A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

8 March: DEBKAfile‘s military experts report a poor showing by the hundreds of Afghans fighting alongside US troops, forcing US military planners to pour into the battle zone south of Gardez American reinforcements that were earmarked for other combat arenas.

General Tommy Franks, the US Central Command chief, transferred US forces standing by on Oman’s Masirah Island base for the US offensive against Iraq. Several thousand more may have to follow, if fighting flares up in additional Taliban-al Qaeda pockets around Afghanistan.

DEBKAfile’s military sources say that, while the Americans were pouring additional soldiers, 17 assault helicopters and tank-busting A-10 aircraft into the area, the other side was moving in reinforcements too, equipped with large quantities of anti-tank missiles and various shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles, including US-made Stingers. US spy satellites and drones spotted groups of Taliban and al-Qaeda converging on the battle zone from as far away as the Hindu Kush mountains, north of the city of Jalalabad, and the Zabul province south of Gardez.

US commanders had hoped to win the battle before the enemy reinforcements arrived. But military experts watching the fighting judged this hope illusory. They estimate the engagement will continue past the weekend and into its second week, reaching a climax at mid-week.

DEBKAfile‘s military experts report that the Taliban and al Qaeda commanders in Pakistan appear to be bucked up enough by their success in standing up to the American-led assault to revise their planning. Previously, Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorist attacks had been plotted for US forces, UN peacekeepers and other targets linked to the interim government of Hamid Karzai, in major Afghan cities, such as Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar e-Sharif. The bulk of their forces were to have been reserved in enclaves for a summer counter-offensive to be launched around the country in mid-June or early July.

But now, Taliban and al-Qaeda chiefs have decided to delay no longer. Instead of waiting for the United States to move against their enclaves, they are going on the offensive to try and “draw” US forces to the strongholds.

The escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict further complicates America’s military situation. Should the violence spill over and the Lebanese Hizballah – buttressed by al Qaeda militants – join the fray to ease Israel’s military pressure on the Palestinians, Washington’s plans and timetable for its Iraq campaign could be revised again.


Part I: Israeli Victory Will Impact on Global War Vs Terror

9 March: The Tulkarm refugee camp, the third such location to be raided by Israeli forces’ new counter-offensive – after the Nablus camp of Balata and the Jenin camp – was also the venue of a turning point: the Israel army’s first clear combat victory since Yasser Arafat launched his grinding terror confrontation 17 months ago.

Since Israeli forces began driving into refugee camps on February 28, Palestinian forces have suffered one setback after another, forced to take on a well-trained, determined army – which is no longer on the defensive. Israeli troops are for the first time entering the hard-core terrorist strongholds buried in the camps and beating the Palestinians on their own terrain, in house-to-house, close quarter combat. Scores of long-sought suspects were rounded up and their weapons stores and workshops discovered and impounded.

The climax occurred on Friday, March 8, when in the Tulkarm camp more than 600 Palestinian men, including hundreds of Arafat’s Force-17 and Tanzim-Fatah, al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas and Jihad Islami combatants, surrendered and handed their arms over to Israeli Golani Brigade troops. A Qasam rocket workshop was discovered with ten rockets ready for launching and bombing making and explosive plants.

That victory capped a week in which 34 Israelis died at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. Whatever may be done to belittle or derogate Israel’s military achievement, the fact remains that the IDF braved the hard-core Palestinian terrorists in the narrow alleys of their fortresses and forced them to surrender. They began transforming the map from one dotted with Palestinian terrorist hits against Israelis, to one where one terrorist base after another is under close assault.

More such incursions were underway over the weekend south of Jerusalem – in Bethlehem, the adjacent al Aideh and al Khadar camps, the small neighboring towns of Beit Sahur and Beit Jala, and the Dehaisha camp further south. Still to come are the hardcore terrorist concentrations in the Gaza Strip and Ramallah, commercial and terror capital of the West Bank and Arafat’s command center. His compound is the core of a cluster of sub-command centers – his presidential guard Force-17, the Palestinian police, the hardline Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the coordinating centers between Arafat’s forces and outside terrorist bodies, such as the Hizballah.

On top of the 15,000 inhabitants crowded into the al Amri and Kalandia refugee camps – south of Ramallah and abutting the northern limits of Jerusalem – there are tens of villages and townships. Some, like Surda to the north, have three or four thousand inhabitants; townships, like el Bireh to the east and Bir Zeit to the north, have between ten and twelve thousand inhabitants each.

Each of these locations houses one or more terrorist command posts. The two refugee camps have one Tanzim-Fatah militia command post apiece, both answering directly to Arafat. West Bank Tanzim commander, Marwan Barghouti maintains his command center at El Bireh, while Col. Tawfiq Tirawi leads the Fatah al Aqsa Brigades and runs Arafat’s liaison operation with Iraqi military intelligence from two places – Ramallah and Surda.

DEBKAfile‘s military analysts examine the broad implications of the Tulkarm victory – not merely in the Israel-Palestinian context, but also for future military tactics in the global war on terror.

