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Revealed: British plan for Afghan onslaught
Bin Laden 'hiding in terror camp. Allied warships steam to Gulf. Spy plane downed
War on terrorism - Observer special Guardian Unlimited special: terrorism crisis
Kamal Ahmed in London, Peter Beaumont in Washington and Ed Vulliamy in New York Sunday September 23, 2001 The Observer
British troops will lead an international coalition alongside America to wage war on Afghanistan in the next 10 days as security and intelligence sources indicated last night that the net was tightening on Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect behind the terrorist attacks on America. With an attack now imminent and American warplanes arriving in neighbouring Uzbekistan, security and military sources in Britain and America said that they were now concentrating their investigation into bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation in the north and west of Afghanistan. Five terrorist camps around Jalalabad will be the focus of the military campaign, which Ministry of Defence officials last night revealed was now in the 'final stages' of planning.
Sources said that any action by ground troops would be preceded by bombing in the terrorist camps' region, although Tony Blair has ordered the MoD to agree only to plans that keep civilian casualties 'to a minimum'. The order appears to rule out carpet bombing large areas of the country.
With America now on a war footing, 13 British warships travelled through the Suez canal yesterday to strengthen Britain's presence in the Middle East. In the largest military mobilisation since the Gulf War 10 years ago, the White House also revealed that a third aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and warships capable of launching ground-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles had moved into the area to prepare for attack.
Yesterday Bush chaired a National Security Council meeting to complete plans for military action, which could come as early as Thursday. Later today the President will join advisers from the special operations arm of the US Marines at the presidential retreat at Camp David.
It is believed that the coalition force will be led by America with military support and troops from specialist units in Britain and France. Russia will provide logistical support. Tony Blair is on the verge of signing the order agreeing to the use of British troops.
Britain and America now believe that bin Laden is still in Afghanistan, contrary to reports that he had fled to China or Chechnya. 'Bin Laden is in Afghanistan,' the Prime Minister's official spokesman said. 'We know he is there, put it that way.' His words reflected those of Colin Powell, the US secretary of state and key military planner in the White House, who said that there was a 'presumption' that the man who has become a hate figure for many in the West was still in the country.
Although British officials said that the ultimatum to the Taliban authorities that bin Laden must be expelled from Afghanistan was 'open ended', it was made clear that with winter approaching military action needed to be rapid.
It is believed that bin Laden is hiding in a network of camps in the north-west of Afghanistan. The camps at Darunta, Bhesud, Jaji- Maydan, Khost and Tani are well known to the CIA and could be bombed from the air. Senior Whitehall sources said that military programmes could only be put in place when 'the outcome was clear', a reference to Bill Clinton's policy of bombing Afghan camps with cruise missiles in 1998 - which failed to capture or kill bin Laden.
Downing Street said that any action would now take a 'twin track' approach, with the first phase concentrating on finding bin Laden and breaking down the al-Qaeda organisation, and the second phase concentrating on the fight against world terrorism.
In a clear indication that the Government is planning to put Britain onto a war footing, Downing Street has sent a request to all departments asking them to draw up legislation in case of 'national emergency'. Plans are being prepared in the areas of extradition, anti-terrorism legislation and crime to allow the Government to act more swiftly against people suspected of being linked to terrorist organisations.
The move reflects similar action taken during the Gulf War when internment powers were used to imprison up to 100 Iraqis and Palestinians. Many later successfully sued the Government for wrongful imprisonment.The disclosure of the allied plans for war came as tensions in the region heightened dramatically yesterday.
Despite earlier contradictory statements, officials from Afghanistan's ruling Taliban said they had established that their forces had downed a pilotless drone aircraft over Tashkurghan with machinegun fire as well as a helicopter near Dara-i-Suf.
Both areas are in Samangan, about 150 miles northwest of Kabul, where the anti-Taliban commander General Rashid Dostum reported that his force of minority Uzbek fighters had made advances against the Taliban.
