The conflict in Afghanistan is entering a new and more dangerous phase with ground troops preparing to deploy deep inside hostile territory as the bombing campaign ends. By next week troops could be introduced. The Pentagon said 80 per cent of targets had been damaged or destroyed and that it was now possible to perform missions as and when desired.
The US already has at least 1,000 troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division in neighbouring Uzbekistan, and they will be joined by a further 1,000. These will form the bridgehead for the reinforcements to follow.
British forces, too, are expected to move to Uzbekistan. A large number is likely to be deployed straight from the 24,000 involved in the exercise Operation Saif Sareeya, in Oman. Paratroopers recently returned from peace-keeping in Macedonia, and Royal Marines are also expected.
Members of the SAS (Special Air Service), and SBS (Special Boat Service), with the US anti-insurgency Delta Force, are already in Afghanistan gathering intelligence. They may be joined by pathfinders from the Parachute Regiment.
Some of the US force will be transferred from peace-keeping in the Balkans. There are 3,600 in Bosnia and 5,300 in Kosovo. It is believed that elements of the 101st Airborne Division and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, will be deployed from Kentucky.
Some units will be sent to Uzbekistan, where a former Russian base, Tuzel, can house up to 20,000. There are additional bases at Termez and Dzakurgan. Their main task would be protection and rescue, flying in and out of Afghanistan on Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters. Others may be flown to air bases near Quetta, in Pakistan, where they will wait for helicopters from the carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
Whether the units base themselves in Pakistan will depend on the volatile political situation there. It is unlikely that either troops or equipment will be kept there if the violent protests against the allied action in Afghanistan continues.
If Pakistan is dropped as an option, the units are expected to be moved to Uzbekistan, although this may need further negotiations with the Uzbek government. But they can also be based in Afghanistan. With little danger from Taliban air defence, US and British forces can be flown in to seize bases in the country. Although the forces will be prepared for combat, many of these airfields will probably have been abandoned by Taliban forces retrenching around the cities.
The Russians built 220 airstrips during their intervention in Afghanistan, and have supplied details to the Allies. But the all-weather air base at Bagram, 20 miles north of Kabul, with its two-mile runway, is highly desirable.
Yesterday, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said 13 targets were hit on Monday. All were military and communications sites. He said Taliban ground forces had also been targeted by up to eight land-based warplanes and up to 15 strike aircraft from carriers in the Arabian Sea. In addition, 15 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been launched.Reuse content