Bush weighs up options for military retaliation

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The Independent US

The Bush administration has set out to build a grand coalition of forces against Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan who is now named as a prime suspect in the terror attacks on America.

Neither the Pentagon nor the Ministry of Defence in London would comment, for understandable reasons, on how such an operation might be mounted. But most of the military scenarios currently advanced by strategists on both sides of the Atlantic had already taken it for granted that Mr bin Laden would be the target and that the Afghanistan/Pakistan/Gulf region would therefore be crucial to any retaliation.

The Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, is reactivating his Gulf War role in coalition-building against the man he identified yesterday as a leading suspect. Neither President Bush nor any of his security advisers has left any doubt about Washington's willingness to use force to respond to Tuesday's onslaught.

In his first formal address to the American people, Mr Bush said that the US would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them". In other words, America reserved the right to retaliate not only against individuals, but against whole groups and even regimes.

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, dropped the broadest hint yet that military action was envisaged, if not imminent, when he rallied staff at the stricken Pentagon the next day. "It is my duty, as head of this department," he said, "to tell you that more, much more, will be asked of you in the weeks and months ahead. This is especially true of those who are in the field.

"We face powerful and terrible enemies, enemies we intend to vanquish," he said.

The Secretary of State – referred to once again in the American media with his military title of general – is revisiting his finest hour as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War. He said that the US would respond "as if it is a war". He scored a diplomatic success when Nato agreed to invoke araticle five of its charter for the first time in its 62-year history, declaring support for the US on the grounds that an attack on one member state is an attack on all.

Nato's backing – whether it remains at a political level or is translated into joint military action – gives Washington useful diplomatic cover, allowing Mr Bush to avoid subsequent accusations that he has acted unilaterally. For once, an American administration will face no domestic resistance to mounting a military operation abroad. On the contrary, it could be more of a political liability for President Bush to delay or refrain from military action than to go to war. The popular mood is one of defiance and anger; people have volunteered to enlist and fight – perhaps for the first time since the Second World War. This may even be one of those rare times where a failed operation would be politically more acceptable than none at all.

So – unusually for the United States – the question is not the principle of intervention, but the basics of when, where and how. One of the first moves made by the administration, after it had declared the highest – "Delta" – state of alert, was to postpone the departure of the aircraft carrier Enterprise from the Gulf. It also deployed aircraft carriers and other warships along the eastern seaboard to afford more protection to the east coast cities. Coincidentally, Britain has a large contingent of up to 15,000 air, sea and land troops on its way to take part with Oman in a joint bilateral exercise, which is one of the biggest exercises of its kind since the Gulf War, if not the biggest.

There is no suggestion that these deployments have been increased or changed since the attacks in New York and Washington, but the presence of so many troops and hardware in the region may broaden the options for the US and Britain or Nato in offering support.

The most dramatic – and least likely – option would be a tactical nuclear strike by the United States on the remote valley in eastern Afghanistan where Mr bin Laden is believed to have his headquarters. Such an attack would have to be squared with Russia – but Russia's acquiescence, if not active participation, in almost any of the options is not thought to be a problem. It has its own scores to settle with Mr bin Laden, who as a leader of opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is blamed by sections of the Russian armed forces for fomenting the revolt in Chechnya.

Any such attack would hit a wide area, but could also be co-ordinated with conventional attacks on guerrilla training camps in the region. A variant – that would take Mr Bush's threat to "those harbouring terrorists" to its ultimate conclusion – would be to co- ordinate an attack on Mr bin Laden's empire with an attack on Kabul, designed to crush the anti-Western Taliban regime and "liberate" Afghanistan. Such an assault would have to be based on intelligence showing widespread popular disillusionment with the regime or risk armed resistance and Western forces getting bogged down in a new Afghan war.

At the other end of the scale could be a clinically aimed attack on Osama bin Laden, designed either to kill him or take him alive. The former – while technically in breach of US law – would cause few ructions in the United States. But the US has made at least one failed attempt to destroy his headquarters, and the elegantly simple technique deployed by the Russians against the one-time rebel Chechen leader, Dzhokar Dudayev – identifying his whereabouts by monitoring his mobile phone and firing a missile at him – is hard to replicate. The world's most wanted individuals now eschew mobile phones.

Taking Mr bin Laden alive would be in many ways the best option, although it would not quench the current bloodlust of America and it would be one of the hardest to put into effect. It would require expert snatch squads from the American special forces, backed up by a large number of airborne troops to secure the area. For the United States, it would entail the complication of holding him (with the risk of further terrorist attacks being mounted by his supporters) and putting him on trial. The fairness of any trial, after the carnage in New York and Washington, would be highly questionable.

The most benign scenario would be that the very threat of US or Nato action would be sufficient to convince the Taliban to give up Mr bin Laden to the US authorities – and release the Western aid workers they are currently holding as well. There were some signs yesterday that the Taliban were preparing to do just that. Here, too, however, the risk of terrorist reprisals – against Kabul and against Washington – by bin Laden supporters could not be ruled out.

Other scenarios canvassed come somewhere between these two extremes. The variations relate to the number of troops required to accomplish the operations, whether they would be predominantly airborne troops "dropped" into a target zone, or landed there; whether helicopters – which have a very limited range – would be used, and how much back-up would be required. Submarine-launched cruise missiles, for instance, or bombing by B-52s flown from the United States, as during the Kosovo intervention, would probably be needed as part of an attack. The consensus is, however, that a few thousand troops would suffice, and that nothing like the massive mobilisation of the Gulf War would be needed.

The offer of British support made by Tony Blair within hours of Tuesday's attack would, strategists agreed, be largely symbolic. But America could be granted overflight rights for its planes, refuelling and maintenance facilities at British bases, and specialist regional intelligence – which is already shared. The SAS, which is used to working with US special forces, could also be involved in any snatch operation.