Mystery surrounded the origin of the spy plane. A spokesman for Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance confirmed the helicopter crash, but blamed it on a mechanical fault. 'The helicopter seems to have gone down because of technical reasons,' the spokesman, Mohamed Ashraf Nadeem, said, adding that the fate of those on board was unknown.
The Taliban's ambassador in Islamabad, Mullah Abdul Saleem Zaeef, said the spyplane had been downed while taking pictures over northern Afghanistan.
Washington frequently uses 'drones' to fly observation and spy missions over Iraq, but the aircraft do not generally have defensive capabilities and made up the majority of planes shot down by Baghdad since the Gulf War.
A Pentagon spokesman in Washington would not comment on the report.
With America determined to press ahead with military action after more than 6,800 people were killed in twin attacks on New York and Washington, Blair's aides signalled that Britain would stand firmly behind Washington.
His resolve will be bolstered by a poll in today's Observer that shows 65 per cent of Britons sup port surgical air strikes against countries harbouring terrorists, and 63 per cent of voters believe that Britain is 'at war' already against terrorists.
Blair is likely to recall Parliament in an effort to keep the broad political coalition between the main political parties that has so far backed his stance.
There is increasing concern in Government quarters that a left-wing backlash against any military action could damage Blair's standing. He is said to be furious that Clare Short, the Cabinet Minister and secretary of state for international development, has spoken out against the militaristic language used since the atrocity. She criticised Bush's use of the word 'crusade' as 'very unfortunate' and said that America was using 'lots of plans and guns to make everybody do their bidding'.
Blair was briefed by key security and intelligence officials for an hour as he travelled to New York and Washington last week, increasing speculation that military action was days away.
One of the officials was thought to be General Tom Piggott, head of operational advice at the MoD. Blair was also accompanied by Sir David Manning, a Foreign Office adviser.
An administration official in America said that the President would soon sign an executive order naming terrorist organisations and specific terrorists around the world and freezing their US assets. Oxfam said yesterday that Afghanistan was facing a humanitarian crisis as refugees fled south and north to try to escape any military attacks.
The charity had ordered a 15,000 tonne emergency shipment of food to Uzbekistan and was trying to move emergency food supplies into Afghanistan, where millions of people are threatened with starvation. 'Afghanistan hasn't been totally shut off. Why is the world waiting? There is no need to wait. Aid can be got in now,' said Alex Renton, an Oxfam spokesman.
The intensive build-up for war came barely 24 hours after Afghanistan's ruling Islamic council of clerics said that they had asked bin Laden to leave the country voluntarily, although they insisted that they would not hand him over to the US authorities.
America yesterday faced its most serious difficulty in building a coalition to date: envoys from Saudi Arabia - a crucial ally in the Gulf War of 10 years ago - told the State Department that the kingdom would resist granting the US use of its crucial Prince Sultan air base, which the Pentagon was planning to use as a command centre.
Even hesitation on the Saudis' part towards the campaign would entrench divisions in Washington, and strengthen the hand of those wanting to get on with the war rather than wait to build a consensus alliance.
The Saudi monarchy is - like Pakistan - also extremely concerned about the domestic threat from its Islamic fundamentalists, who have been offended by the kingdom's alliance with the US.
The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, yesterday argued that the US should make immediate plans to shift its command centre to Turkey.
Rumsfeld and the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, spent the weekend in Washington working on details of the deployment . Last night, Bush continued to make his plans at Camp David in Maryland with his chief of staff Andrew Card and his National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 22, 2001
I am a bit surprised to see that the French are included in any possible special forces missions.
-- Chance (email@example.com), September 23, 2001.
One report, below, puts him in the Soutwestern part of the country, now this one puts him in the Nortwestern part.
Afghanistan is a big country. Lots of conflict in suspected knowlege of his whereabouts yet, it seems.
-- Uncle Fred (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 23, 2001.