Afghan war goes online

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The War in All its Online Glory
Associated Press  
6:40 a.m. May 30, 2002 PDT
BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- The war in Afghanistan is going online.
A drab tent under the Afghan sun hides a high-tech war room that soon will become the nerve center of the campaign: Inside, tables are lined with soldiers bent over laptops. They look up at computer maps of Afghanistan projected on large screens illuminating the dim interior.

All are logged onto the Tactical Web Page, a secret, secure website being used in combat for the first time, through which American commanders at Bagram air base and in the United States can direct the fight in Afghanistan.

The system collects all information and communication in one place. Commanders confer in chatrooms and pass on orders; messages scroll across the screen, alerting developments from the field; maps show troop dispositions for both friend and foe.

The tent, actually a honeycomb of tents linked by narrow passages, is the headquarters from which Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill will work when he takes command of Bagram air base, north of Kabul, as soon as Friday.

"The rule here is that you can reach any critical information within two clicks of the mouse," said Maj. Keith Hauk, the knowledge management officer.

With wary looks, soldiers at work in the tent closed their laptops as journalists passed by on a tour of the facility. A copy of the website, stripped of sensitive information, was projected onto one of the main tent's large screens.

The command staff is confident that the site is secure from hackers.

"There have been a few instances when unidentified computers have tried to get in, in which case we throw up additional firewalls," Lt. Col. Bryan Dyer said.

McNeill takes over the coalition campaign in Afghanistan at a time when the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters has grown more complicated. Many fighters are thought to have fled to Pakistan; those still here are believed to be operating in small groups. U.S. and other troops have been scouring eastern Afghanistan near the border for infiltrators.

"These are great tools," McNeill said, surrounded by the computer wizardry. "But it serves one purpose, to reduce the complexity" of fighting the war.

"The sharp point of the spear are the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who ... are taking the fight to those who would wage a terrorist war throughout the world," he said.

McNeill's station in the war room, with his laptop, is in the center of the first table in front of the projection screens. Behind it are five rows of tables rising up like a stadium where "watch groups" monitor the action.

Commanders in the field send information up through the website, and orders flow back down to them. Generals at Central Command in Tampa, Florida, which runs the U.S. military in the Middle East and Central Asia, can also log on.

With all sides logged on, "the boss can point out items on the map with his subordinate commanders to draw up plans without everyone having to be in one place," Dyer said.

The maps on the website and the tent screens can show all flights through the region; icons point out U.S. and allied troops as well as enemy positions.

The network replaces the old system of paper maps and radio communications though these are on hand in case of a breakdown.

"A computer with a bullet in it is just a paperweight," Hauk said. "A map with a bullet in it is still a map."

Copyright © 2002 Associated Press
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