Al-Ahram Weekly Online
13 - 19 December 2001
Issue No.564
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Frost on the White Mountain

US forces, facing not just an elusive enemy but also the certainty of a harsh winter, are still soliciting the help of a host of allies. Galal Nassar finds out what France, Turkey, and Israel have to offer

Galal NassarIt has been almost three months since the world's greatest military, technological, and economic power pledged to destroy Bin Laden, his outfit, and his Taliban chums. The United States, yet to provide convincing evidence of Bin Laden's guilt, sent forces trekking across Afghanistan with two military and political objectives: the liquidation of Bin Laden and Al- Qa'eda leaders and supporters; and the rehabilitation of the US's international image, badly shaken by the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

What "Operation Enduring Freedom" has achieved so far in Afghanistan has been acclaimed as an impressive military accomplishment. Still, it falls short of a decisive victory. It may even resemble failure on more than one level -- unless, that is, the "war against terror" was meant to sow the seeds of civil strife in Afghanistan, displace Afghans by the millions, send them fleeing into neighbouring countries, and gain a foothold in a strategic region.

The United States cannot call itself a victor in the ongoing strife until it kills or captures three men: Bin Laden; his second in command, Ayman El- Zawahri; and Mullah Omar.

According to US media reports, the fighting has claimed the lives of 10,000 people, mostly Taliban fighters making a last stand in Kandahar, in the past few weeks.

US forces are still pummelling and combing various parts of Afghanistan, with a ferocity that has intensified in the past few days. Last Sunday saw some of the heaviest bombing so far, with US planes strafing the White Mountain range of Tora Bora, despite reports that Bin Laden fled the area two or three weeks ago. Meanwhile, thousands of coalition troops continue to pour into the region, a sign that military operations will not end soon. Much is yet in store for the war-torn country.

The US is seeking all the help it can get in capturing Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and El-Zawahri and eliminate the pockets Taliban and Arab Afghan resistance. Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Ankara last week to solicit Turkish assistance. Having waged aerial and ground campaigns against the mountain strongholds of dissident Kurds almost every year as far back as anyone can remember, Turkey has just the kind of experience the Americans need. Washington and Ankara are now putting the final touches on a memorandum of understanding paving the way for the deployment of a Turkish contingent in Afghanistan. The United States hopes elite Turkish troops can help extract Bin Laden and his associates from their mountain hideouts.

According to the Turkish Daily News, Ankara has been promised a "reasonable" role in formulating Afghanistan's future. In return, Ankara would dispatch more of its elite forces than the 90 men originally suggested. Turkish troops are also likely to serve in the UN- sponsored peacekeeping force. From the very start, Ankara has made it clear that it wants a key role in any international force deployed in Afghanistan. It has also suggested that the new regime should be modelled after its own secular system, which would prevent the country from slipping back into "extremism and terror," as the Turks put it.

France has pitched in with an advance party of 40 troops to protect the environs of the airport at Mazar-i Sharif. Its nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is steaming toward the northern Indian Ocean, where three French frigates and a nuclear submarine are already deployed. An oil tanker is expected to join this mission -- unprecedented for the French fleet -- at a later date. A total of 3,000 men are on the French flotilla, which will anchor some 100 nautical miles southwest of Karachi, Pakistan. All in all, France is expected to boost its participation in the campaign to about 5,000 men, backed by 10 vessels and 10 aircraft.

US-Israeli military cooperation has also borne fruit in the ongoing conflict. B-52H Stratofortress bombers have begun using missile shells developed jointly by the US company Lockheed Martin and the Israeli company Rafael, on ground targets. The missiles, which can be precisely aimed by TV cameras and weigh anything between 500 and 3,000lb, are designed to infiltrate thick barriers and would be effective in demolishing cave entrances. They cost up to $1.54 million each.

The fall of Kandahar and the ongoing assault on Tora Bora caves have been somewhat anticlimactic, because of how easily the Taliban seemed to relinquish one city after another. Mullah Omar, an ethnic Pashtun, took the fun out of the military conquest of Kandahar by ordering his men to lay down their weapons and surrender to tribal Pashtun leaders and to Hamid Karazai, the head of the interim government in Afghanistan, and also a Pashtun. As Taliban fighters handed over their weapons to a joint committee of tribal leaders, Islamic scholars, and former mujahidin commanders (not one American was on the committee), Karazai issued a general amnesty -- ignored by the US -- allowing rank-and-file Taliban combatants to go home. Taliban leaders, on the other hand, are thought to have escaped Kandahar to unknown destinations. Washington suspects that some "mysterious deal" has been concluded, giving Mullah Omar a measure of freedom and perhaps protection.

The Americans fear that some Taliban and Al- Qa'eda members may have fled with their weapons. If so, these could later regroup and launch suicide attacks or guerrilla warfare against US bases and forces in Afghanistan. Nor are there any guarantees that some of the combatants who have defected to the Northern Alliance (NA) will not switch sides yet again and join their former comrades. In the recent history of Afghan warfare, combatants have switched loyalties frequently, as a matter of convenience. Various tribes and factions, exhausted from fighting, make agreements, observe a period of calm, regroup, then breach their agreements and start fighting again. This is why the Americans have been careful to deploy their troops outside urban agglomerations -- even those that have surrendered. They prefer their troops to keep their distance while performing their various logistical and aerial support missions.

