Undercover teams to close pincer on Taliban

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The Independent Online

The success or failure of the Allies' war on terrorism will depend as no other large-scale campaign before on the performance of the special forces.

The dominant aim of Operation Enduring Freedom, the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden and the destruction of the al-Qa'ida network, is the reason the role of the undercover soldiers is so crucial in this war.

The members of the US Delta Force and British SAS currently behind enemy lines are engaged in what Washington and London have repeatedly stated is going to be a multi-faceted campaign.

In the north, they are advising Northern Alliance forces of General Abdul Rashid Dostum on military tactics, while in the south, around the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, they are playing a political as well as a military role.

According to planners in the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence, the twin approach will form a pincer movement on Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. With Allied help, Northern Alliance forces should be able to capture the strategic town of Mazar-i-Sharif, with its military airfield that could become a centre for Allied operations inside Afghanistan.

In the south, the special forces would help to foment rebellion among Pashtuns disenchanted with the Taliban regime because of weeks of bombardment.

The nine-strong American team that has been meeting General Dostum, regarded as the ablest and the most secular of the Alliance commanders, comprised intelligence officials as well as special forces.

According to defence sources, they were flown in by Pave Hawk, a version of the Black Hawk helicopter gunship, to meet General Dostum and his senior officers in the Panjshir valley. The Allied decision to launch air strikes against Taliban forces facing the Alliance is believed to have followed the meetings. Other topics under discussion have included US and British military, food and logistical supplies once the airport at Mazar is taken and becomes operational.

The liaison may not have been as fruitful as hoped. Allied intelligence officers say they are disappointed by the quality of intelligence they have received from the Alliance, with much of it either out of date or inaccurate. Lack of useful information has been a serious problem for the planners. Pakistan's military intelligence service, Inter Services Intelligence, which helped to create the Taliban, has also proved less than helpful, according to sources.

There is believed to be CIA involvement in the operation in the south as well. Members of the Delta Force and, it is believed the SAS, have established contact near Kandahar with Pashtun leaders dissatisfied with Mullah Omar and his associates. British intelligence sources claimed this week that there had been demonstrations and petitions in the region against Mr bin Laden and his foreign Islamist fighters. There is a strong likelihood that there had been special forces involvement in this.

Undercover soldiers on the ground are thought to have helped to guide attacks earlier this week by AC-300H Spectre Special Forces gunship, whose primary role is ground support.

The troops have not, however, launched any attacks on Taliban or al-Qa'ida positions on the ground, according to defence sources, simply because there are not enough of them behind enemy lines.

This is expected to change in the next few days, when the next phase of the operation will begin with "search and destroy" and "smash and grab" missions on specific targets.

Allied strategists consider Kandahar to be the key to defeating the Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies. The city is protected on three sides by mountains pitted with deep caves. On the fourth side, the barren expanse of the Rigastan desert offers no cover. Additional defence is provided by hundreds of thousands of mines left from the war against the Russians.

Information about Taliban and al-Qa'ida defences throughout Afghanistan remains one of the principal aims of the special forces teams.

One tunnel system at Zhawar is thought to have 41 caves, each about 30 feet long and 12 feet wide, containing ammunition dumps, vehicle maintenance bays and other military facilities. The mujahedin, using American Stinger missiles, shot down 24 Russian Hind helicopter gunships that attempted to storm the complex. When it was finally taken, with Russian Spetznatz special forces playing a leading role, the Russians found a hospital complex, a library, a bakery and even a mosque.

The Delta Force and SAS units are operating in small teams, which could be as few as three men. They will be working what is called "hard routine" – no fire, hot food or drink, taking turns to sleep in three- hour stints in shallow trenches covered with webbing.

They will have a variety of vehicles, including the specially designed Shadow strike vehicle with ultra-quiet engines and a "stealth" skin to avoid detection. The troops would have been flown in by Pave Hawks, with "whispering" rotor blades.