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Friday, 8 March, 2002, 15:50 GMT
Afghan test for US ground warfare
US helicopter
Afghan terrain hampers the performance of US helicopters
test hello test
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Defence correspondent
The fighting between US forces and suspected al-Qaeda fighters amidst the snow-topped peaks in eastern Afghanistan represents some of the toughest and most sustained ground combat that US troops have participated in since the end of the Vietnam War.

US soldier in Afghanistan
US sees a light and more mobile force as the key to success
As such it is a serious test of the Pentagon's ability to harness new information systems to infantry units in highly inhospitable terrain.

Over recent campaigns - from the Gulf to the Balkans - America has tended to rely upon air power to achieve its military goals.

True, there was some ground combat in the Gulf - but this essentially took the heavily armoured weaponry of Europe's central front and deployed it into the desert.

Iraqi forces were out-gunned, out-manoeuvred and out-classed.

Light and mobile force

But the fighting in Afghanistan is altogether different.

It involves light infantry forces drawn from the Rangers, the 101st Airborne and the Mountain division.

They all are leading elements of an attempt to transform the US military from an armour-heavy force suited to the Cold War to a light and more mobile force with faster - but also harder - hitting powers.

The key is to link mobility and information-gathering systems, with a capacity to call upon devastating and accurate fire-power from the air.

The result is a light force with unprecedented striking power.

Film of US troops in action shows men with helmets fitted with mounts for night-vision devices, troops carrying encrypted global positioning systems and so on.

Terrain challenges

Technology provides many advantages. But operating at these sorts of altitudes also poses many problems.

The performance of helicopters, for example, is greatly impaired in the thin mountain air.

Al-Qaeda forces have large quantities of rocket-propelled grenades, which gives them significant striking power too.

It is an unequal struggle, and while terrain and weather clearly hamper both sides effectiveness they may well have a greater impact upon the Americans, which in part explains the reported bitterness of the fighting.

See also:

08 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan mountain battle rages on
07 Mar 02 | South Asia
UN seeks to end Afghan abuses
06 Mar 02 | South Asia
Al-Qaeda 'executed US serviceman'
06 Mar 02 | South Asia
Al-Qaeda may use internet to regroup
07 Mar 02 | South Asia
In pictures: Operation Anaconda
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