The rout of the Taliban. Part one
For part two click here
Six weeks of bombing. A week of battles across Afghanistan. Now the Taliban appear crushed, brutally swept from their prized strongholds. Here we reveal the secret US and British plans that led to last week's astonishing military campaign
Peter Beaumont and Kamal Ahmed in London, Ed Vulliamy in Washington, Jason Burke in Jalalabad, Chris Stephen and Tim Judah in Kabul and Paul Harris in Peshawar
Sunday November 18, 2001
When dawn broke, the party began. In the bombed-out ruins of Kabul, people gingerly emerged from their shelters last Tuesday and looked nervously around. All night, they had listened to the sound of pick-up trucks being gunned in the streets of the Afghan capital and sporadic outbursts of shooting as vehicles were commandeered. There was much shouting and headlights flashed across the streets as panic gripped the religious zealots who had arrived in the tree-lined city five years earlier. The Taliban were on the run.
As more and more Kabulis appeared on the streets that momentous morning, people started singing. Illicit cassette players, kept hidden for years to avoid torture and death for listening to decadent Western music, blared out songs from every corner. The sounds of Elton John, Sting and Pink Floyd filled the air. Women removed their burqas, the all-enveloping shawls made compulsory by the Taliban. Young boys got out footballs and played with friends at the local stadium, which had been used only for executions for most of their lives. Men poured into barber shops to have their compulsory beards shaved. Groups gathered outside a shop and watched television for the first time.
Men stripped off their Islamic turbans. They joined the remains of unrolled black Taliban turbans that had been hung contemptuously from the lampposts near the now-empty police stations.
People wore jeans again. People danced. People laughed. Some people cried.
'We are free!' shouted Noor Mohammed, 57, as he danced with a tape player outside a tea shop. Kabul had been liberated. There were wild celebrations, though nobody knew what the future would hold.
Only 24 hours earlier, the city had been paralysed by fear as the Taliban insisted they would die rather than flee under American bombardment. But Kabul fell before American and British-led forces had got to within two miles of the city suburbs. It seemed like an accidental victory in a country that had never been conquered. It was not.
For weeks, away from the eyes of the media and the rest of the world, America and Britain had been plotting a strategy that was to result in what appeared to be an overwhelming victory in their campaign against terrorists using Afghanistan as a base for a war against the West. The stunning sweep through the country was the culmination of a carefully orchestrated campaign that has confounded the critics. Here, for the first time, The Observer can reveal the secret details of how the military campaign was put in place within hours of Osama bin Laden's attacks on New York and Washington - and how every weapon, from propaganda to misinformation to carpet-bombing, was ruthlessly exploited in the battle to bring bin Laden to justice.
The build-up: Three ways to beat the Taliban
Americans were on the beach at Florida's west coast resorts, making the most of the October sunshine. But there were fewer figures than usual out enjoying the beautiful weather. The events of 11 September had brought on a collective sense of depression, apprehension and fear. Television stations were constantly replaying the moment when two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Centre, killing thousands and bringing the world to the brink of war.
Two miles from the waterfront, away from joggers, sunbathers and the small crowds of families playing with their children in the surf, a group of men were meeting in an air-conditioned room as America and the world tried to come to terms with the suicide attacks four weeks earlier. The men had only one objective: to find and kill those responsible. But matters were not going well. Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted man, was still at large, vowing to wreak havoc on the world's last remaining superpower.
Tensions were high as the meeting got under way in the vast complex of the US Central Command headquarters at McDill air force base, on the the west coast of Florida. General Tommy Franks, a veteran of America's war in Vietnam, took the chair. Described by one source as having all the 'charm of a bayonet on an AK-47 assault rifle', the -56-year-old had been appointed head of Central Command days before bin Laden's al-Qaeda network had attacked the USS Cole in a Yemeni harbour, killing 17 sailors under his command. Franks had personally visited the damaged ship in December 2000. It was, say his supporters, a deeply shocking moment for him and a source of considerable anger.
Less than 12 months later, Franks had been ordered by President George Bush to bring down al-Qaeda and destroy the Taliban regime that harboured it. But the Americans could not work out what to do; Bush was reportedly 'climbing the walls' over the lack of military action.
Franks had two visitors from the United Kingdom, General Peter Wall and Air Vice Marshall Jock Stirrup, who had been sent to assist in US military planning and to sort out the rules of engagement for British forces. Wall and Stirrup were also there to urge caution. Prime Minister Tony Blair did not see any point in 'bombing sand' simply to be seen to be doing something.
London had become aware that America was actually operating in a vacuum. It had little intelligence on the Taliban or the Northern Alliance, the two warring factions in Afghanistan. 'To tell you the truth, for the first two weeks we were not sure what the best way forward was,' one British official said. 'They [the Americans] were asking us for answers. We had to go away and find them.'
