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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK
Afghan neighbours key to US success
Northern Alliance troops
Anti-Taleban forces hold areas in northern Afghanistan
By BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus

While much of the world's attention has focused on the US military build-up in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea, the key area of operations will be on Afghanistan's northern frontier.

It appears the United states is planning what could be one of the most complex special forces operations in history.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has acknowledged that warplanes and aircraft carriers cannot find Osama Bin Laden.

HMS Illustrious sails through the Suez Canal
The coalition is gathering strength in the Middle East
This is going to be a combined air and ground operation of a new sort.

Washington badly needs bases from which to mount helicopter-borne operations into Afghanistan.

And it is likely to find them in places like Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan.

A number of key Central Asian countries - along with Russia - seem to be willing to grant unprecedented assistance to the US military.

Although Moscow has set the diplomatic tone, practical assistance will have to come from countries bordering Afghanistan.

Bases kept outside

Others, like Georgia and Azerbaijan, may need to give permission for US aircraft to fly over their territory from Nato bases in Turkey.

All of this is highly sensitive politically, and operational security means that it is not being talked about at press briefings.

US troops in training
US troops will be fighting a new kind of war
Ironically, the US may find itself launching operations from bases used by the Soviet Union in its ill-fated intervention in Afghanistan.

Learning from that experience, the Pentagon may be eager to avoid basing troops inside Afghanistan.

It will want to launch attacks from the borders, perhaps even using areas controlled by the anti-Taleban forces of the Northern Alliance.

Forward operating bases, logistical dumps, field medical facilities and so on could be located at some of the large former Soviet bases, like Kuska in Turkmenistan or Termez in Uzbekistan.

No clear permission has yet been granted. Even if it has we may well not know much about it.

All of this will be backed by US air power, that also has a key role to play.

Insurance policy

Afghanistan does not have much in the way of conventional military forces.

But it has threatened to act against any country that allows its territory to be used for US strikes.

US air power may well be an insurance policy for those countries by destroying Taleban tanks, command centres and its small arsenal of ground-to-ground missiles.

Air power will also be needed to rescue any special forces that get into difficulty.

On paper it all sounds logical. But the terrain and the weather could seriously hamper US operations.

The Pentagon may have overwhelming fire-power but making this count in small-unit engagements in unfamiliar and difficult country is no easy task.


Political uncertainty






See also:

24 Sep 01 | Americas
04 Sep 01 | Country profiles
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
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