US Withdraws, Leaving Afghan Battle Unresolved Is Tactical Nuclear Option Open?

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. As helicopters carried the troops back to Bagram airbase, a US spokesman announced that the major part of the offensive against the al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold was over and American troops were in the process of repositioning. But, he insisted, the fight was not over yet.
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 Talbian 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- KotValley region, the operation will most probably be wound down by Friday, March 15, without being resolved.
Army General Tommy Franks, Central Command OC, will most probably leave small contingents of Special Forces on the ground for reconnaissance. But, although described as blocked in the cave hideouts, the al Qaeda and Taliban nonetheless succeeded in hanging on to their mountain strongholds against heavy battering by US-Afghan air and ground assaults.
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 and did not arrive. 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.
Finally, the Afghan’s top commander, a Pashtun, demanded that interim prime minister Hamis Karzai send home the nearly 1000 Tadjik troops, under the command of Northern Commander Gul Haider, who were sent from Kabul to reinforce the allied effort. The Northern Alliance was not to be allowed a foothold in the south.
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.
debkafile‘s political analysts note that the Afghan operation’s outcome comes at an inauspicious moment for Washington.
Monday, March 11, is the six-month anniversary of the suicide outrage that destroyed New York’s WorldTradeCenter, hit the Pentagon – and prompted the Afghan War. It is to be marked by an address by President George W. Bush to an invited audience of 1,300 to the White House, in which he is due to announce the next stage of global terror. He will also emphasize that inaction against nations developing weapons of mass destruction is not an option. The three members of his “axis of evil”, Iraq, Iran and North Korea will be clearly in focus.
The Afghanistan setback will not do much of the 12-nation tour on which vice president Richard Cheney has embarked, covering Middle East and Gulf capitals as well as the London, to finalize arrangements for the American strike against Iraq. The British are being asked to put up 25,000 troops for the campaign.
Another complicating factor for Washington is the rising spiral of Palestinian-Israeli clashes emanating from multi-casualty Palestinian terrorist strikes.
All in all, the Bush administration could have managed very well without a battlefield reverse in Afghanistan, which debkafile ‘s military analysts predict may lead to four key developments:
1. America’s Iraq offensive could be either delayed substantially, or put forward. The Bush team is weighing both options.
According to debkafile‘s military sources, an American airlift delivered a fresh batch of upgraded Patriot anti-missile missiles with US crews to Israel Sunday, March 10. Their orders were to deploy in battle array by the end of this week. The Patriot airlift may signify an early offensive in the offing; alternatively, it may be meant to forestall an Iraqi pre-emptive attack or large-scale terror strike against US targets. Both could spoil Cheney’s mission.
2. The Palestinians will derive further encouragement from the US setback in Afghanistan to redouble their terror assault. Yasser Arafat, in private conversations with his cronies, insists that the Palestinian uprising that he leads is the true Muslim jihad – not Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda confrontation. He could well decide to try and outshine al Qaeda by beating off the powerful Israeli army, as well as intensifying his terror offensive – just when US ceasefire mediator Anthony Zinni is due.
3. 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.
debkafile‘s military experts recall in this regard the announcement made by the American deputy secretary of state for disarmament, John Bolton, on February 21 that Washington had decided to depart from its traditional policy of nuclear non-use against non-nuclear powers. The exceptions would be made in the cases of terrorists, their sponsors and states developing weapons of mass destruction.
Bolton’s statement was received in Baghdad as a signla that the United States has decided to use nuclear weapons in its coming offensive, and Saddam Hussein regime has made preparation.
D. The US armed forces are looking harder at the development of small nuclear bombs for tactical use. Given the setbacks in Tora Bora and the Shah-e-Kot Valley – for lack of intelligence and reliable Afghan allied troops – 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.

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