Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

Gunning for Osama

The U.S. hopes to trap and kill bin Laden in a massive military assault

WILLIAM LOWTHER October 1 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

Gunning for Osama

The U.S. hopes to trap and kill bin Laden in a massive military assault

WILLIAM LOWTHER October 1 2001

Gunning for Osama

The U.S. hopes to trap and kill bin Laden in a massive military assault

WILLIAM LOWTHER

The bitter smell of scorched concrete and jet fuel was still wafting through the corridors of the Pentagon late last week as Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld began plotting America's revenge. At 69, the former amateur wresling champion and fighter pilot remains proud that Henry Kissinger once described him as the most ruthless man he knew. He is going to need all of that and more to match wits with the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, who was in hiding a world away in the jagged mountain passes of Afghanistan.

in Washington

By week’s end, the scale of America’s planned retaliation for the unprecedented attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York was starting to take form. About 100 long-range bombers and fighter planes, along with a flotilla of warships, were sent to staging grounds in the Middle East, a region already chock-ablock with U.S. military might. Special commando units readied for action, nearly 35,000 reservists and National Guards were called up to protect nuclear and other strategic sites in the United States, and Washington launched a full-bore diplomatic initiative to shut down the intelligence and financial underpinnings of suspected terrorist operations.

In the White House, President George W. Bush adjusted the rhetoric, bracing Americans for a protracted war and the possibility of casualties. He had started the week stating he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive.” But top aides counselled him to cool his lingo, fearing he would encourage the nation to believe that a Texasstyle posse could ride out and capture the Saudi-born millionaire as if he were no more than a B-western oudaw. Congress, meanwhile, has already given its near-unanimous consent to provide $60 billion to help cover the cost of retaliation and rebuilding and is ready to spend whatever else is needed.

What it takes, among other things, is “the big stick,” as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is known. Last Wednesday, the ship left its home port of Norfolk, Va., for the Middle East. Along with 13 support ships, including two cruisers, four destroyers, a frigate and two attack submarines, it headed out across the Atlantic with 15,000 sailors and marines. Already in the Arabian Sea are two other carriers, the USS Enterprise and the USS Carl Vinson. Their mission had been to patrol the no-fly zones in Iraq. Now, planes sent late last week will take over those duties out of bases in countries such as Kuwait and Oman, freeing the two carriers and their jets to move towards the coast of Pakistan. Also on the move is the USS Kitty Hawk carrier group from Japan.

Back in America, all 14,000 soldiers in the storied 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, a huge base outside Fayetteville, N.C., shipped out after just 18 hours notice. (They had been told to “get their lives in order,” which led at least four young soldiers to rush to the local town hall with their girlfriends for quickie weddings.) Also on alert at Fort Bragg were the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Forces, including the top-secret Delta Force, the Green Berets and the 75 th Ranger Regiment. These elite special units—numbering about 40,000 soldiers in the 1.37-million strong U.S. military—work in “A-teams” of a dozen men, dropping from helicopters deep behind enemy lines, and are expected to be in the forefront of any attack on Afghanistan.

At the same time, sources say, a mix of B-52, B-l and B-2 long-range bombers were due to leave within days for the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia—controlled by Britain. After a combination of bullying and bribery—Washington agreed to write off the $600 million Pakistan owes the U.S. and end economic sanctions—it closed its northern border with Afghanistan, allowing U.S. planes to fly through Pakistani air space. Sensitive negotiations are also under way to allow land bases for U.S. commandos on Pakistani territory, as well as in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, two former Soviet republics on Afghanistan’s northern border.

According to military experts, the attack will probably start with the carrier battle groups firing multiple salvos of cruise missiles at the dozen or so training camps bin Laden has built around the southeastern town of Khost, and at his command centre in the northeast corner of Afghanistan. Two decades of almost constant fighting have reduced much of Afghanistan to rubble, but the Taliban’s primitive military bases and underground arms dumps will be next on the list. Bombers from Diego Garcia will then mop up the same targets with laser and satellite-guided missiles.

The bombing will be similar in scope to the air campaigns launched against Iraqi forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and against Serb forces in the Balkans in Ü 1999 (according to military experts the I planes will fly daily sorties for as long as I three weeks). As it proceeds, fighter planes § from the carriers will start making pin| point missile attacks on the caves where I bin Laden and his guard of about 1,000 guerrilla soldiers are thought to be hiding. The U.S. is also offering millions of dollars in reward money for local tribesmen to give him up. And sooner rather than later, Rumsfeld told reporters, the Pentagon will get a fix on bin Laden’s exact position. When it does, the special units will try to capture or kill the terrorists.

In theory, the bombing raids should have knocked the stuffing out of the Taliban’s own ferocious army. The Taliban is estimated to have approximately 45,000 troops armed with Soviet T-59 and T-55 tanks left over from the 1980s, as well as artillery guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-aircraft and antitank missiles and aging Soviet MiG and Sukhoi fighter planes. The equipment is no match for the U.S. military—but this is one of the best-trained and most devoted guerrilla forces in the world. And little is truly known about them in the West. “The U.S. armed forces do not have a single soldier or officer who speaks Pushtu, the principal language of the Taliban,” says a senior Western military official. “They will have to first hire hundreds of Pushtu speakers. That shows how much they lack on the ground for this upcoming batde.”

The Soviet army occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 and suffered enormous losses, including 13,000 killed, before eventually being forced to withdraw. Gen. Boris Gromov, who commanded the forces, has warned that he can think only of “the sea of bloodshed” it will cost the Americans to capture or kill bin Laden. Within Russia, there is some political opposition to aiding the U.S. because there is still resentment over the fact that the CIA and Washington spent almost $3 billion building up Afghan forces to help them defeat the old Soviet army.

Afghanistan may only be the start. Bush has pledged to root out terrorist cells wherever they are, and challenge other nations named by the U.S. state department as supporters of terror—among them Iraq, Libya and Yemen. There is a tactical split amongst Bush’s closest advisers. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is openly advocating an immediate attack on Afghanistan and expanding the fight to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq. On the other side, Secretary of State Colin Powell is the voice of caution and calm. He is urging the President not to launch any attack until all of the forces are in place, evidence against bin Laden has been fully developed and the support of an international coalition has been further developed.

By ratcheting up the tough talk, some analysts caution, the U.S. may be inviting retaliation on a scale the world has never truly contemplated. “Think of anthrax spores, Super Bowl massacres, celebrity assassinations on live TVA says Cmdr. Ward Carroll, who teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. “The eventualities are almost beyond contemplation, but the nation must contemplate them because only when we do are we ready to launch the first missile in this war.” And even then, there is no guarantee that U.S. soldiers will ever capture or kill bin Laden.