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Andrew Koch: Military strategy and the search for bin Laden

Northern Alliance fires on Taliban positions near Khanabad
Northern Alliance fires on Taliban positions near Khanabad  

Andrew Koch is Washington Bureau Chief for Jane's Defence Weekly, a provider of defense, security and transportation information to governments, militaries, universities and businesses. He has worked at several U.S. think tanks, including the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in Monterey, California, and the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. He joined the chat room from Virginia.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Andrew Koch, and welcome.

ANDREW KOCH: Hello, thank you for having me today.

CNN: Media reports seem to indicate that Osama bin Laden is trapped within a restricted region in Afghanistan. Are these reports premature?

KOCH: According to U.S. officials, they don't know for certain where Osama bin Laden is, although they say it's reasonable to expect, based both on intelligence information and his past pattern of movement, that he is within the territory of Afghanistan. They believe his territory has shrunk, due to the amount of territory loss by the Taliban.

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CNN: What artillery is being discovered in abandoned areas where the Taliban was stationed?

KOCH: The Taliban had fairly rudimentary artillery systems, like other military equipment. They had systems such as mortars, which are used in close combat, but they did not have a tremendous amount of other heavier artillery pieces.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Would the apparent ambush of journalists indicate anything about how close they are to bin Laden?

KOCH: I think the ambush that you're referring to is the case where 3 foreign journalists were killed up in northern Afghanistan. My understanding of what happened is that the three journalists were riding on a Northern Alliance armored vehicle, and that vehicle came under attack by the Taliban. It was not so much that the journalists were targeted themselves, but that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The relationship of that attack to bin Laden... I don't think there is one.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Koch, how likely is it that terrorists groups within the United States already have nuclear weapons in their possession?

KOCH: Interesting question. The question of whether or not the al Qaeda network or any other terrorist group has access to nuclear weapons has been a high profile question over the last few weeks. There is a tremendous amount of nuclear material that is not well-guarded in the territory of the former Soviet Union, but there is no evidence to suggest that sufficient quantities of fissile material, which is the nuclear material required to cause a nuclear explosion, has been lost or stolen. Therefore, it is not likely that a terrorist organization to date has gotten their hands on any nuclear weapons. However, of greater concern is the possibility that al Qaeda or other terrorists may have gotten their hands on material that is radioactive, although not capable of causing a nuclear explosion. Such material could be mixed with conventional explosives and used as a "radiological bomb." This bomb would spread the radioactive material over an area, and in essence, make that area uninhabitable.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: what do the Taliban have in the way of shoulder-fired missiles that can down aircraft?

KOCH: Prior to the start of the conflict, the Taliban is known to have two primary forms of shoulder fired missiles. They can be moved about by teams of men, one or two people, fairly easily. The most common one is the Stinger, which was provided by the United States to the then-Mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan, who were then battling the Soviet forces in the 1980's. The Taliban is also believed to have stockpiles of Strela surface-to-air missiles acquired from Russia.

CNN: Is there solid confirmation that Bin Laden's top military aide has, in fact, been killed?

KOCH: The United States Department of Defense officials have in fact said they believe that bin Laden's top lieutenant was killed last week in an airstrike on a Taliban safe house in Kabul.

CNN: What reports are there of infighting between the factions of the Northern Alliance?

KOCH: The fears of infighting between the Northern Alliance forces come mostly from past activities of those troops. Following the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, forces of the then-Mujahedeen, many of who are still leaders in the Northern Alliance, took control of the country, but then turned on each other in a power struggle. You can now see many of these former commanders returning to their strongholds and claiming territory and power. Given the past fighting between these forces, the fear is that they could once again turn on each other when trying to decide who controls Afghanistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: From my understanding the Taliban represent a philosophy not about territory. What can the United States do to combat this?

KOCH: The ability to combat a movement such as the Taliban or al Qaeda, which is a philosophical movement as much as it is a military movement, rests more with the overall U.S. government approach to information and perception-management as it does to any military activity on the ground. U.S. officials have said since the beginning that the war on terrorism has many components, and that the military is just one portion of that. As your question touches on, information and perception management portions will be extremely important over the long term if the United States [is to] be successful in this effort.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have you anything to report on an anthrax factory was discovered in Kabul?

KOCH: There was an anthrax vaccine facility run by the United Nations in Kabul, and while it was under Taliban control, there was a fear that it could have been used in some way for ill purposes, particularly adapted for production of biological weapons even. However, after the fall of Kabul, close inspection of the facility has at least shown in a preliminary analysis that this factory had not been altered, and had been used as nothing more than it was intended, production of anthrax vaccines.

CNN: Is there any indication that the Taliban are pulling back to regroup and strike U.S. and Northern Alliance forces unexpectedly?

KOCH: The fear is that the Taliban's quick retreat from northern Afghanistan was caused not so much by military defeat, but by an active decision to pull back fighters to rural and remote areas to begin a guerilla campaign. It's still unclear whether that campaign will or will not happen. Clearly the Taliban support within the country has crumbled in most areas. That can be seen most vividly by the fact that tribes within the Pashtun community in southern Afghanistan have taken up arms against the Taliban. Whether some of the hard core and most devoted portions of the Taliban will be able to successfully flee to the mountains and change their warfare tactics to a more guerilla-type style, is yet to be determined.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: It's reported that the Taliban are killing members who wish to surrender. Is this really a bad thing though, why would we appear to be concerned about this?

KOCH: It appears that members of the al Qaeda network, and what are called Arab-Afghanis, or members of the Taliban and al Qaeda who are not from Afghanistan, have been killing Afghan Taliban members who wish to surrender, particularly in the area of Konduz, for fear that those troops would change sides, and fight with the Northern Alliance. The situation in Konduz is particularly tricky, because these non-Afghan fighters feel they cannot surrender to the Northern Alliance, for fear they will be killed. Nor do they have any way of leaving the country and going back to their own countries, because they are surrounded. Under the rules of international law of warfare, troops who surrender must be given certain rights. As a country that stands for the rule of law, the United States has an interest in making sure those rules are preserved. Our leverage, however, over the activities of the Northern Alliance in this particular case, is obviously limited by the fact that we do not have troops on the ground in significant numbers.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there fear that the Pashtun will take over power and turn against the Northern Alliance?

KOCH: Yes, there is fear that the Northern Alliance doesn't enjoy much popular support in Pashtun areas, so working out a power-sharing compromise, where leaders from all of the various ethnic backgrounds in Afghanistan can have a stake in any new government will be important. However, because the Northern Alliance military controls Kabul and so much of the rest of the country, the fear is that they are in a position to try to dictate to the other ethnic interests such as the Pashtun what a solution would look like. Such a militarily enforced peace may not be tenable.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

KOCH: I think that in Afghanistan, we've only seen the beginning, and in many ways, the easiest portion to accomplish there. The United States military is unrivaled in the world, and its ability to defeat military forces in a country as small and poor as Afghanistan was not a significant challenge over the long term. The bigger challenge is how the United States and the international community can foster a stable peaceful resolution to the conflict there, so that groups such as the Taliban and al Qaeda cannot come back to power.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

KOCH: Thank you very much for having me, and for your questions.

Andrew Koch joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the chat which took place on Monday, November 19, 2001.


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