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Military expert: 'Limited life expectancy' for bin Laden

Col. Bob Stewart
Col. Bob Stewart, former British U.N. Commander  

(CNN) -- Afghanistan has been at war for 23 years. First came a decade of fighting the Soviets followed by the civil war that is underway now. Col. Bob Stewart, the former British U.N. commander, joined anchor Catherine Callaway to talk about Afghanistan's military tactics.

CATHERINE CALLAWAY: Thanks for joining us, colonel ... We just heard (CNN correspondent) Matthew Chance talking about the (Soviet-era) weapons that the Northern Alliance (is using). Let's talk a little bit about what the Taliban (are using). Is it the same type of thing that we're seeing with the Northern Alliance, these older Soviet-era weapons?

COL. BOB STEWART: Absolutely. The most important weapon the Taliban have is their assault rifle, the Kalashnikov, because that's the traditional weapon for fighters that fight alone, and the Taliban strength comes from ... their determination as individual fighters. They've got equipment, like perhaps 100 T-55, T-62 Soviet-era tanks, but that equipment is very old, and it's not very well maintained. The strength of the Taliban is their fighting spirit, and that's why we've got to actually try and destroy that.

CALLAWAY: Probably the biggest problem other than their strength, would be the terrain there in Afghanistan, very difficult and the higher altitudes.

STEWART: Well, it's very difficult, particularly for soldiers that fly in to fight at higher altitudes, and we're thinking about British and American forces possibly going in by helicopter, I would think. So therefore they will be acclimatizing now in those high altitudes, somewhere, so that they can fight -- because you don't want to give away any advantage. They're acclimatized for the cold. They're acclimatized for the high altitude. That's what I suspect they will be doing right now.

CALLAWAY: Tell us about the type of weapons that could be used in that type of terrain. You're talking about altitudes over 15,000 feet in some areas, but obviously helicopters do not ... operate well in that high of an altitude.

STEWART: Yes, but they do function and there are ways around it. Most certainly the only way of dealing with the Taliban, ... if you actually bring (them) into a military conflict, is to get in close with them. And it's going to be very difficult to destroy the Taliban just by using precision guided munitions or Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Unfortunately, if you really want to get them, you've actually got to take the risks of putting soldiers on the ground, albeit briefly, in raids. Now that is something that obviously the military planners are looking at very carefully. And that is the reason why it's taken so long because, quite honestly, no one wants to take more casualties than is necessary. So the targeting has got to be precise, and neither do we want to actually kill innocent civilians.

CALLAWAY: The Northern Alliance is reaching ever closer, as we've just heard from that report, to taking Kabul. Do you think that will happen?

STEWART: Well, that would be a very good solution, wouldn't it? Maybe history will take care of it in a way, if the Northern Alliance actually does move out of their defensive positions, which they've been in for a long time. And you heard the nearest (that) they were was 400 meters. May I point out that the battle range of a Kalashnikov is 300 meters? So in other words, ... they're quite well apart, even at the closest point. ...

So it would be very good indeed if the Northern Alliance were to actually get out of their defensive positions and attack and get through to Kabul. That might present us with an easier option insofar as if we get Kabul taken, perhaps we could air land troops and actually then control and find the Taliban that way. It will be less risky, perhaps.

CALLAWAY: But, colonel, do you think that the U.S. should be working with the Northern Alliance? Shouldn't we be careful about what weapons are given to the Northern Alliance?

STEWART: Absolutely. In this part of the world, if we look back at the history of our involvement, we should remember that when you dine with the devil you use a long spoon. It is very, very interesting to think that Northern Alliance apparently when they were in charge invited Mr. bin Laden to come and stay there. So I mean it is very difficult. But in order to get this great evil of Mr. bin Laden and his associates, we've actually got to make some compromises, and it is essential that we do have support from people who know what they're doing, who are locals on the ground. And that doesn't just include the Northern Alliance, but it includes the government of Pakistan and their armed forces, and it also includes the Russian republics or the ex-Russian republics to the north and Russia.

CALLAWAY: Colonel ... yes or no: Do you think that the U.S. will find Osama bin Laden?

STEWART: Yes, very soon, but who can say when? Mr. bin Laden has a limited life expectancy.


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