- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

U.S. war planners have sliced Afghanistan into zones of destruction and assigned fighter-bombers to patrol them on an incessant hunt for Taliban troops and Osama bin Laden's terrorists.

The Pentagon announced yesterday its 11-day air campaign shifted this week to the new tactic of "engagement zones." Confident that much of the ruling Taliban's air defenses have been subdued, U.S. pilots lowered their aircraft within their assigned geographic boxes to strike soldiers, tanks and convoys. They now have the ability to hit anything military that moves in Afghanistan 24 hours a day.

"Simply put, we now have the access to be able to do engagement zones that we might not have had with an air-defense capability that we've recently taken out," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, the Pentagon's deputy director of operations. "We are systematically pulling away at those legs underneath the stool that the Taliban leadership counts on to be able to exert their influence and power."

The U.S. military also continued to ratchet up the punishment meter by sending at least two AC-130 gunships to unleash rapid volleys from 40 mm and 105 mm cannons on Taliban forces. The Pentagon initially sent the Spectre gunships into action Monday night against elite troops hunkered down in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southeast Afghanistan.

With little resistance from anti-aircraft missiles or artillery, U.S. planners feel confident in sending night-fighting gunships on low-flying, terrifying assaults on troops below.

Built from the airframe of the venerable C-130 cargo turboprop, the Spectre is often deployed to provide rapid-fire suppression for commandos on the ground. The Washington Times reported this week that such an operation will occur "very soon." The paper quoted an Army source in yesterday's edition saying Army Special Forces soldiers, or Green Berets, are now onboard the carrier USS Kitty Hawk off the coast of Pakistan.

The Pentagon yesterday sent another wave of fighters and bombers over Afghanistan, marking three straight days of the heaviest bombing of the war. Adm. Stufflebeem said 95 fighters and heavy bombers hit 12 target areas of airfields, anti-aircraft artillery, armored vehicles, ammunition depots and training camps.

At a Pentagon press conference, the admiral displayed a video of a bomb striking a 2nd Taliban Corps garrison and a bivouac. Officials say the Taliban military numbers from 20,000 to 40,000 troops, armed with Soviet-era weapons, tanks and missiles.

On one major front in the battle by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance to seize the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Adm. Stufflebeem described clashes as "back and forth, or ebbing and flowing."

He said the opposition was near the city's airport, which could prove to be a valuable launching pad for U.S. forces to strike other targets.

He said the Pentagon is focused on its own objective of destroying the Taliban military and bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, and not on specifically helping the anti-Taliban rebels. Mr. Bush wants bin Laden "dead or alive" for masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed more than 5,000, the vast majority of whom were civilians.

The Bush administration, at least publicly, has put some distance between U.S. policy and the fate of the Northern Alliance. Officials say they do not want to be viewed as "installing" a regime amid anti-American sentiments in the region. The White House is working to aid the formation of a postwar coalition government comprised of various ethnic groups including the dominant Pashtuns who make up the Taliban regime.

What the admiral called "engagement zones," and what many pilots call "kill boxes" began Tuesday as Taliban air defenses went limp. Forward air controllers patrol the zone eyeing targets, positively identify them and then authorize a pilot to begin an attack.

"An example would be tanks, artillery, surface-to-air systems that are mobile," he said. "When they can be positively identified, the aircraft are in these engagement zones and they are directed to those targets. So there is not a free-fire, free-target environment."

He added: "I would not want to characterize how many [engagement zones] we had done, because it can broadcast the capability of how much we are able to do or want to do. But let me put it this way. As a doctrine, as a tactic of interdiction, there isn't any part of the country that couldn't be under an engagement zone."

The Pentagon is also using the tactic of "flex-target." A pilot who cannot find his primary site is authorized to veer off to stalk another one. Bombers can hit one target, get aerial refueling and re-enter the country to strike a second target.

Mr. Bush vowed before the bombing started Oct. 7 that his war on terrorists would "smoke them out."

Adm. Stufflebeem said the bombing was doing just that, "forcing the targets out, to be able to attack."

The target selection works down the chain of command. The "CINC" in this case Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command approves sites. Planners write them into an Air Tasking Order and munitions and aircraft are picked to match the target.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that its warplanes had "eviscerated" the Taliban military, while the strategy shifted from bombing mostly fixed targets to moving ones.

An official also said for the first time that four Navy carriers were operating in the region, including the Kitty Hawk. Most missions have been flown by carrier-based F-14 Tomcats and F-18 Hornets. The Air Force has supplied B-1B, B-52 and B-2 stealth bombers.

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