Allied planning hindered by Muslim festivals and looming Afghan winter

War against terrorism: Strategy
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The Independent Online

Air strikes on Afghanistan are likely to be drastically curtailed over the next few days to avoid offending Islamic sensibilities during the commemoration of the Ascension of the prophet Mohamed.

American and British military planners have been asked by the respective governments to reduce the number of attacks during this period.

Washington and London are increasingly worried about the reaction in Muslim countries to the military action and claims of many civilian casualties from the Taliban.

Strategists have been told that future planning must take into account the need to avoid giving the Afghan regime and Osama bin Laden ammunition for propaganda.

The pause for the Ascension will coincide with the pre-arranged plan for a hiatus in the military action to allow Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Taliban leadership a chance to "recant" over their refusal to hand over Mr bin Laden and his chief lieutenants in the al-Qa'ida network.

However, senior officers face a much greater problem with the coming of Ramadan, a month of fasting and sacrifice that starts in the middle of November. Military action then, and the possibility of mosques being hit, would fuel the anger in the Muslim world against the Western offensive.

That, and the onset of the bitter Afghan winter, have given an added incentive to American and British strategists to mount operations inside Afghanistan as quickly as possible. This action is likely to consist of special forces operations against selected targets.

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, conceded that action by ground forces would be all but impossible once the snows came down over the Hindu Kush mountains, cutting off routes to the al-Qa'ida network's hide-outs.

"Everyone knows that the weather in a few weeks' time in Afghanistan will be particularly difficult," he said. "Historically, we know that the civil wars that have plagued Afghanistan tend to close down in the winter months. That is obviously a factor that any military planner must take account of."

The Defence minister Lewis Moonie confirmed that the looming winter would be a "decisive" factor in the planning process.

British defence sources said that this meant land operations would have to be brought forward. The alternative would be either a difficult winter war, or the unacceptable alternative of waiting until next spring. Among other reasons for rapid deployment would be to attempt to control an impending humanitarian catastrophe in the region and also to ensure that the opposition Northern Alliance did not seize power in Kabul from an enfeebled Taliban regime.

Defence sources point out that it would be extremely difficult to keep the fragile "international coalition against terrorism" in place if military action was delayed for much longer, with the prospect of Mr bin Laden "thumbing his nose" at the West.

Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, who sits in Tony Blair's War Cabinet, said there would not be a large-scale deployment even if troops were sent into Afghanistan. She also dismissed reports that the Allied powers could find themselves fighting the rebel Northern Alliance – frustrated at the lack of direct military support from the coalition forces – as well as the Taliban.

"There are not going to be large numbers of ground troops and they are not going to take on two enemies."