Archive for Sunday, October 7, 2001

Military strategy coming into focus

October 7, 2001


— Intelligence from Pakistan. Air strikes from Oman or from aircraft carriers. Troops on the ground in Uzbekistan to back up special forces operating inside Afghanistan. And perhaps a command center inside Saudi Arabia.

Three weeks into America's declared war on terrorism, U.S. military options are taking shape.

Questions remain, though.

As U.S. armed forces position themselves for a possible strike against Osama bin Laden and Afghan rulers who harbor him, it remained unclear what kind of action will be taken and when. Some worry about how the Pentagon can plan war strategy in a region with potentially unstable, untested and unenthusiastic allies.

The United States has maintained a large force in the Gulf region since the 1991 war to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and it still uses facilities in numerous places including Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Qatar.

Because of its long common border with Afghanistan, officials initially eyed Pakistan as a possible base for operations in the new anti-terrorism campaign. Though Pakistan is providing intelligence and other support, officials are limiting its use for fear it would enrage the country's fundamentalist Islamic factions and prompt a regime takeover in a country armed with nuclear weapons.

Potential risk to Saudi Arabia's royal family is a factor in that Muslim kingdom as well.

On his first stop on a five-nation visit to the region, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted Wednesday that Saudi officials are worried a war on terrorism could create harmful "secondary effects" in the Muslim world.

They have said publicly that American troops must not use bases inside Saudi Arabia to launch attacks on other countries in the region, including Afghanistan.

Privately, U.S. officials dismiss the dispute, saying Saudis are cooperating, even if they are unwilling to publicize it

Oman option

Experts suggest the U.S. Air Force would be allowed to use a new command center in Saudi Arabia to direct air operations and to refuel, even if not to launch raids. Others say Saudi reluctance is slowing U.S. military preparations.

Still others say it would be pointless to press for more from Riyadh, and set the royal family up for domestic challenges, if another option would work just as well.

That's where Oman comes in.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos has allowed the United States to proposition military equipment and have emergency access to Omani bases since 1980. The country could supply critical staging bases for operations inside Afghanistan and has two airports that can give warplanes a straight shot across the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea to Afghanistan while avoiding Iranian airspace.

In addition to Oman, air operations could be run from other bases, including the Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia, where the Pentagon was sending Air Force B-52 bombers.

"Oman has become the obvious place for geographic reasons to fly out of at least for combat missions," said Ivo H. Daalder of the Brookings Institution.

"We don't need to be close" for air activity, he said.

Border states

For ground operations, however, troops do.

The focus for that has been on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, two former Soviet republics bordering Afghanistan.

Uzbek's president gave permission Friday for U.S. warplanes and troops to use an Uzbek air base, and the U.S. Army sent 1,000 infantry soldiers there. They will be on standby to come to the aid of any U.S. special forces that might run into trouble operating inside Afghanistan.

The Uzbeks, however, appeared to rule out using Uzbekistan for land operations against Afghanistan, or to launch air strikes. And, the country's president said, no U.S. special operations forces such as Army Rangers or Green Berets who specialize in operating behind enemy lines would be allowed to operate from Uzbek territory.

The USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier also will be available in or near the Arabian Sea as a floating base for other forces, defense officials said.

A carrier normally has about 75 Navy planes on board, including fighters for land attack. But the Kitty Hawk left her home base in Japan this week without the usual number of aircraft.

Besides that, analysts noted, military plans are still evolving.

And in Paris, French Defense Minister Alain Richard said Thursday that action was not likely for "several weeks."

He said many issues remain to be decided among nations participating in the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.