The final phase:

How US forces plan to face Al-Qa'eda at Tora Bora (above left); a US chaplain holds religious services for troops in southern Afghanistan (left); World's most wanted man (above right); a briefing with General Tommy Franks of US Central Command (above); A US marine in southern Afganistan (above headline)

The international coalition is now putting serious effort into the area south of Jalalabad, where Bin Laden and his Al-Qa'eda fighters are thought to have taken shelter. According to NA spokesman Mohamed Habil, the opposition forces seized Bin Laden's main base in Tora Bora after fierce fighting, but could not find him. Habil said Bin Laden might have moved on to smaller caves in Milawa, or even left Afghanistan. The Al-Qa'eda leader, many now suspect, may have escaped via Pakistan to either Kashmir or a country lacking an effective central government, such as Somalia.

Routes out of Afghanistan are hard to monitor. Mountain ranges branch into neighbouring Pakistan, China, and Tadjikistan. Afghanistan shares 2,383km of borders with Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey to the north; 71km with China to the east; 2,466km with Pakistan to the east and south; and 849km with Iran to the west. All of these contain mountain areas that are hard to police, hazardous for regular troops, and ideal for anyone wishing to escape the country.

The rapid decimation of the Taliban over the past few weeks has left hundreds of Bin Laden's supporters stranded, perhaps with insufficient munitions and supplies, in their mountain hideouts southeast of Jalalabad. This will certainly undermine the resistance these combatants are likely to put up. Recent battles involving the Taliban and Al- Qa'eda, one-sided for the most part, have left many questions unanswered. No one, for example, knows how many Arabs and foreign recruits are still serving in Al-Qa'eda; nor are their exact locations in the mountain passages of Tora Bora known. No one has clear evidence of the presence of Bin Laden and his key lieutenants in these mountains.

Bin Laden's eventual escape would be a blow to the US's Afghanistan campaign. This is why US ships are searching so diligently for 23 commercial vessels the CIA and Norwegian intelligence claim are owned by or affiliated with Al-Qa'eda.

The US military command has concluded that the Marines are best suited to the Afghan campaign, considering their training and weaponry, and in recent days, US Marines waged their first ground assault since they received their own base in southern Afghanistan. A Marine unit engaged Taliban forces on a road close to Kandahar, killing several men and destroying three military vehicles. The Marines use small tanks designed to negotiate difficult terrain, as well as Warrior APCs that can move approximately as fast as tanks, a variety of vehicles armed with anti-tank missiles, and HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters capable of moving large numbers of infantry quickly from one place to another. Their Harrier planes, esteemed for their effectiveness in rapid deployment operations and equipped with missiles and cluster bombs, can take off vertically from aircraft carriers and land on ground installations. They can fly at 13,000 feet, giving them the chance to strike with deadly accuracy. Marines can also be airlifted from carriers stationed in the Arabian Sea or off Pakistani shores, together with their APCs, to provide protection and support for other ground forces.

According to Al-Ahram Weekly sources, the United States has warned maritime companies operating in the Gulf that US troops will board and search ships suspected of affiliation with Bin Laden and Al-Qa'eda. The US Navy has warned that it would destroy any vessel reacting in a hostile manner. US submarines and Navy Seals will take part in the search operations. The United States, these sources add, fear that ships may be ferrying weapons of mass destruction to US ports or helping Bin Laden and his colleagues to escape.

Another major concern for the US military is the devastating effect of subzero temperatures on equipment. Winter will disadvantage the Marines and Special Forces. Pakistanis and Indians, who have extensive experience of fighting in high- altitude, subzero climates, must have told the Americans that frost is the main enemy of troops operating in similar conditions during the long and severe winter. Even the Afghans used to call off their long- running civil war from early December to late April of every year, a time when blizzards and thunderstorms mercilessly batter the middle and northern sectors of Afghanistan.

Temperatures in the Afghan mountains are known to drop to 40 degrees below zero, forming a crust of snow two to three metres thick. At such temperatures, exposure can kill a person in seconds, Pakistan military experts say. The Americans will have to take extraordinary measures to keep their equipment in working order in such weather; planes are known to crash because of climate-related malfunctions, and vehicles tend to break down, making perfect targets for snipers, the Pakistanis warn.

What is particularly worrying is that the US military, as it scrambles to end the war before the onset of harsher atmospheric conditions, may begin using shells tipped with depleted uranium in their operations. Asked about this prospect, a spokesman for the international coalition in Islamabad said he had no specific information, but added that the ammunition used by the coalition forces is chosen according to the requirements of the military situation.

Human rights have been a major loser in this war. Dozens of Arabs and their families have been massacred in the recent fighting. Neither these killings nor the recent massacre in Qala-i Janghi near Kunduz can be justified from a military perspective. According to NA spokesman Mohamed Habil, some Arab families have been detained, and the men's weapons and vehicles seized. Thousands of others, including children and women, may be dying or about to die, as the fighting rages on and the Afghan winter grows ever colder.

Trigged by the 11 September attacks, the war against terror is likely to extend to countries such as Somalia and Iraq. US press and intelligence reports are currently hinting that Iraq's regime is linked to Al-Qa'eda. But is the United States still convinced that it is fighting the real perpetrators of the September 11 attacks? What if Bin Laden and his lieutenants escape? Have US citizens fighting alongside the Taliban resuscitated the possibility that the perpetrators of the attacks on New York and Washington were Americans who have much in common with Bin Laden and other extremists around the world? All these questions remain open. Indeed, the only certainty in this war is that no one can tell where, when or how it will end.

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