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Bomb blitz will 'shock and awe' the Taliban

By Ben Rooney, Defence Staff

(Filed: 27/09/2001)

THE US armada will exploit its overwhelming firepower to devastate the Taliban in a policy of "shock and awe", defence analysts said yesterday.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, gave the strongest indication yet that the war would have two aspects: a long, covert special forces campaign, possibly lasting years, and a huge air attack using the whole range of air power currently lining up against the Taliban.

He warned America not to expect a "quick fix" or "an antiseptic war". Mr Rumsfeld said: "Some stages will be visible, as in traditional conflict, and in other cases they will not be visible."

Special forces are already reported to be operating in the region. Indian military sources report two battalions of US special forces in Uzbekistan and a detachment of SAS.

With three US carrier groups in or heading towards the Arabian Sea and a fourth, the 86,000-ton nuclear-powered USS Kitty Hawk steaming from its base in Yokosuka, Japan, the main pieces of the military jigsaw will shortly be in place.

The build-up of the air armada continues with additional squadrons of attack planes deploying to the Gulf. Another wave of aircraft left the US heading for the Gulf region.

British aircraft have also left bases in the UK to join Exercise Saif Sareea in Oman, the largest deployment of UK forces since the 1991 Gulf War.

With the Pentagon giving away very little, defence commentators were looking for signs as to when air attacks would begin.

According to Professor Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, head of defence studies at Birmingham University, in-flight refuelling tankers would be a key indicator. "In-flight refuelling will be essential," he said.

The US have some KC-10 tankers in the huge base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Analysts agree that when air power is called for, and it will be, it will be on a huge scale - a policy christened "shock and awe".

"One of the lessons of Kosovo was that the gradual build-up of attacks did not have the right effect on the regime [in Belgrade]," said Nigel Vinson, a specialist at the Royal United Services Institute. "You need to deploy 'shock and awe' from the very beginning."

According to Prof Mason, the kind of armada the air force is building is exactly that needed to support a variety of simultaneous operations.

"A co-ordinated attack by US aircraft against political and military targets across Afghanistan, even if the Taliban have abandoned them, would strike at the political heart of the regime," he said.

"Were this linked to, or even were it to support, an attack by the United Front [the opposition forces in the north of the country] it would pose a very serious threat to the Taliban regime."

But while no one doubts the Pentagon's ability to inflict huge damage to the Afghan regime, it is not clear that attacks will succeed in demoralising the disparate force that is the Taliban. "If the aim is only to traumatise the Taliban then it might not be that effective," said Mr Vinson. "It is a traumatised society already."

This campaign will also differ markedly from recent Western operations in the role of the media. The campaigns in Kosovo and the Gulf relied on the media, particularly CNN, to deliver Washington's message to the belligerents.

The nightly shows of smart bombs were intended by the Pentagon as much for consumption in Belgrade as in Boston or Birmingham. However, the Taliban outlawed domestic television, declaring it un-Islamic. Without the Afghan networks delivering America's message, the psychological impact may be muted.

But the lack of the "CNN effect" could work to the West's advantage. Ever since Vietnam, wars have been prosecuted on the screens of the American nation, none more so than the Gulf War. "Media ops" form a significant part of all modern military operations.

The absence of spectacular military targets, and the extensive use of special forces means the TV cameras will have little to film. CNN, along with other foreign crews, were expelled from Kabul last Wednesday.

Without the cameras following their every move, the Pentagon and its allies will have a much freer hand to conduct the kind of war it wants to, rather than worrying about domestic consumption.

-- Swissrose (, September 27, 2001

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