Four weeks earlier, 24 hours after the suicide attacks on America, Desmond Bowen had arrived for the second day at his new job as director general of operational policy in the Ministry of Defence in central London. Bowen, a self-effacing man who looks more like an English professor than someone who was suddenly to hold one of the most crucial jobs in politics, was dealing with Britain's largest military operation since the Gulf war. He was to become one of the 'professors', the group of men based in the old War Office building in Whitehall who were charged with running the British leg of what would become Operation Enduring Freedom.
Four men would make up the nucleus of planning and executing the military campaign. They were Bowen, fresh from George Robertson's private office at Nato, Simon Webb, MoD head of policy, Air Marshall Joe French, head of Defence Intelligence, and Lieutenant-General Sir Anthony Pigott, assistant chief of the defence staff for operations.
Every morning, before the key meeting with Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, and General Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, these four men would hold a 'secure briefing' linked by video to the military planners at Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood, north-west London. From there Operation Veritas, as the Government dubbed the British campaign, would be fashioned.
In Webb's office, a meeting was held between Webb, Bowen and French. From America's operational headquarters, Centcom in Tampa, Florida, the US had already signalled its intention to wage a military war. Secure lines had been set up between Centcom and the MoD. It was an improvement. The British Government had struggled for the first 24 hours to even get a call through to the Pentagon.
Webb and Bowen had already started looking at the chances of a successful major ground offensive. Nearly every aspect of it, discussed and pored over in briefing documents, was negative. It is an article of faith in military planning that you want to be mobile and agile while your enemy is fixed and trapped. A ground offensive would reverse that rule, putting coalition troops in static positions while smaller units of Taliban forces would rain down fire from their positions in the hills.
There was also the logistics problem. Afghanistan was a landlocked nation the size of Texas. Supply lines to troops at the front would have to be hundreds of miles long, through nations such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, countries which had no lengthy diplomatic history with Britain. 'Islam Karimov [President of Uzbekistan] is not so much leading a one-party state as a one person state,' said one military official. 'We didn't know which way he would go from one day to the next, we couldn't rely on people like that for the safety of our troops.'
There was an even simpler problem. Large scale troop movements needed helicopter support. The passes from the north were so high that helicopters would have difficulty flying. Armed forces would be vulnerable to being cut off from back-up. It could be a blood bath. Hoon knew the political ramifications. It was not a runner.
'It became a force protection issue,' said one Whitehall official closely involved in planning the British military response. 'Access would have been difficult and horribly vulnerable. It was simply not safe.'
Two further options were discussed: a short and overwhelming bombing campaign to destabilise the Taliban and allow the Northern Alliance to advance, and a longer bombing campaign followed by an 'assisted' advance by the Alliance.
The short option had significant problems. Intelligence briefings drawn up for Blair as he travelled around the world on diplomatic mission after diplomatic mission, and seen by The Observer, revealed the essential weakness of the Alliance. It was a rag-bag organisation of competing forces with about 15,000 regular soldiers and 15,000 armed militia, 200 barely serviceable tanks, artillery 'in the 10s' and heavy mortars also 'in the 10s', the documents said. Their training to fly the few serviceable combat aircraft and helicopters was 'useless'. Their approach to military strategy was 'not sophisticated'. A short air campaign might destabilise the Taliban but the Alliance would not be able to take advantage.
Option three, the long air offensive, was gaining ground. Downing Street and the MoD saw it as the lowest-risk option but it needed a second phase. With a coalition ground offensive out of the question the Alliance 'would have to be supported militarily', one intelligence briefing said. This was the key. The Alliance, with American, British and Russian help, would undertake the ground offensive itself.
This became the military option of choice. 'Applying pressure' became the key phrase. The Taliban would be undermined from the ground and the air. The Alliance was given military assistance in targeting its firepower, military kit bags were sent, along with mortars and artillery. America and the European Union would quietly relax their arms embargos.
This was what the men in Franks's office discussed. A conventional airpower campaign would prepare the ground for both parallel and connected campaigns - designed to find and arrest and kill bin Laden and dismantle his bases, and bring down the Taliban.
It would be a textbook operation, straight out of staff college. First they would hit al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and Taliban air defences, then telephone exchanges and other communications infrastructure, as well as targets grouped under the loose heading of 'command and control'.
Next would be so-called 'targets of opportunity' for America's roaming single-seater navy Hornet bombers: tanks, fuel tankers and military vehicles. B1-Bs and B52-Hs would drop cluster munitions on defences around the cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. Then - and only then - would they turn their attention to Taliban troop concentrations using AC-130 Spectre gunships and so-called 'daisy cutter' munitions, designed to slaughter hundreds of soldiers at a time.
