- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2001

The day before terrorists struck the United States, its intelligence agencies detected discussions between Osama bin Laden's lieutenants of an impending "big attack," a senior administration official says.

The official said in an interview that the detection was not discovered until days after the Sept. 11 assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The time lapse is typical of intelligence analyses, in which computers sift through loads of that day's collection to find valuable material.

The detection explains, the source said, why President Bush increasingly pointed the finger of blame at bin Laden in the days following the kamikaze attacks. The source said the discussions were between bin Laden supporters in the United States and senior members of bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist organization.

As the U.S. military buildup continued yesterday in preparation for air strikes on bin Laden's adopted home of Afghanistan, the Bush administration has brought on board significant allies in its campaign against global terrorism.

Military sources said Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, two former Soviet republics on Afghanistan's northern border, have agreed secretly to allow American special-operations troops to launch raids from their soil.

The U.S. Air Force is now operating Predator unmanned reconnaissance planes in the region. The RQ-1 Predator relays instantaneous images via a satellite link. It is being used over Afghanistan to locate military targets and possible bin Laden hide-outs.

Mr. Bush spoke to Uzbek President Islam A. Karimov on Wednesday in the administration's drive to build an international coalition against terrorism.

The two Central Asian countries have a strong motive for helping the United States dislodge the Taliban from power. The extremist Islamic rulers of Afghanistan reportedly have tried to spur a militant Muslim uprising in both neighboring states.

Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan on the south and east, has agreed to let American warplanes use its airspace. This means fighter-bombers on Navy carriers in the Arabian Sea would have a direct route to targets in Afghanistan.

The Predator flies up to 140 mph and below 25,000 feet. Several were shot down during NATO's air assaults on Yugoslavia in 1999. This summer, a Predator failed to return from a spy mission over southern Iraq amid Baghdad's claims it had downed an American plane.

A Pentagon official said at the time that, "The whole idea is to use them in high-risk areas. If you lose it, you don't lose a pilot."

Officials also said that around Sept. 11, Afghanistan ordered the scattering of heavy military weapons, such as MiG jet fighters and tanks. "They are not where they used to be," said an official. "They moved them up into the hills."

The Pentagon yesterday continued to direct what could be the largest deployment of weapons to the Persian Gulf region area since the 1991 war with Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has signed deployment orders for about 150 Air Force aircraft. The package includes heavy B-52 and B-1 bombers, F-15, F-16 and F-117 fighters, aerial refuelers, E-3 AWACs radar-surveillance aircraft and cargo planes.

The Pentagon will not say where the planes will be based. Most will likely go to airfields in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where American warplanes are stationed year-round. Some may launch their bombing runs from Central Asian countries.

Two Navy carriers, the Carl Vinson and Enterprise, are in the region. Two others, the Theodore Roosevelt and Kitty Hawk, have been deployed and may join the other two in waters near Afghanistan.

The Army is also moving ground troops in the form of special-operations soldiers. These will include elite Rangers, Green Berets and Delta Force commandos.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is starting to spend some of the billions of dollars in emergency funds approved by Congress. On the shopping list: new stocks of precision-guided munitions and improved surveillance equipment. Together, the systems would be used to locate and kill suspected terrorists.

The deployment is adding up to a combined air-special operations war against the Taliban and bin Laden's terrorist network. The only way the Taliban militia seems able to defuse an attack at this point is to meet Mr. Bush's demands to turn over bin Laden and other terrorists. The Taliban yesterday rejected the president's demands.

The U.S. alliance with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan means that a decade of forging military-to-military contacts with the Central Asian nations has paid off for Washington.

In 1995, Uzbekistan and the United States signed an agreement to conduct joint military exercises. The former Soviet republic has hosted Army commandos who advised the country's 80,000-strong armed forces. In 1999, 16 Uzbek officers from the 65th Special Operations Battalion visited Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Bragg, N.C., home of U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

The Uzbeks received instruction about close-quarter battle, sniper fire, mountaineering, water operations, paratroop jumps, and using the 9 mm pistol.

Military sources say no final battle plan has been approved. But the ongoing deployments signal the Pentagon plans to infiltrate Afghanistan with special-operations soldiers. Working in small teams and armed with the latest intelligence, the commandos would try to take down the Taliban militia of about 30,000 one fighter at a time. Backed by air strikes, the U.S. soldiers would also seek and destroy bin Laden encampments, with the hope of encountering the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks that killed over 6,500 people, most of them civilians.

"We'll make it so he can't spend the night in the same place twice," said one official.

Unlike the Soviet Union, which spent the 1980s trying to occupy Afghanistan and then retreated in disgrace, the United States will strike, then move back to base, officials said. And, unlike the Russians, the American troops will be backed by advanced surveillance equipment that can find pockets of Taliban militia.

The U.S. Army commandos have another advantage: they train, and are equipped, to fight at night.

"Night is day to us," said a military source. "And night is night to everyone else."

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