U.S. would target airfields, radio links in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON -- Whether it would begin with cruise missiles from Navy ships, bombs from Air Force jets or quick strikes by Army special forces, an American attack on Afghanistan's Taliban probably would aim to knock out airfields, communications links and other targets that sustain the religious militia.

War on the Taliban would be like little the U.S. military has undertaken before. But at least it would offer more of what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld calls "high-value" targets than would the shadowy terrorist network of Osama bin Laden that President Bush has promised to root out.

Bush told the nation the Taliban are "committing murder" by aiding the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Bush demanded they turn over bin Laden and other leaders of his al-Qaida organization or face swift punishment.

Taliban leaders, who have given refuge to bin Laden since 1996, say there is no proof he was behind the terror attacks, and on Friday they rejected Bush's demand that they hand him over.

In addition to U.S. forces, Rumsfeld spoke Friday of the potential for enlisting the help of the Northern Alliance, the main Afghan resistance group opposing the Taliban.

'They know the land'

"These folks, they know the lay of the land, they know, in some cases, some targets that are useful, they have ideas about how to deal with the Taliban," he said in an interview on Fox News.

Bush made clear that his first priority is smashing the al-Qaida network, but he is assembling forces in the Persian Gulf region that would provide plenty of air power to strike at the Taliban, too.

Much of that firepower -- including two aircraft carriers (and a third on the way), B-52 bombers, warships capable of launching ground-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles, and fighters -- would appear to have little relevance in the hunt for bin Laden. The Clinton administration fired dozens of cruise missiles at bin Laden's training camps in 1998 but accomplished little more than smashing empty tents.

It is widely expected that a U.S. campaign against the terrorists would be led by special operations forces such as helicopter-borne Army Rangers. Important, too, would be nonmilitary means such as financial steps to dry up bin Laden's resources, and law enforcement moves against his accomplices.

Bin Laden on the move

If Bush hopes to succeed in "smoking out" bin Laden, as the president has put it, he first will have to find the elusive Saudi exile. The U.S. government believes he is on the move within Afghanistan but has not left the country.

One veteran of the 1979-89 Soviet war in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Ruslan Aushev, has said the United States will find bin Laden only if it combs 200,000 square miles "rock by rock." Afghanistan actually covers about 250,000 square miles, slightly smaller than Texas.

If Bush decides to attack the Taliban, one of the most attractive targets would be the civilian-military airport in Kabul, the capital, and a Taliban garrison in the north of the city. The regime flies MiG fighters and helicopter gunships from this airport.

Among other potential targets:

The airport in Kandahar, the city in southeastern Afghanistan where the Taliban leaders are based.

The airport and Taliban military bases located in and around Jalalabad, a city in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. There are similar bases north of Jalalabad in Kunar province.

Communications towers on the outskirts of Kabul.

A military academy near Kabul.

A large dam near Sarobie that provides electricity for the Kabul area.

Northern Alliance help

It is possible the administration would opt, at least initially, for equipping and assisting the Northern Alliance rather than intervening directly with U.S. ground forces against the Taliban. Rumsfeld seemed to suggest this possibility in the interview Friday with Fox News.

He noted the historical examples of the Soviet Union and the former East European communist regimes.

"It was a surprise that at a certain moment the people there who did not agree with those regimes felt it was the right moment and they stepped forward and they acted on their own. It was not some country going in and rooting it out," he said.

He said of the Northern Alliance: "They can be a lot of help. First of all, they're the only thing on the ground competing with Taliban, and there are a lot of people, Afghans, who don't like the Taliban, who would prefer to have Taliban out of there."