While Franks and his British and American colleagues were reading alarming assessments of the Taliban's fighting capabilities in the media, and being bombarded with pessimistic warnings about the folly of fighting a war in Afghanistan, the intelligence assessments they were receiving painted a different picture.
Among these was a key document, prepared for the US Army War College Quarterly by Ali Jalali, the chief of the Farsi Service of the Voice of America, and a former colonel in the Afghan army and military adviser in the Afghan resistance following the Soviet invasion.
According to Jalali, the Taliban, far from being a formidable and tenacious fighting force backed by thousands of fanatical 'foreign fighters', was a fragile organisation, badly led and equipped, enjoying questionable loyalty among many of its units.
What Franks and his colleagues were being told about the military leadership of the Taliban was equally good news. Senior positions were held exclusively by religious figures - few if any of whom had former Afghan officers even as advisers. Intelligence agents also told Franks that the numbers of allegedly fanatical foreign fighters concentrated in the '55th Brigade', far from tallying thousands as they were being told, could in reality be counted in the mid-hundreds.
Critically, too, they assessed that given the structure of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the best fighters, far from being thrown into any battle or being used to bolster the front lines, were likely to be concentrated around senior Taliban figures, effectively weakening the Taliban's ability to defend itself.
The intelligence assessment of the Northern Alliance was only a little less bleak.
Franks's aim in the first air phase of the campaign was to duplicate the success of allied airpower in the war in Kosovo. Then, US and British bombers had quickly disrupted communications and fuel supplies, forcing Serb tank crews to be constantly on the move or hiding for their own safety. And the precise blend of tactics was tailored to the particular vulnerabilities of this enemy - not least the tradition of local warlords shifting their loyalties to the winner of the moment.
The matter was decided. On 7 October 2001, America and Britain went to war.
Phase one: air strikes and growing unease
The key would be stealth on the ground, while bombers screamed above Taliban positions. The US Special Forces and CIA agents inserted by specially modified MH-60 Pavehawk and MH-53J Pave Low III helicopters into northern Afghanistan at the beginning of October had a daunting task: to try to bring together the disparate leaders of the Northern Alliance into a cohesive fighting force able to attack the Taliban if called upon to do so. The focus of that attack would be on Mazar-e-Sharif, a city separated from the main body of the country by the high passes of the Hindu Kush.
Few among the US Special Forces had any doubts about the scale of the task they were being asked to perform. Indeed, the hazardous forays close to the Taliban's front lines by small US units, travelling the rough terrain in their specially modified 'dune buggies' equipped with 50mm machine guns to gather intelligence and guide in the bombers, seemed simple by comparison,.
Not least among the problems facing them was the nature of the Northern Alliance's leadership, including General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Soviet client, who later turned against his masters. Dostum, as they were aware, had a reputation for brutality and massacres.
A key task in the first week of the campaign, say sources, was in persuading a sceptical Northern Alliance - like the rest of the world - that the military tactics were working.
The early assessments of Northern Alliance commanders were negative, used as they were to the blitzkrieg-style tactics of the Russian forces during their war there. The Americans, Alliance fighters would brief their media guests, were wasting their time striking and restriking targets far from the front lines.
The Americans, they said, should take lessons from the Russians of the 1980s. Then Russian bombers had come in low, destroying whole villages at a time. US warplanes, by contrast, flew high above their targets, unleashing small numbers of bombs and missiles.
Franks, however, had other ideas than the use of an outdated Soviet military doctrine of 'bomb everything in sight' - a policy that had failed American forces in Vietnam.
The use of airpower in Afghanistan, as they and their political masters envisaged it, had three guiding ideas: to degrade the Taliban and al-Qaeda in their centres of strength behind the front lines; to avoid civilian casualties where possible, but also to prevent the Northern Alliance simply sweeping into power and starting a civil war with the mainly Pashtun population in the south off the back of the US bombing. As viewed by the Northern Alliance, what air power achieved was welcome, but it had been needlessly delayed by politics.
Washington had kept the bombers away for weeks, in this view, out of reluctance to give the Alliance more than token support until a balanced political coalition had been put together to govern the ethnically divided country after the Taliban had been toppled.
Some US officials acknowledge that in the first weeks of the campaign they held back on front-line strikes in part because they did not want the military campaign to jump ahead of the effort to organise a post-Taliban government.
Instead, what Franks and Wald envisaged, say Pentagon sources, was a 'hollowing out' of the Taliban behind the front lines where they opposed the Northern Alliance.
Only gradually did the Alliance commanders around Mazar-e-Sharif and other Taliban strongpoints begin to change their minds about the American campaign - pinpricks that were systematically destroying tanks, trucks and other equipment on which the Taliban depended.