A. It shows that a regular army can engage terrorists by going into their strongholds and rooting them out in house-to-house combat. The US Afghan force, based at the Kandahar international airfield and Bagram air base, has refrained from entering Kandahar town to clean out Taliban-al Qaida hideouts, or sent men into the terrorist enclaves located around Kabul the capital. The Russian army in Chechnya has likewise left rebel enclaves alone in some town districts, like Argun, rather than insert troops.

B. At its first try, in Balata, Nablus, the Israeli command made two mistakes. One, the armed Palestinian nucleus was not placed under effective siege and, two, service vehicles, such as ambulances, food and supply trucks were allowed through. The wanted Palestinians took advantage of these loopholes to escape the noose – many in ambulances – and take refuge in the Nablus town center. When Israeli troops finally captured the camp, they found the birds had flown – just as the Americans discovered in Afghanistan.

In the Balata operation, however, they tested the innovative methods developed over months for flushing out terrorist in built-up areas at low cost in troop casualties and collateral harm to civilians.

C. In Tulkarm, therefore, the Golani contingents sewed up the refugee camp by a diversionary tactic: they feigned an attack on neighboring Nour Shams camp, driving the terrorist heavyweights to the next-door Tulkarm camp, where they were quickly surrounded. This time, the Israeli commander cut the camp off from water, electricity and food supplies and kept ambulances out. Ambulances trying to force their way into the camp were shot, even those on the way to evacuate genuine casualties.

On the third day, the Palestinian resistance collapsed. Among the 600 men who surrendered were 50 top commanders and senior terror activists. Another 800 surrendered later.


Part II: Zinni’s Mission Ties in with Iraqi Operation

9 March: Ever since the capture of the Karine-A Palestinian arms smuggling boat on the Red Sea two months ago exposed Yasser Arafat’s working relations with Iran, the Hizballah and Iraq, both America and Israel had an interest in keeping Arafat cornered in Ramallah for three main reasons:

1. To punish him.

2. To cut him off from elements of President Bush’s “axis of evil”.

3. To mute the influence of Iran, the Hizballah and Iraq on the Palestinian Authority and correlatively the Arab world.

The Arafat isolation plan was intended as a makeshift stratagem. The next step was to have been a comprehensive Israeli operation against terrorist centers in the West Bank. It was scheduled for late January, but delayed by the Israel prime minister’s foot-dragging.

While Sharon dithered, Arafat made hay. Pinned down in Ramallah, he gathered Palestinian and Middle East terror forces around him and plotted the next terror offensive. That offensive erupted on February 19. A unit of his Fatah militant al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade carried out a commando operation against an Israeli roadblock at Ein Arik, west of Ramallah, killing six soldiers. Those Palestinian commandos were trained for the operation by Hizballah experts. This was the first Palestinian strike against an Israeli target under a Hizballah commander.

When Sharon still held back on a wholesale response, the terrorists were unleashed. In the last week alone, 34 Israelis died and more than 100 were injured. The Israeli prime minister waited no longer. By then, however, the Bush administration, up to its ears in preparations for the US campaign against Iraq, had come under pressures of its own: Saudi crown prince Abdullah had floated a comment that was fast snowballing in Arab and European hands into a “peace initiative”; the Arab League summit was approaching its scheduled date of March 28 and vice president Richard Cheney was preparing to embark on a 12-nation tour taking in the Middle East.

Although Washington stood foursquare behind a major Israel counter-terror operation in principle, the timing as a result of Sharon’s shilly-shallying was now unfortunate. The Americans were facing increasing Arab and European pressure to get directly involved and hold back Israeli retaliation for Palestinian violence.

On the other hand, Washington saw Sharon’s “Operation Root Treatment”, finally underway, was going from strength to strength and was anxious to keep up the momentum.

That was how the plan to send ceasefire broker Anthony Zinni back to the region was born. US officials, general Zinni and Ariel Sharon are under no illusions about the chances of Arafat reining in his terrorists and accepting a ceasefire. From his point of view, the heavy Israeli casualties have made his operation a huge success. Sharon’s consent to drop his demand for seven days’ calm before agreeing to negotiate was meant to smooth Zinni’s path, but faces no danger of being reciprocated from the Palestinian side.

10 March: Sunday, March 10, the United States unexpectedly ordered 400 US troops lifted out of the battle area south of Gardez in the Afghan Paktia province. DEBKAfile‘s military analysts suspect that this pullout is the first stage of the withdrawal of the bulk of the 1,600 US troop-force fielded for Operation Anaconda, the largest US-led offensive since the Taliban collapsed last December and also the costliest in lives: eight US servicemen and seven Afghan soldiers killed and some 50 US troops wounded. Launched eight days ago in the Shah-e- Kot Valley region, the operation will most probably be wound down by Friday, March 15, without being resolved. Army General Tommy Franks, Central Command OC, will leave small contingents of Special Forces on the ground for reconnaissance.

