After 26 days, three hours and 29 minutes, the forces of retribution went into action

War on Terrorism: Strategy
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The Independent Online

The planning had begun within hours of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon – the long-awaited retaliation finally came 26 days, three hours and 29 minutes later.

US and British forces launched ferocious, systematic and sustained attacks using the world's most sophisticated modern weapons on one of the world's most backward nations.

The attacks began just before nine in the evening at Kabul as the sky suddenly lit up with incoming missiles, similar scenes were being enacted at Kandahar in south, Herat in the west, Jalalabad in the east Konduz and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north.

The targets were on Taliban military positions and bases belonging to Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network. In the first wave of attacks came 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles flying comparatively slowly, at subsonic speed and low to avoid radar. The Afghans fired into the sky with their surface-to-air missiles – American Stingers given to them when they were still the good guys to the West – and captured or abandoned Russian Sams and aging anti-aircraft batteries.

The Tomahawks, costing $1m (£700,000) a shot, were guided by onboard computer maps and satellite. Using the Global Positioning System, they wiped out many of the static air defences. They were fired from American and British warships and submarines, including two Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines, HMS Triumph and HMS Trafalgar.

The first wave of attacks had spread panic among both the Taliban and the civilian population. The country's two electricity grids were switched off, engulfing Kabul, the only city with semi-regular power supply, in darkness.

Out of the dark came the sound of the next wave of attacks. Fifteen swing-wing B-1 and bat-wing B-2 bombers from the Whiteman airbase in Missouri, and the heavy, sprawling B52s from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, plus 25 F-16 and F-15 fighter-bombers from US aircraft carriers. Their most potent weapons were JDAMS (Joint Direct Attack Munitions), – 2,000lb satellite-guided bombs, capable of piercing 25 feet of earth.

The targets had been based on information obtained by US and British special forces operating behind Afghan lines, the US and other allied intelligence agencies. There has also been intense technical espionage gathering operation using U-2 and Predator spy planes and satellites. Two days ago the US military had launched the advanced KH-11 imaging spy satellite capable of tracking small groups and even their pack animals.

Back at the Pentagon in Washington and the Ministry of Defence in London, military chiefs were receiving news of the "kill rate". The command and control system at Kandahar, the southern spiritual homeland of the Taliban, destroyed, as was the command and control centre in Kabul and, it was reported, the presidential palace.

Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border, where there is an important strategic airbase and large concentrations of Taliban troops, came under repeated strikes. Heart, another large airbase near the Iranian border, was also hit, as were airbases at Konduz and Mazar-i-Sharif. At the same time, the opposition Northern Alliance was launching its own assaults on Taliban positions. They had been trying to capture Mazar-i-Sharif, important strategically on the road to Kabul, for a long time.

Washington and London said the first phase of Operation Enduring Freedom, had been a resounding success. But there was no evidence that the Allies had succeeded in their primary objective, the capture or killing of Mr bin Laden.

The Taliban said Mr bin Laden and his protector, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's leader, were safe. They vowed to fight to the last man and threatened revenge. They also claimed to have shot down an US plane with a Stinger. This was denied by the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Military sources said that the Taliban "air force" of about 19 old MiGs and helicopters had been destroyed, despite an attempt to hide them. It is believed most of the aircraft were hit at the Shindand airbase in the west of the country, and at another airbase near Kabul.

Taliban armour, mainly captured and abandoned Soviet tanks, including T-52s and armoured cars, were also hit from the air. US and British sources claimed many heavy guns had also been neutralised.

There were also believed to have been casualties among the Taliban forces gathered at the borders with Uzbekistan and Pakistan. The Taliban regime had announced earlier yesterday that it was deploying 8,000 fighters to the border with Uzbekistan, the country that looked likely to be the main base of Allied attacks. The regime also announced that 2,000 more would guard Kabul.

While Taliban leaders accompanied the troop movements with proclamations of "fighting to the last" and not "bowing before Americans", Western military planners saw the deployments as a great bonus. The masses of men, and their accompanying armour, would be visible, not well dug in, and thus susceptible to missile and air attacks.

Reactions to the attack were widespread and often violent. The most immediate and extreme reaction was in neighbouring Pakistan. Conservative religious leaders denounced the President, General Pervez Musharraf, for his support of the US, and called for an uprising against him and a jihad against the West.

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