U.S military forces are gearing up to go after terror suspect Osama bin Laden and his network. To chase him down in Afghanistan, where he is believed to be hiding out with protection of the ruling Taleban, U.S. forces would enter a country with a fearsome reputation. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas, who has frequently traveled to Afghanistan, reports on the difficulties U.S. forces would face.
The quest for Osama bin Laden will entail waging a 21st century war in a 12th century land.
The terror suspect may be the enemy U.S. forces seek, but he is not the only one they would encounter in Afghanistan. To get to him, they would also have to battle harsh terrain and brutal weather, in a country so decimated by decades of war that, in the vast majority of places, everyday amenities, such as electricity, water, and sanitation, simply do not exist. And, it is a country ruled by an uncompromising cadre of Islamic extremists.
Brian Cloughley, a retired Australian army colonel, was for five years the military attache in Pakistan. He says that, despite the impressive array of firepower assembled in the region, the real work of seeking out Osama bin Laden, and perhaps also Afghanistan's Taleban leadership, would be done by special operations units.
"It is impossible for large bodies of troops to move around reasonably comfortably in Afghanistan, as the Russians found out to their great cost, and, of course, the British before them," he said. "So, the only way of taking on the opposition, whatever it might be, in Afghanistan, is to meet guerrilla warfare with guerrilla warfare, which, of course, is what American Special Forces are designed to do."
Afghanistan is composed mostly of desert and mountains, both equally inhospitable. The temperatures are blisteringly hot in the summer, and shatteringly cold in the winter. In fact, it gets so cold that, during the fight in the 1980s and early '90s to unseat the communist government in Kabul, rebel forces would routinely call off operations for the winter, until the advent of what they called the "fighting season," in the spring. As Colonel Cloughley points out, the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance will soon have to suspend its own operations because of the weather.
He says the United States should learn from the mistakes of the former Soviet Union, and not get sucked into a protracted conflict in Afghanistan. "Don't get involved in Afghanistan itself. If there is an operation to do, and bin Laden can be found and dealt with one way or another, then by all means do it, and do it quickly. And I think that's what's going to happen. But do not get bound up in a land war in Afghanistan.
Other military analysts say a quick solution may not be possible.
Retired Major General Edward Atkeson was one of the highest-ranking intelligence officers in the U.S. Army. He says U.S. forces would have an easier time in Afghanistan than did Soviet troops, because there is no superpower supporting the Taleban, as the United States supported the mujahedin, the anti-Soviet rebels.
"I think we've got to stop spooking ourselves about this being an especially difficult environment," he said. "What made it difficult for the Russians was the fact that we were backing up the forerunners of the Taleban there, particularly with Stinger missiles." The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency provided the mujahedin with the Stinger, a lightweight anti-aircraft missile that brought down dozens of Soviet helicopters, and is often credited with hastening the Soviet withdrawal.
General Atkeson is optimistic about the ability of U.S. troops to operate in Afghanistan. What they will need, he says, is good intelligence from spies, called "HUMINT" for "human intelligence", to back up data collected from high tech sources, such as satellites.
"I think that our equipment will adapt ourselves well. We'll be able to communicate; we'll be able to shoot; we have good intelligence, the basis for good intelligence collection. And, if we can get, if we will turn to some of the indigenous elements there that would like to cooperate with us, we can development the HUMINT nets. That would be enormously helpful.
Human intelligence will be crucial to finding Osama bin Laden, if he is still in Afghanistan. As more than one analyst has noted, all the eyes in the skies cannot tell policymakers in which of the thousands of caves across Afghanistan, the most well-known fugitive in the world may be hiding.