geoff Hoon, UK Defence Secretary
"It does appear that the Taleban are lining themselves firmly up behind the terrorist"
Taleban supporter, Omar Bakri Mohammed
"Any attack against Taleban is an attack against Muslims worldwide"
See also:

17 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan's tough choice
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
UN prepares for major Afghan crisis
18 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Spy satellites retasked
14 Sep 01 | South Asia
Aid agencies warn of Afghan crisis
12 Sep 01 | South Asia
Taleban tense as US seeks targets
14 Sep 01 | Americas
Bin Laden's command structure
16 Sep 01 | Middle East
Bin Laden divides Arab opinion
16 Sep 01 | Middle East
Iran weighs up its options
15 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan 'will comply' on terror
11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
17 Sep 01 | Americas
More arrests in US terror probe
16 Sep 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Afghans fear US backlash
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
18 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair to visit US
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