US planning full invasion if special forces fail
By Michael Smith, Defence Correspondent, and Toby Harnden in Washington
The Telegraph (UK) October 31, 2001
THE Pentagon is considering mounting a ground invasion of Afghanistan if the current bombing and special forces campaign fails to achieve its aims, American defence sources said yesterday.
The allies would carry out sporadic bombing attacks throughout the winter while the opposition Northern Alliance was built up into a workable ally before a full-scale ground invasion in the spring.
The new plan emerged as Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, held talks in Washington with his US counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, amid suggestions of differences between Britain and America over the prosecution of the war.
Mr Rumsfeld originally rejected invasion plans put forward by Gen Tommy Franks, the commander-in-chief of US Central Command, who is running the military operation, telling him to plan for a series of special forces raids.
But the difficulties of gathering intelligence was shown by the rapid aborting of a US special forces mission into Afghanistan 12 days ago. Resistance was far higher than expected and it has made military planners think again.
Gen Franks had now been given his head and told to go off and organise it all, a move that led to his current tour of countries in the region to see what they are prepared to offer in the way of bases, the sources said.
"The plan now is for a long winter of sporadic attacks and the occasional special forces mission," one said. "Meanwhile, we will be getting trained up and organised for a conventional invasion in the spring."
Speaking after yesterday's talks, Mr Rumsfeld said that, while the "modest" numbers of US special forces now on the ground were nowhere near those used in the Second World War or Korea, "we have not ruled that out". Mr Hoon added: "Nor have we."
The idea of a ground invasion was originally seen as too dangerous given the difficulties faced by the Soviet army during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
British planners had suggested the use of the Northern Alliance as a proxy force backed up by special forces operations and a policy of widespread humanitarian aid to win over the "hearts and minds" of the local people.
But with the British contribution increasingly appearing to be little more than decoration, those plans seem to have been shelved.
Adml Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, gave warning last week that the war in Afghanistan was the toughest military operation since the Korean War and could last several years.
Planners are aware that a ground invasion would be hard for the politicians to sell to electorates and to the other members of the coalition but believe that, without an early breakthrough, they have no other option.
Sir Michael and Mr Hoon are said to have clashed over the possible speed of military action and the type of troops used in special forces operations. Sir Michael complained that politicians had been expecting far too much too soon.
There was "quite a lot of pressure" to come up with fast military options, he said. "People say, `How are you getting on? What are you achieving? Can't you do it any faster?' "
At a joint press conference after yesterday's talks, Mr Hoon and Mr Rumsfeld sought to play down the differences.
But speaking earlier, Mr Hoon said it was possible that a Taliban regime could survive, and added that a pause in the bombing during next month's Muslim festival of Ramadan should be considered, though both possibilities have been rejected by Washington.
The war was about keeping up pressure on the Taliban rather than ending its rule, Mr Hoon said. "The ultimate objective is to bring those responsible for the events of September 11 to account.
"There is still a possibility of the Taliban accepting that they would give up Osama bin Laden and their support for terrorism and that's why I talk in terms of pressure on the regime."
The Pentagon has made clear it wants to obliterate the Taliban regime before moving on to consider other terrorist networks and states around the world. Mr Hoon said: "We obviously have to have regard to the sensitivities of Ramadan. It is something that we will consider very carefully."
Mr Rumsfeld has always insisted that military action will not cease during Ramadan. A Capitol Hill source said: "It sounds like the British are having second thoughts."
Brushing aside recent concerns from senior British officers, Mr Hoon insisted there were no differences of views either between British and US politicians or between their military planners.
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