Afghanistan: December 4, 2001


American aircraft operating around Kandahar report having portable surface to air missiles (SAMs) fired at them. The aircraft most at risk are helicopters and transports coming into land at a U.S. base 120 kilometers south of Kandahar. During the Afghan war with the Russians in the 1980s, Afghans fired 340 U.S. supplied Stinger missiles at Russian aircraft and helicopters, bringing 269 of the Russian aircraft down. While the CIA bought back most of these missiles in the 1990s, some are still in Afghanistan. But their special batteries are dead and the missiles are useless. But it was found that when the batteries were replaced in the repurchased missiles, most of the Stingers still worked. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqis fired 2-3 portable SAMs a day once the ground war began and U.S. aircraft flew lower. A-10s were hit several times, but these aircraft were designed to take such hits and keep going. One A-10 was thought to be brought down by portable SAMs. Four Navy F-18s were also hit, but managed to return to their carriers. In the last 25 years, some three dozen civilian transports were hit with Russian made portable SAMs, bringing down 24 of these aircraft. Most of these incidents took place in war torn areas, particularly Africa. All air forces, particularly the USAF, have developed new methods of protecting their aircraft from portable SAMs. Usually this involves more and better flares to distract the missiles. Some aircraft have their engines modified to better survive getting hit by these missiles. 

The United States is trying to get Pakistan to allow more aircraft and troops to operate from Pakistani bases for any assault on tunnel complexes near the Pakistani border. Many of these tunnel complexes were built during the 1980s war between Russia and Afghanistan. American warplanes have been bombing these tunnels for the last week, particularly a large complex at Tora Bora. British commandos have assaulted and taken at least one smaller complex, using surprise and highly trained troops to quickly clear out the tunnels. But larger complexes like the one at Tora Bora will require a much larger effort. Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban troops are closing in on Tora Bora, possibly motivated by the millions in dollars of rewards offered for bin Laden and his key aides. Many anti-Taliban Pushtuns believe bin Laden is in the Tora Bora area, mainly because that tunnel complex was regularly used as a bin Laden base and many Taliban troops have been moving into the area. 

More Taliban leaders are showing up in Pakistan, where many had previously sent their families to safety. These leaders are trying to set up a more moderate Taliban organization in Pakistan. The Taliban began in the religious schools in Pakistan cities and Afghan refugee camps. These schools are mainly financed by wealthy Saudi Arabians. While the Afghans always practiced a conservative version of Islam, their loyalty was mainly to clan and tribe. But the even more conservative Saudi Arabian flavor of Islam turned Pustuns in northern Pakistan into fanatics and led to the formation of the armed Taliban. The United States is trying to get Pakistan to clean the terrorists out of northern Pakistan. But Pakistan has always left their Pushtuns to their own tribal rulers. While only a small percentage of the Pakistani Pushtuns (perhaps ten percent) have bought into Islamic radicalism, they have cowed the more peaceful local Pushtuns. The radicals pretty much do what they want in what Pakistan calls the "Northwest Tribal Areas."

Bin Laden may have already obtained radioactive material, enabling him to build a "dirty bomb" (explosives surrounded by processed uranium or other highly radioactive material.) The resulting explosion would be non-nuclear, but radioactive material would contaminate a wide area. If bin Laden has the material in Afghanistan, the final battle to take him out could result in the use of such a dirty bomb. 

Taliban troops, particularly the non-Afghan ones, are putting up a stiff resistance to Northern Alliance and anti-Pustun fighters closing in on Kandahar. Fighting is heavy around the airport, where anti-Taliban Pushtuns claim to have captured half the airport. U.S. advisors are suggesting that the Afghans lay siege to the city rather than fighting their way in. As the Taliban inflict more casualties, this advice will probably be taken. Anti-Taliban Pushtuns are negotiating with Afghan Taliban leaders in and around Kandahar, but have found that the foreign Taliban will threaten or kill Afghan Taliban suspected of planning to surrender. Although the Afghans are big on battlefield heroics and demonstrations of bravado, they don't like high body counts among their own fighters. So far, the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban Pustuns have been successful in getting Afghan Taliban troops to switch sides, or at least sit out the fighting. But the non-Afghan Taliban are another matter. If they negotiate a surrender, as they did in Kunduz, the foreigners will go off and start fighting elsewhere. This has led to several additional pockets of armed resistance around Mazar-I-Sharif in the north. As a result of that, the Afghans are now following U.S. advice and not releasing any more foreigners or Afghans known to be working with the bin Laden terrorist organizations. 

Australian and German commandos are now operating in southern Afghanistan. 


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