SAS to join American special forces
By Macer Hall, Philip Sherwell and Christina Lamb -
SAS troops are preparing to join American special forces in a swoop aimed at
devastating terrorist training camps in Afghanistan under plans for a swift
retaliation for last week's outrages.
Air Strikes on Osama bin Laden's strongholds could begin within a week,
according to US officials. One officer in the British security services told
The Telegraph that action would start "within days". The air assault - along
with cruise missile attacks - will soften up targets before elite troops go
in on "search and destroy" missions.
The special forces troops were being briefed while the biggest build-up of
military might since the Gulf War was going on in preparation for the West's
war against terrorism.
The soldiers will be dropped in by helicopter to seal off and lay waste to
at least six sites believed to be used by bin Laden supporters, in plans
drawn up by military strategists. The special forces attacks will follow an
initial wave of cruise missile strikes then a second wave of aerial carpet
bombing to soften up targets.
A senior Pentagon official said yesterday that "pinpoint air strikes"
without ground attacks - similar to those used against bin Laden in the
past - were not an option.
He said: "The strategy this time is we are going to go in hard and we are
going to get it right. The political and public will is there. We know there
will be casualties if we send troops in and we are prepared to accept that
after what happened on Tuesday."
The first retaliatory strike is likely to be a barrage of Tomahawk cruise
missiles from destroyers supporting the US aircraft carrier Carl Vincent,
currently in the Gulf. The warship will move east, with its battle group of
more than 10 surface ships and a nuclear submarine, to a position off
Strategists have identified at least six training camps and military bases
for attack. First on the list is the hideaway at Shar-i-Nau, a suburb of
Kandahar, which in January was the last place bin Laden was sighted.
Also understood to be in line for air raids are sites at Farmada outside
Jalalabad, Darunta in Nangahar, bases near Khost and Kabul and a remote
bunker hidden in the Hindu Kush mountains in the north-east of Afghanistan.
Strikes against targets in Afghanistan are seen as only part of America's
war against terrorism. Offensives against other targets, most specifically
Saddam Hussein in Iraq, were understood to be under preparation last night.
The key to success in Afghanistan is establishing bases in neighbouring
territory in Pakistan or Tajikistan to unleash special forces units into
attack. Any agreements on setting up bases are expected to remain secret.
Special forces - including airborne units from America's Special Operations
Command and members of the SAS - are seen as the best way of demonstrating
the ability to launch a devastating ground assault while avoiding the danger
of being drawn into a protracted conflict with guerrilla forces in
forbidding mountain territory. The strike force would stay no longer than a
The Pentagon official added: "We do not see this as a repeat of the Soviet
attempt to conquer the country in the 1980s or the British during the 19th
century. We do not want to occupy."
Bin Laden's movements are now under 24-hour scrutiny by spy satellites and
his communications are monitored by electronic eavesdropping devices, said
The CIA has also paid Afghan tribesmen to watch for the armoured vehicles in
which bin Laden travels and to report back their whereabouts, although
American officials acknowledge that it is extremely hard to keep tabs on his
entourage in the rugged mountainous terrain.
In a reversal of the 1980s, events in Afghanistan are bringing Washington
and Moscow into a possible military alliance against their common enemy, bin
Laden. Twenty years ago, the US backed the likes of bin Laden against the
Soviet occupying force.
Under the high-stakes strategy, the country's Taliban rulers will be told
that if they use military force to oppose the strikes on bin Laden, their
bases will also be targeted in the offensive.
America is also negotiating with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who
despises bin Laden because of his support for Islamic militants and
terrorists in Chechnya and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. US
intelligence sources say that Russia may provide access to Afghanistan
through Russia's ally, Tajikistan, on Afghanistan's northern border.
There is talk in American intelligence circles of Mr Putin providing reports
from his own spies on bin Laden's whereabouts. There could also be offers to
join an American commando invasion force for a joint Russian-American effort
to capture or kill the terrorist and the use of Russian helicopter pilots,
some of whom know the tortuous terrain from the days of the Soviet invasion.
Such moves would be incredibly dangerous but, following the attacks on the
American mainland, Mr Bush is prepared to suffer substantial troop losses.
The Pentagon hopes that ground troops would sweep through the mountains
aiming to trap bin Laden and his commanders and either kill them in a
firefight or capture them and bring them to America for trial.
The US already has plenty of firepower within striking range, with cruise
missile-armed warships from the 5th and 7th fleets and a nuclear submarine
in the Gulf and Indian Ocean. Further air-launched missiles could be
delivered from B-52 bombers using the island of Diego Garcia as a staging
British aircraft, including Tornado bombers armed with laser-guided bombs
and Nimrod surveillance aircraft, are also based in Gulf states.
The US has at its disposal a wide range of units under its Special Operation
Command, including more than 46,000 troops. Most likely to be involved in
attacking the landlocked, mountainous terrain of Afghanistan is the US
Army's Delta Force. Other special force units that could be called in
include the 160th Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers, and the
75th Ranger Regiment.
The terrain in Afghanistan will mean paratroops or aeroplanes are unlikely
to be favoured for deploying ground forces, at least in the first wave of
US troops are expected to be landed by powerful CH-53E Super Stallion
helicopters, which are capable of carrying up to 80 fully armed personnel
and able to be refuelled by dedicated Hercules tanker aircraft.
Troops from the Special Air Service are almost certainly to be used in any
operation, both to emphasise that retaliation will not be carried out by the
US acting alone, and because the British elite force is highly regarded by
its American counterparts, who have a much broader concept of "special
forces". Regular troops will be called in if a ground assault is launched
Britain has growing numbers of forces in the Middle East. Heading for the
month-long manoeuvres in Oman are 27,000 troops, an armoured division of
Challenger tanks and a Navy task force, including the aircraft carrier
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