´╗┐

What Happens After the Airstrikes?

  • Share
  • Read Later
SAID MOHAMMAD AZAM/AFP

Afghans sit on the debris of the Afghan Technical Consultants office in Kabul

TIME.com: Three days of U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan have presumably neutralized the Taliban's rather limited air defenses. What's the next step?

Mark Thompson: The next step would be to bomb Taliban and terrorist targets that can't shoot back. You go after air defenses in order to protect your pilots. After a couple of days of leveling what air defenses they have, you move on to the next layer, which would be military depots, secondary command structures, even prosaic things like motor pools and housing for soliders, if there is any.

On the civilian side, targets would include the apparatus of internal and external security, the defense and interior ministries, police outposts, those sorts of things. It's about doing anything possible from the air to pry loose the Taliban's fingers from the levers of power — anything that facilitates them policing the population is something the U.S. would want to hit, if it wants to topple the Taliban. And that's what they've said they want to do.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

In Kosovo, the air war went on for 70 days. But presumably here there are far more limits on what the U.S. can do from 15,000 feet, because the Taliban have far less military and economic infrastructureů

Yes, there's a lot less to hit in Afghanistan than there was in Serbia. And that may be why the U.S. is using a lot fewer planes than they did in the Kosovo conflict. What we are seeing so far, is a seemingly judicious use of force. If they were flying in hundreds of planes every night that would be more for PR than military effectiveness.

Given the limits of what can be achieved from the air, the question many Americans are asking is whether these initial strikes will be followed by a major ground-war operationů

It's not going to be a typical military campaign. The U.S. military believes the Taliban's grip on power is brittle, and that like crystal glass, it may shatter if it is hit in the right place. They know they can't knock it out from the air. And they also have doubts about the military usefulness of the Northern Alliance. But they suspect that the Northern Alliance's willingness to fight and the discontent of the wider population with Taliban rule might be enough to drive them out of power. The big question now is how much indigenous support the Taliban can muster. It may be clear after a week; it may take a lot longer.

There have been reports of the U.S. possibly using helicopter gunships to go after targets on the ground. How would these be used?

Hit and run raids may begin soon, and they may not. They may even have begun already, but we won't know about them. The objective will be to keep the pressure on the Taliban. Once you've run out of aerial targets, you have to get down on to the ground and start the gritty task of hunting down terrorists.

They'll be looking for targets of opportunity, and hunting for people and intelligence. The special forces who operate from these Blackhawk helicopters will be under orders to gather up computers, paper, any sort of stuff that might expose how Al Qaida is put together. The questions, though are how well hidden these guys are, will the U.S. get any actionable intelligence, and will they be able to act on it. Any operations will be custom crafted from the ground up; there is no template. It will depend on intelligence, and the real situation as it develops on the ground.

The Blackhawk is not a gunship; it carries in the special forces. But it has plenty of fire power. There may also be Apache helicopters in Uzbekistan. We don't have any confirmation on that, but it would certainly make sense to have them there if you're planning on putting troops in harms way.

What about the deployment of the 10th Mountain Division in Uzbekistan, and the U.S. and British special forces reported to be operating in the region — are they preparing to launch a major ground incursion into Afghanistan?

The 10th have been deployed to mount search and rescue missions for pilots downed over Afghanistan. And also to establish a precedent, get them on the ground in Uzbekistan even if they don't have any mission, because you have to get them in early if at all — it's a lot easier to get them in there before the shooting starts than after. And they'll also be used in conjunction with special forces if Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts can be established — their role would be to establish a perimeter around the theater of operations to prevent the bad guys being reinforced, while Delta Force or Green Berets or other special forces go in to get him. But that's a very patient waiting game for an operation that can only happen if Bin Laden can be found.

So these air strikes are not going to be followed up by a significant ground war follow-up?

No. I don't anticipate one. Who's going to fight it? Certainly not the Americans — there would be at least three U.S. divisions in the area now if that was on the cards. And the Northern Alliance doesn't appear to have the wherewithal. So it's likely that there will be operations on the ground here and there, but but no decisive invasion.