At the same time the American advisers were busy trying to mould the Northern Alliance's rival parts, if not into a coherent centrally commanded force, then at least into a body that would follow its guidance in military tactics and eschew - as much as possible - atrocities against civilian populations in a country crawling with hundreds of foreign media.
The Americans again had a template for this operation from the Balkans, when US former military personnel were called in to forge a joint Croat-Muslim force to recapture Krajina from the Bosnian Serbs.
The Americans and their allies would provide weapons and ammunition. They would also provide new uniforms to give key fighters a sense of psychological cohesion. They would help with the battlefield communications and co-ordination. Crucially they would draw up the plan for action.
The weapons would be supplied by the Russians - 60 T-55 main battle tanks, 12 T-62K command tanks and 30 infantry fighting vehicles brought across by cover of night from Uzbekistan on ferry at Termez.
Again it was a plan that came straight out of the military text books. With US air support, the Northern Alliance would 'break out' on two fronts in a vast pincer movement, pressing the attack first on Mazar-e-Sharif and then on Kabul, mopping up resistance in a sweep across the north of the country, capturing the key airfields Franks believed were necessary for the next stage of the campaign - Special Forces raids into the Taliban's heartland around Kandahar and in the mainly Pashtun south.
One thing remained to be done to persuade the Taliban and al-Qaeda that the Northern Alliance was not going to attack its front lines. Through broadcasts and carefully placed leaks in the Pakistani press, the impression was given that the Americans did not trust the Northern Alliance and the campaign would be conducted by roaming groups of US Special Forces operating deep behind enemy lines.
On 19 October, the US made its boldest move: out of the night, units of special forces landed to ambush Taliban targets, including a compound of leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. This was the first of what was intended to be a run of stinging raids, not least aimed at exorcising the ghosts of one of America's worst military nightmares - the 1993 Delta Force raid in Mogadishu, Somalia, when 18 were killed and scores wounded. This time, the Americans, not al-Qaeda, would keep the initiative.
Yet the war had become bogged down. More than four weeks of bombing by US planes across Afghanistan had not moved the front lines a single kilometre. Playing the numbers game also looked grim. The Taliban fighters were 50,000-strong, including hundreds of foreign fighters - religious fanatics from Chechnya and Arab countries hardened by other wars. Facing them were just 15,000 Northern Alliance fighters, still poorly equipped and little more than a ragtag band of rebels.
With winter approaching and calls growing for a pause in the bombing for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, military commanders seemed set on looking to next spring for a vital breakthrough. In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis had to be dealt with. Five million Afghans were facing starvation and United Nations children's group Unicef warned starkly that 100,000 children could die this winter. More than 135,000 Afghans had poured over the Pakistan border, joining some two million already there, the product of 23 years of relentless wars. 'Time is running out,' warned Eric Laroche, Unicef's Afghanistan representative.
The Taliban were also receiving reinforcements. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of volunteers from Pakistan were flooding in. They brought rocket launchers, Kalashnikovs and even swords. They were Pakistani Pashtuns, sharing a culture and language with the Afghan Pashtuns who make up the bulk of Afghanistan's population and also most of the Taliban rank and file. They also shared a religious fanaticism. One young warrior in the Pakistani city of Peshawar summed up their beliefs. He had just given blood to a Taliban medical team that had set up in a crowded bazaar and was preparing to leave for the border. 'This is jihad against America. I am happy to die,' said 15-year-old Abdul Wali.
In the meantime, the bombs rained down nightly on Kabul and other cities. They had long run out of major targets. Daily life went on. The Afghans were used to war. 'There is so little to disrupt in Afghanistan. It is a daily life of subsistence, so you don't disrupt it by bombs,' said one sceptical Western aid official recently evacuated from the capital. History seemed to be repeating itself.
This was not playing well in America and Britain. To the outside world, the war had begun to lose its way. A Red Cross compound was hit twice; there were reports of civilian casualties. Public support in Europe and elsewhere began to ebb, although in America it was overwhelming and unflinching.
On 1 November, the Pentagon moved to concentrate its military power in northern Afghanistan and set the stage for a ground offensive by the Alliance. Fresh US troops were deployed; some in the south, where Green Beret and other fighting units landed to fight alongside the Alliance. Squadrons of B-52s pounded the Taliban front lines and its positions north of Kabul with increased ferocity while bombs rained down on their defences around Mazar-e Sharif. New allies were courted and won: in the region, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia; in Europe, Italy, Germany and France. In Washington, officials briefed privately on 2 November that they hoped soon for an Alliance march on the capital of Kabul, and that the way was being cleared. The Americans were correct.