US prepared for loss of life in a war of attrition

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The campaign is no longer "Operation Infinite Justice" because under Islam only Allah can provide that. And it is no longer a crusade, also because of Muslim sensibilities. But the planning for the West's war on terrorism is almost complete.

The campaign is no longer "Operation Infinite Justice" because under Islam only Allah can provide that. And it is no longer a crusade, also because of Muslim sensibilities. But the planning for the West's war on terrorism is almost complete.

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said yesterday that there would be no D-Day type invasion. That was always going to be the case. Instead, the new century's first full-scale international conflict will be a bitter war of attrition.

Mr Rumsfeld's further declarations that "it will not be an antiseptic war ... it will be difficult ... and the likelihood is that more people will be lost" are designed to ensure that the American public does not expect a quick-fix and to get them used to the possibility of a large number of body bags for the first time since Vietnam.

Operation Enduring Freedom, as it has been renamed, will be a war unlike any that has been fought before. It will require welding together an alliance of disparate and, in cases, unwilling countries, and orchestrating intelligence, air power from land and sea, and an extensive use of special forces, all allied to an intense diplomatic offensive.

Much has been made of how two empires, British and Soviet, came to grief in the wild and hostile terrain of Afghanistan. But there is one vital difference. Unlike the British and the Russians, the forces of this alliance will not seek to occupy a country. The operation will be swift and aim to destroy Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network.

The first priority is to set up bases. The Pakistani leader, General Pervez Musharraf, has been driven to give the United States the right to use bases in his country for its forces. But the volatile situation and latent anti-American feeling there have led to strategists in Washington and London exploring other options.

Northern Pakistan, the area around Quetta, will be used in some capacity by the US-led forces. The other prime candidates for the main bases are the three central Asian republics Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which border Afghanistan. The coalition may also take advantage of the anti-Taliban, Northern Alliance forces over the Afghan border.

Turkmenistan is problematic for internal political and religious reasons. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are much more promising, according to senior military sources.

American and British forces could even use former Soviet bases in Uzbeskistan from which the Russian invasion of Afghanistan was launched in 1979. A military base at Tuzel, near the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, can house up to 20,000 troops.

A number of C-141 Starlifter aircraft have already arrived in Tashkent, with intelligence-gathering equipment and about 200 US military personnel. An unmanned Predator spy plane shot down in Afghanistan is believed to have flown from across the Uzbek border. The main intelligence-gathering apparatus will consist of American RC Rivet Joint signals intelligence platforms and J-Stars reconnaissance aircraft. The British contribution is likely to be from the 14 Signals Regiment and the Joint Service Signals Unit.

Human intelligence will be gathered by special forces (UK) and special operations forces (US). Elements of these, including the British SAS and SBS, are already believed to be on the ground near the Uzbek border. But reports that they have taken part in firefights against the Taliban are untrue, senior defence sources said.

These troops' main role would be to do reconnaissance and sabotage missions inside Afghanistan. The special forces would also guide in combat units of members of the anti-insurgency Delta Force, Rangers, airborne forces and marines from the US; paratroopers, Royal Marines and Gurkhas from Britain; and, possibly, French paratroopers and commandos including from the Foreign Legion. At least some of the British ground contribution will come from Operation Saif Sareea, Swift Sword, which is already taking place near Oman and involves 20,000 troops. The role of these combat units would be to engage and neutralise the international Islamist fighters who act as Mr bin Laden's bodyguard, and to capture or kill him. Separate units would attempt to stop Taliban forces should they try to come to Mr bin Laden's aid. The Taliban and their allies possess a few captured Soviet tanks, mainly T-52s, and armoured cars. They have about 130 multiple rocket launchers – Stalin Organs – and about 20 Scud and Frog surface-to-surface missiles. Their anti-aircraft defence is composed of Stinger hand-held missiles, supplied by the US in the days of the mujahedin.

The Taliban also have an air force – about 15 Migs and helicopters, traditionally flown by crews supplied by the Pakistani secret service, Inter Services Intelligence.

There are a number of options for air strikes, which will be a big part of the coming operation. Three US aircraft carriers, the Enterprise, Carl Vinson and Theodore Roosevelt, will be in the Gulf, each carrying about 200 F-14 Tomcat and FA-18 Hornet attack aircraft. A fourth battle group, a British one led by HMS Illustrious is also close at hand, taking part in Saif Sareea.

B-52 Stratocruiser and B1 Lancer bombers are available at the Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia with cruise missiles and smart-guided bombs respectively, and B-2 Stealth bombers can be flown from the US mainland with air-to-air refuelling. In addition there are British Jaguars and USAF F-16s and F-15s, which could be called upon from the Incirlik in Turkey, and RAF Tornados and US F-15 and F-16s in Saudi Arabia.

The use of latter, however, could prove problematic because of the worry of the Saudi Royal family about Western aircraft taking off to attack fellow Muslims.

So that is the non D-Day option – as long as Enduring Freedom sticks to Afghanistan. If it extends to other, so-called terrorist states such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and others, as some in the Republican right in the US want, it becomes a different and far deadlier ball game.