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Monday, Oct. 1, 2001

Sidestep Pakistan with airborne invasion


LONDON -- Attacking Afghanistan is a poor way to deal with global terrorism, given the political and military risks that it entails. Better intelligence, improved security measures and closer international cooperation are the things that will make the difference in the long run. But the American public will not be satisfied with such a low-profile response after the horrific events of Sept. 11, so there is going to be an attack.

The question is: What kind of attack? How can the United States attack the terrorists in Afghanistan and the fanatic Taliban government that shelters them without (a) inflicting horrendous civilian casualties and inflaming Muslims around the world against it, and (b) destabilizing the government of Pakistan, which is the only feasible land route for an American-led invasion of Afghanistan?

Air raids and cruise-missile attacks alone are worse than useless in a country that, after 20 years of war, has no infrastructure left to lose. Their main effects would be to kill innocent people and outrage the watching world, and the U.S. administration understands that. "This isn't going to be a few cruise missiles flying around on television for the world to see that something blew up," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week in a contemptuous reference to ex-President Bill Clinton's response to the 1998 terrorist bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa.

Sending in the X-Men won't help either. The Seals, Rangers, Delta Forces and so on might catch some members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization and blow up a few huts, but given how quickly the terrorists can move, such in-and-out raids cannot destroy the whole network. Operating at such long ranges, moreover, the special forces would risk having some members of their unit cut off and captured every time they hit the ground.

So if the U.S. is serious about capturing bin Laden, dismantling his network, and punishing those who protect it -- and doing it all in the next six months, not the next six years -- then it is effectively committed to a ground invasion of Afghanistan. Only after destroying Taliban rule and occupying the country could it hope to track down and capture most of the terrorists who live there. And while the Taliban's army is certainly not able to stop it, having only some 30,000 ill-trained men with nothing much in the way of heavy weapons, the approach route and supply lines are a very serious problem.

Afghanistan is a land-locked country, so to attack it you must cross Iran, the territory of the former Soviet Union, or Pakistan. The Iranian government is hostile to the Taliban, but it certainly won't allow American troops on its soil. Russia is equally unlikely to let U.S. troops be based in the Central Asian republics, though it may let transport aircraft use their airfields. That leaves only Pakistan, a country whose very existence as a separate state is due to the fact that its people are Muslims.

The current military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has agreed under duress to cooperate with the U.S. However, he is clearly petrified by the vocal minority of radical Islamic fundamentalists who take control of the streets of Pakistan's big cities whenever they choose.

Move large numbers of U.S. and other foreign troops through Pakistan, create air bases and supply depots there guarded by Western soldiers, and you are asking for big trouble. The government might even be overthrown by the local fundamentalists -- and then U.S. troops in Afghanistan would have a hostile, nuclear-armed Pakistani regime at their backs. So maybe Washington should bite the bullet and accept that there can be no secure land supply lines.

The planners in what's left of the Pentagon are keeping their cards close to their chest, but I suspect that one of the options they will be considering now is a direct airborne assault on Afghanistan with ground troops. First you capture the three major airfields in the country outside the cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad by dropping troops on them, and then you start feeding in an American-led multinational army through there.

It's something you would never attempt against a first-class army, but the Taliban is little better than a tribal militia. Nobody has done this successfully since German airborne troops captured Crete 60 years ago, and they suffered almost 50 percent casualties. But in Afghanistan it could work -- and it would avoid all the problems with the Pakistan route.

It would take all the airlift capacity of the entire NATO alliance, but air bases would probably be available relatively near at hand in India, in Russia, and perhaps in the Arab Gulf states. Instead of sporadic and essentially random air attacks, there would be coalition troops on the ground from the first day of the attack, rapidly spreading out through the country.

They would lack the tanks and other heavy equipment that Americans usually rely on, but air power could make up for a lot of the firepower lacking on the ground. If the invaders didn't alienate the local population by flattening every village where a sniper fires at them, and started feeding the malnourished population and restoring basic services as soon as possible, it's doubtful that many Afghans would take to the hills as guerrillas, for few people love the Taliban. The U.S. might even be able to get a U.N. resolution that would make it all more or less legal.

I'm not saying that this is what the U.S. will do. But I'd be astonished if it isn't under consideration.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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