- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

The Pentagon has made plans for months of ground combat by special- operations forces inside Afghanistan and views the country's upcoming harsh winter as a friend, not a foe, U.S. officials and commandos said.

The officials say a plan is in place to run small teams of American and allied commandos on a sustained campaign of quick strikes that could last until next spring. The task will be to kill hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda forces and their hosts, the Taliban militia.

In a winter slugfest, active duty officers knowledgeable on special operations say the advantage will go to the Americans.

"We train for the winter warfare environment and can function in it and actually be comfortable," said an Army commando speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The Afghans are miserable in that environment and don't want to come out and play."

The U.S. units' thermal detection systems and airborne sensors will make it easier to find heat signatures at entrances to caves, which are favorite hiding places for the Taliban, al Qaeda and even bin Laden.

The heat-seeking systems add to what already is a big asset for the U.S. military: American warriors trained to fight almost exclusively at night. The relatively lightly equipped enemy is not known to own infrared sensors or night optic systems.

"Thermal sights are going to work particularly well in the winter," said a second special-operations soldier. "They are based on contrast in temperature. And fire or human body against the snow or frozen ground is going to jump out like a headlight."

He added: "Snow greatly helps in seeing activity. Every movement leaves tracks. Fires leave melted areas."

Commandos say tracks in the snow will be visible from the air when the sun is low on the horizon. What's more, Army commandos train extensively in cold weather. They use such locales as upstate New York and Colorado, home to the Army's 10th Special Forces Group, as well as international locales such as Norway, to practice snowy mountain combat. Afghans traditionally take a break in winter from their periodic civil wars.

"One thing that will help us in the winter is the simple fact that we train to conduct military operations in the winter," this soldier said. "We do not plan to stop and wait for spring. I realize that the Afghans are accustomed to the rough climate and austere conditions but I can guarantee you that their operations will be slowed significantly by the winter climate. Advantages definitely go to an air-mobile force like ours."

If needed, the Americans will be equipped with skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles. And, most importantly, the Army has developed a layered system of cold weather clothing and sleep gear, complete with insulated underwear and a Gortex outer shell. The Army also provides high-calorie winter rations.

Afghan forces typically fight in the guerrilla tradition, wearing no special uniform, just their regular garb of baggy pants, vest and slung blanket.

"There is no reason for us to stop during the winter and [it] would be to our advantage to press hard," said the first special-operations soldier.

The Afghan weather is fierce in December, January, February and March, with snow falling frequently in the mountains where al Qaeda terrorists like to hide. The U.S. National Climatic Data Center says lows in Kabul, the capital, hover around 20 degrees, with an average seven days of snow in a month.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his top war commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, have said in recent days that the ground war will not be short.

"Long operation. Not a short operation," Gen. Franks told reporters in Uzbekistan, a key U.S. ally on Afghanistan's northern border.

Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday, "We're still in the very, very early stages of this conflict."

He also said he wants to increase the modest number of special-operations teams that have gone into Afghanistan in recent days to find Taliban military targets for U.S. fighter-bombers overhead.

"We have a number of teams cocked and ready to go," he said at a Pentagon press conference.

The defense chief has given no indication of when the commandos will begin what he has termed a "sustained" ground campaign to kill terrorists such as bin Laden and his Taliban protectors. The White House has accused the Saudi exile of masterminding the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The United States has acknowledged one direct combat mission so far, a combined Ranger-Delta Force raid on Oct. 19.

Bush administration officials say U.S. special-operations forces will face their most daunting missions since the Vietnam War.

They will engage in bloody, close combat with Taliban and al Qaeda soldiers, relying on the elements of surprise and rock-solid intelligence to keep casualties low. Still, Mr. Rumsfeld has told the public to prepare for American casualties.

There are an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 enemy troops now hunkered down in bunkers and caves all over Afghanistan's Texas-size landscape. One U.S. official estimates that 26 days of air strikes have killed "thousands" of enemy forces. But just as many replacement fighters may have sneaked across the border from Pakistan.

The Pentagon controls a special-operations force of about 46,000. It has declined to say how many Army Rangers, Green Berets, Delta Force soldiers and Navy Seals are in the region.

Of the planning involved for those forces, Mr. Rumsfeld said earlier this week, "We have worked very hard on it. We are working very hard on it today. And we will continue to work very hard on it, because we're very serious about what it is we're doing. It is not going to be quick."


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