Maclean’s SPECIAL REPORT

WAR

A Tomahawk cruise missile launched from the USS Philippine Sea is part of the attack on Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime

BOB LEVIN October 15 2001
Maclean’s SPECIAL REPORT

WAR

A Tomahawk cruise missile launched from the USS Philippine Sea is part of the attack on Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime

BOB LEVIN October 15 2001

WAR

A Tomahawk cruise missile launched from the USS Philippine Sea is part of the attack on Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime

BOB LEVIN

Maclean’s SPECIAL REPORT

The question was never if, only when. From nearly the moment the World Trade Center and the Pentagon exploded into flames on Sept. 11, U.S. leaders have been rallying their armed forces, their allies and the American people for the inevitable retaliation. It came, finally, on Sunday, Oct. 7, with the launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles from warships and submarines in the Arabian Sea. The U.S. and British attack was aimed at air defences and military communications sites and terrorist training camps inside Afghanistan—the beginning of an ambitious operation called “Enduring Freedom” that left uncertain just how long it would endure and how much freedom from terror it would win.

Certainly the principals were talking tough. Speaking from the White Flouse— which less than a month earlier had apparently been a terrorist target as well— George W. Bush said Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban regime had ample warning. Its leaders, the President said, had ignored his demands to turn over terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, and “now the Taliban will pay a price.” He recited his mantra of determination—“We will not falter and we will not fail”—and in London Tony Blair echoed his message. The Taliban, said the British Prime Minister, “were given the choice of siding with justice or siding with terror. They chose to side with terror.”

In Ottawa, in the midst of the Thanksgiving weekend, Jean Chretien said Canada is mobilizing military units to take part in the U.S.-led effort. The Prime Minister, who’d been criticized for his markedly measured response to the American tragedy and the coming campaign, said he spoke to Bush shortly before the attacks began and agreed to “certain contributions.” He didn’t specify, but Tory leader Joe Clark—briefed by Chretien along with other opposition leaders just prior to the strike—said he believed it

would be “support and communications.” (Other help, Bush said, would come from Australia, Germany and France.) Chretién warned Canadians to buck up for the long haul. “The struggle to defeat the forces of terrorism,” he said, “will be a long one.” The lightning rod for that mobilization—the man “Wanted dead or alive” by Bush and revered by Middle East extremists as a near-mythic hero—was quick to join the war of words. In a videotaped statement broadcast by the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera shortly after the U.S. and British assault started, bin Laden— who’d previously denied responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks that killed more than 5,500 people—said “America was hit by God in one of its softest spots” and is now frightened. “Thank God for that,” he said.

Dressed in fatigues and sitting before a stone cave, bin Laden spoke softly, calmly, flanked by aides; it was daylight, suggesting the video was made before the Sunday night onslaught, though exactly where is unknown. The Saudi-born multi-millionaire said that “our nation has been tasting fear, hatred and injustices for years. Millions of innocent children are being killed in Iraq and in Palestine and we don’t hear a word from the infidels.” But “when the sword falls on the United States,” he went on, “they cry for their children and they cry for their people.” The Americans, he pledged, “will never taste safety and security unless we feel security and safety in our land and in Palestine.”

Bin Laden, of course, was well aware the blow was coming. American and British forces have been streaming into the region for weeks while officials set the diplomatic table for attack, laying out their case against bin Laden and his Taliban hosts. In

separate whirlwind trips, Blair and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with leaders in Muslim and Central Asian countries to solidify the coalition. One of Blair’s stops was in Pakistan, the last country with official ties to the Taliban. And when President Pervez Musharraf—with Blair by his side—announced that his country had officially joined the antiterrorism coalition, the diplomatic isolation of the Taliban and bin Laden was complete. After Rumsfeld visited nearby Uzbekistan, U.S. military forces began arriving at a former Soviet air base in Khanabad, about 135 km north of the Uzbek-Afghan border.

It was about 9 p.m. in Kabul, the Afghan capital, when witnesses heard five loud explosions. U.S. military officials said that soon after American and British vessels launched the first wave of cruise missiles, 15 land-based bombers—including B-ls, B-52s and B-2s (the latter the wing-shaped Stealths designed to evade radar)—and 25 strike aircraft from carriers dropped precision-guided bombs and more conventional explosives. Afghanistan’s opposition Northern Alliance, which controls about 10 per cent of the country, joined in as well, shelling Taliban positions north of Kabul. Electricity went out across the city, and Kabul’s airport was hit. More explosions were reported in the southern city of Kandahar, where the Taliban have their headquarters and their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has a home. Also under fire was the eastern city of Jalalabad, where bin Laden maintains training camps.

No ground forces were involved in the operation, and despite anti-aircraft fire from the Taliban, Pentagon officials said no U.S. planes were shot down in the first wave. At the same time, a Taliban official said both bin Laden and Mullah Omar had survived. The Taliban released a statement declaring that the assault was—no surprise—a “terrorist attack” and vowing that America “will never achieve its goal.”

The U.S. and its allies had another card to play: their planes’ payloads were not solely military. Large cargo aircraft, they said, dropped humanitarian-aid packages of food and medicine on regions far removed from the attack—presumably part of the $320 million (U.S) in aid Bush had announced earlier in the week, supplies desperately needed by the millions of Afghans weakened by drought and displaced by war. The planes also released leaflets meant to further sway the Afghan people. But no persuasion, gende or otherwise, would change some hearts and minds. In Pakistan, which allowed U.S. planes to use its airspace, some Muslim leaders vehemendy denounced the attacks. “Americans,” insisted Amar Mehdi, spokesman for the militant Harakat ulMujahedeen, “have used their might to kill innocent people in Afghanistan instead of targeting training camps.”

Other countries, however, including Russia and China, were quick to voice their approval, and in his speech Bush expressed confidence that “we are supported by the collective will of the world.” Or at least that part of the world not backing bin Ladens Al-Qaeda operatives, who are reportedly spread around some 50 countries—and poised to strike again. In Ottawa, where NATO delegates were meeting on Sunday, there was heightened security around the conference centre and Parliament Hill. In New York, National Guardsmen were deployed to buildings, bridges and tunnels, and police and firemen were placed on full alert. As Bush put it, America is a peaceful nation, but “there can be no peace in a world of sudden terror.” Now Bush and company were gambling they could snuff that terror at its source—even as they dreaded its deadly reply. ES]