Gen. Wesley Clark: Pakistanis' role critical
UPDATE: We're definitely holding on to the enemy force, and we're pummeling it with airpower. As they suffer losses, they're gradually being pushed into a smaller and smaller area. The end is in sight, but when it will come is hard to predict.
I think some al Qaeda will still try to break out, if they haven't already. Obviously, the path of easiest escape is through Pakistan, where the al Qaeda don't have to face the Americans or the people they've been fighting every day. It's a natural temptation, so the Pakistanis' role is critical. There are certain trails out of that region, but if you were Osama bin Laden, you wouldn't use a trail, would you? Wouldn't you just walk across the side of a mountain to get out? I certainly would.
As to whether bin Laden is still in Afghanistan, the administration has been very careful thus far not to let expectations run ahead of reality. If some officials are saying now that they think he's there, they must have some pretty good evidence beyond the fact that the al Qaeda fighters are fighting -- things that they haven't shared with us. My guess is that he's there, around Tora Bora.
IMPACT: Hopefully, the Pakistanis are in "perfect blocking position," as one U.S. official said, but I've been in too many military operations to ever take such an assertion at face value. It depends on so many things -- the discipline of the troops, their alertness, the insight of the chain of command. It's just so easy to make a mistake. That terrain is difficult to cover, especially at night. If people doze off at 3 o'clock in the morning, the al Qaeda are going to get away -- and that's typically going to happen in the field when armies get sleepy. So it's very difficult to maintain a perfect so-called picket.
But maybe bin Laden has never prepared an escape route -- he and Taliban ruler Mullah Omar have done a lot of other dumb things. The Taliban are the least competent fighting force I think the United States has ever faced, in terms of their relative strength compared to us. And Osama bin Laden hasn't been very smart. In the videotape ... released Thursday, he's acting like he's perfectly safe even as his whole world was collapsing around him. He had a real misunderstanding of America, American fighting capabilities and American determination.
TACTICS: There are basically two things being done with airpower. One, the AC-130s ... fly above the mountains, looking at them using infrared technology and optics. If they spot something, like a tunnel opening or al Qaeda position, they can call in airstrikes or use their own guns to wipe out enemy troops on the ground. They have small-caliber cannon, larger-caliber cannon, rapid-fire guns -- all very, very potent weapons and very accurate. They can see individual people walking on the ground and strike them.
And then you've got the bombers and the fighters delivering high explosives on designated points such as enemy centers of resistance, tunnel openings, ammo depots, tunnels and likely ambush points -- all thanks to the activities of and information provided them by special forces on the ground. So U.S. warplanes can strike throughout the area with impunity. It's a devastating combination.
The ground forces' goal is to move forward, fire, locate the enemy position, and then call in airpower to destroy the enemy. They're absolutely vital in all this. You could not find the enemy forces without the ground forces.
STRATEGY: Clearly, Osama bin Laden has to be surprised the way the local people have turned against him and have supported the Americans. And it should be clear that it's the Americans that are helping organize this. The assistance of the Eastern Alliance there, of course, is critical. But it's being guided and directed in large part by the Americans. Special forces teams on the ground provide assurance, provide airpower and use the technology to its advantage. We have to give our special forces troops a lot of credit, because they've spent a long time training to do this and they're doing it very well.
It's tough to say exactly how much ammunition, fighters or supplies al Qaeda now has at Tora Bora. But the movement forward of the Eastern Alliance fighters, the tightening circle around this enemy pocket -- that is measurable. The enemy would never fall back, on its own, into a smaller and smaller area, because it would make itself a smaller and smaller target, where more firepower can be concentrated. As this goes on, the likelihood of bin Laden escaping decreases.
U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.), a former NATO supreme commander, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. David Grange (ret.) and Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd (ret.) are serving as CNN military analysts during the war against terror. Their briefings will appear daily on CNN.com.
EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN is sensitive to reporting any information that could endanger lives or operations.
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