The American plan ran into difficulties from the start: Afghan ground troops were to have advanced on the those strongholds to flush the enemy out, while US units took up “blocking positions” to pin down them down and prevent them slipping away. But this plan fell down when the Afghan contingents were prevented from arriving in time by heavy automatic and mortar fire. One of the three Afghan commanders backed out. The US force was forced to carry the brunt of the fighting against a far larger force than was anticipated. Those units took casualties and most of its helicopter backup fleet was damaged. After the Americans brought in reinforcements and new helicopters, the weather turned and heavy blizzards hampered the advance.

Operation Anaconda’s most dangerous enemy, however, as DEBKAfile has said before, was inadequate intelligence, leading to the underestimation of the numbers of the enemy and their combat skills. The other card stacked against the operation was the built-in unwillingness of the Afghan fighter to take on the al Qaeda and Taliban forces head-on.

This was apparent in the Tora Bora engagement last December and again now. After the joint force began taking casualties, the Afghan side began breaking up.

Another complicating factor for Washington is the rising spiral of Palestinian-Israeli clashes emanating from multi-casualty Palestinian terrorist strikes.

The turn of events in Paktia brings forward the prospect, revived this week, of the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the global war on terror.

(This possibility was first disclosed in our intelligence newsletter DEBKA-Net-Weekly in early October 2001, three times in the course of the same month in DEBKAfile and again on November 26, 2001).

This week the Los Angeles Times reported that President Bush had ordered the Pentagon to draw up contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons and a list of seven nations for targeting: Five – North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria – are either terror sponsors or developers of weapons of mass destruction.

The US armed forces are looking harder at the development of small nuclear bombs for tactical use, since the setbacks of Tora Bora and the Shah-e-Kot Valley. US military planners may lean further towards the use of tactical nuclear weapons to finish off the Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds still defying conventional means of warfare.

13 March: The terror attack Tuesday, March 12, in which six Israelis were killed and seven injured on the Matsuba-Kabri highway of W. Galilee had all the hallmarks of a military-guerrilla action. DEBKAfile‘s military and intelligence sources report it was a combined operation by al Qaeda militants, newly based in Lebanon, and Iran-backed Hizballah Islamic extremists belonging to a faction associated with the master terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. This conclusion is based on the killer squad’s modus operandi and evidence left at the scen of attack, after two of the terrorists were shot dead.

DEBKAfile‘s military sources enumerate the features supporting this deduction:

A. Site of Attack: The assailants took up positions on a West Galilee hilltop west of Kabri-Shlomi Route 70, and opposite the northern end of Shlomi, behind which rises the Rosh Hanikra ridge on the Lebanese side of the border. Atop that ridge stands a key Hizballah position, one of a string of posts along the Lebanese-Israel frontier.

From this vantage point, Hizballah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards intelligence spotters spent months “reading” the habits and contingency procedures of the Israeli villages below. They watched the comings and goings of security forces and their travel time from point to point, familiarized themselves with army and police routines, found the local command center and observed the flight schedules of Israeli air force helicopters.

Since last month, the observation post has been equipped by Iranian intelligence with new electronic surveillance equipment and revolving cameras that record every movement on the Israeli side of the frontier by day or night.

B. Preparations for Attack: The killer-squad had obviously studied every stone, orchard, ditch, shrub and hollow of the target area, and used the terrain effectively. The litter they left behind indicated they had camped for 36 hours or more in the area. The intruders had signaled their commanders on the other side with the help of such makeshifts as cloth fragments stuck on trees, mirrors and flashlights.

C. The Crossing: According to DEBKAfile‘s military sources, the Hizballa and the Palestinians have come up with a method of passing through Israeli’s electronic fences undetected.

D. Form of the Attack: After sniping at the traffic from ambush, part of the team rushed downhill hurling grenades at the crippled vehicles. Still on the hill were two or three gunmen who covered the assault with long-range fire that prevented help approaching the stricken victims. The team therefore must have numbered at least four, probably more.

The killers upon reaching the road took time to make sure their victims died, by cold-bloodedly shooting them all – whether dead or wounded – at close range with pistols equipped with silencers. Even then, they did not go before Israeli forces came on the scene, but lay in wait in a ditch. The Israelis, no sooner did they reach the shocking scene of carnage, found themselves under fierce gunfire from the hill. Under its cover, the men in the ditch hurled grenades.

These combined teams are being put together for a pre-Passover offensive from al Qaeda, Hizballah, Lebanon-based Palestinian Fatah and Jihad Islami elements, Fatah-Tanzim and al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades terror militants and Israeli Arab groups. The Lebanese elements have slipped across the frontier into Israel from south Lebanon in the same way as the group that struck in western Galilee Tuesday. They make for prepared hideouts in the West Bank and Israeli Arab locations. The offensive is to be built up in stages reaching a climax on the Israeli Arab Land Day.

One of the main objectives of Israel’s current all-out offensive against Palestinian towns and camps is to pre-empt this combined terror campaign. Israeli analysts maintain that the offensive is already underway, beginning with the Palestinian campaign against a row of Israeli military roadblocks.

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