September 24, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Anil Athale

Anil Athale on World War III
World War III?

What the world witnessed on September 11, 2001 was the beginning of a Third World War. The loss of American lives in this single attack was greater than Pearl Harbor; it was the first time the US mainland came under threat. Finally, due to the television images beamed to the drawing rooms of America, there is a sense of outrage in middle America that has made this into a 'people's war' in every sense of the world.

This is no Vietnam war that was plotted and executed by diplomats and soldiers in the confines of the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom (the area in which the US state department is located). While speculating the American response, this factor must be taken into account.

Timing of War

It is close to 13 days after the outrage and the world waits for an American response. The wait is nearly over as the hostilities are likely to begin very soon. The intervening period was needed essentially to move large land, naval and air forces to the jump off point, a military necessity. Indicators on Monday that clashes between the SAS, the British special forces, and the Taleban have taken place near Kabul indicates that the induction of these forces has already taken place. Special forces, howsoever well trained, cannot operate in isolation and need a link up; they are always part of the main operation. This is the strongest possible indicator that war in Afghanistan is imminent.

Three Phase War

The coming war is likely to be fought in three distinct phases. The first phase will be massive use of American and British air power to pulverise the Taleban regime in Afghanistan. This phase will in all probability be exclusively American-led and controlled. The reasons for this are the difficulties NATO faces in co-ordinating multi-national forces in the air war. Integration of Cruise missiles, laser target designator teams, electronic warfare, sorting out frequencies and communication problems and command and control and co-ordination are military issues of great complexity. The Americans would like to avoid a coalition approach at this stage in order to achieve speed.

What will be the likely targets of this air war?

For starters, virtually all buildings and infrastructure, anti aircraft guns, radio stations, wireless stations, vehicles, oil storage sites, arms and ammunition dumps will be destroyed. Anything even remotely connected with the Taleban and the ruling clique will be fair game. With a suitable warning to all Afghans to keep away from these sites, the Americans can claim they tried to avoid innocent civilians from being harmed.

This punitive air assault may last one week till the time the Taleban regime is divided into small groups, unable to communicate with each other and thus rendered incapable of a response to any ground attack by even small strength special force units or units of the Northern Alliance.

Simultaneously with this air assault, the 82nd and 101 airborne divisions of the US army would establish large bridgeheads by capturing existing airfields. Once this is done, these will be developed to launch a ground offensive of a limited nature as well as support operations by the special forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden and the Taleban leadership.

There has been much comment on the inaccessible nature of Afghan terrain and the difficulties of mountain war. It is indeed true that air power is much less effective in this area. But the use of massive air power in this case is not necessarily to cause physical damage alone. Through the use of air power such as the world has never seen before, the US will clearly demonstrate to the world and likely waverers as well as bin Laden sympathisers the kind of death by fire it is capable of. The theatre will aim as much at CNN's television cameras as well as targets on the ground. The principal aim will be to establish the superiority of American power to terrorise.

Phase two would begin in conjunction with the first phase, or a little later, say within 48 hours. This will be mainly the ground offensive by the Northern Alliance and possibly Iran, from the north and south west.

The job of sealing the southern and eastern end that borders Pakistan would be done by the American or British forces as there is very little faith in the Pakistani ability to deliver. This phase could last anything from six months to a year and would result in the break-up of Afghanistan as well as the installation of a neutral regime in Kabul. Russian forces may also play a limited role in this. Even Indian special forces, who could be brought to the battlefield via Central Asia, could have a role in this job.

An international coalition would be acceptable for this phase as co-ordination could be achieved by clearly laying down boundaries for various forces. The task of close air support would pose some problem, but that could be resolved by attaching small American teams with the ground forces of others.

Phase three and the more difficult one would be to build a universal international coalition under the United Nations to get to the roots of terrorist cells worldwide. This will be a long drawn affair and could last anything from five to ten years. Ultimately, the world would have to clearly agree on issues of human rights and its limits, democracy and the limits to freedom. A concerted assault at this stage could be mounted on the insidious ideologies that teach hate. The US may well review all its old visas and green cards to weed out the elements that have abused freedom in the US and waged a war against it.

The Difficulties

The difficulties in getting access to land-locked Afghanistan prompted the US to turn a blind eye to the Taleban's patron, Pakistan. It appears this is no longer the case as Uzbekistan has permitted access and Russia seems to have come round to co-operating with the US. Once Iran, which is being wooed by the UK, also comes aboard, the need to mollycoddle an unreliable Pakistan would no longer exist. Pakistan may soon find to its horror that it has no bargaining power.

The difficulty in finding bases in Pakistan is that local security is unlikely to be guaranteed in the face of the fundamentalist backlash in that country and also because the Pakistan armed forces have been penetrated by the jehadis. This would force the US to look for bases in India, Central Asia and Iran. The only 'favour' Pakistan would do the US is to provide its airspace for access.

Part II: A clash of civilisations is very real

Also see:
Terrorism in America: The complete coverage

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