US counts on four partners in fight with the Taliban

War on Terrorism: Strategy
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The US was yesterday building up for a military attack on Afghanistan likely to begin with surgical strikes to flush out suspected terrorists and break the Taliban's military grip over the country.

Early air strikes against important Taliban targets would deliver an important boost to the military campaign of the rebel Northern Alliance who, many diplomats think, is best placed to defeat the fundamentalist regime.

Some military officials also believe that destabilising the Taliban is the most likely way of yielding more information on the location of Osama bin Laden and his accomplices. One source argued yesterday that the degree to which the Taliban is "deliberately targeted" is being determined by the way it is obstructing the battle against Mr bin Laden.

The US has stressed the need for patience during its preparations for a military reprisal for last month's terrorist attacks, but strategists are aware that the onset of winter and of Ramadan mean that a strike must take place soon.

While the US is very much in the vanguard of the operation, four crucial allies – the UK, France, Germany and Australia – are expected to play a military role. Each have mobile forces and specialised units, including special forces, which are always in demand in the early stages of military operations on land. Other capabilities likely to be called on in the campaign include search and rescue units, medical teams, logistical support and air transport.

America's 18 Nato allies have also offered collective use of their airspace, of Nato's 17 airborne early warning aircraft, their base facilities, sea ports and refuelling, as well as other support services. In addition they have agreed to "enhance intelligence-sharing", bilaterally and through Nato, and to provide extra security for US forces in Europe.

Diplomats say that most intelligence co-operation will be done between national capitals rather than through Nato, which has very limited capabilities for fighting terrorism.

The offers of help have been welcomed by the US ambassador to Nato, Nicholas Burns, who described them as "important both in symbolic and concrete terms". Although the US is a military giant that needs little assistance from its weaker allies, Nato's action is designed to send out an important signal of solidarity and to provide US military planners with greater flexibility.

Several Nato allies have also promised to help take the strain if, for example, US forces are redeployed from the Balkans.

Meanwhile, the US coalition-building strategy will call on moderate Muslim countries for their political and logistical support, but not for concrete military involvement. Pledges of support for Washington from national capitals have come in thick and fast. In Germany, which has stressed its support for the US military operation, the Defence Minister, Rudolf Scharping, spoke to one newspaper of the potential deployment of AWACS surveillance aircraft and ships.

Jacques Chirac, the French President, promised participation in action to "neutralise the networks which, we know today, could have perpetrated attacks on our own soil". Mr Chirac promised the Americans use of French ports and bases in the Indian Ocean. France's smaller neighbour, Belgium, said that three naval ships and 240 Belgian soldiers, including special forces, are on standby to leave for a possible military operation.

Belgian air support may also be used, with one frigate and two minesweepers, and the country also offered its territory for American planes to refuel. Ten former Communist countries that are queuing to join Nato also gave full backing to the US in a joint declaration. "We consider these attacks to be an attack on all of us," the presidents of Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia, Macedonia and Albania said after talks in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.