In the first article of this series I made the case for action against the mass murderers of September 11 and those who plan to follow in their footsteps. I suggested that this presents the members of the international alliance with one of the most complex diplomatic and security challenges they have ever faced. I also contended that a foe whose demands cannot be met and who will attack until vanquished must be eliminated.
Fighting terrorism will demand a shift in thinking about internal security, foreign intelligence gathering and the balancing of alliances abroad. Success will require a long-term improvement in the conditions in which people of the developing world live and the degree of freedom they enjoy. While all these must be addressed, there is a clear and present danger that no amount of diplomacy or development will make go away. This immediate threat must be quickly and decisively fought with aggressive espionage and-in limited cases – the use of military force.
I will try to explain what course of action we are likely taking, as it is misunderstood. First, why do we need to eliminate these terrorist groups? They are at the core of the larger worldwide network of terrorists. While their elimination will not ensure success, their continued existence will guarantee failure.
The terrorists and their Afghan hosts have proven the UN plays no role in their decision-making process, rendering negotiations useless. They will continue to train to kill. September 11 was merely their latest salvo, not their last. They are directly or indirectly responsible for the attacks that killed dozens of Americans in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, hundreds of Africans and foreign diplomats in Kenya and Tanzania, and thousands of innocents in New York and Washington, DC. They have planned and failed to flood New York tunnels and destroy large American airports at peak travel times. They will strike again and cannot be “hoped” away.
How do we go about this task? Unfortunately, ignorant talk show hosts and their callers suggesting “bombing Afghanistan into the stone age” have been given so much airtime that people think it’s an option that is even remotely considered by the military. It is not. Not only does the military not target civilians, but in Iraq and Bosnia American warriors have been placed in greater danger in order to minimize the likelihood of civilian casualties. Trust me; I know both situations first-hand. If not just on moral grounds, indiscriminate bombing makes no practical sense because it is a waste of resources and, more importantly, makes enemies of those who should not be. Furthermore, Afghanistan is in such a sad state of destruction and poverty that indiscriminate use of air power would only further decimate that which has already been destroyed and kill those powerless to change their world.
Air power alone cannot win wars. NATO’s air war in Kosovo would have failed were it not for the simultaneous actions on the ground by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Similarly, air strikes alone – no matter how precise and how massive – will do nothing to achieve our goals in Afghanistan. Only troops on the ground – with critical support from the air-can come close to eliminating the threat. Just as use of air strikes does not imply carpet-bombing, neither does use of ground forces imply invasion and complete occupation of Afghanistan, Soviet-style. We can achieve our goals without that and, in fact, complete occupation would be prejudicial to all our other goals, given the required scale and length of such operations.
The current attacks on targets in Afghanistan are likely intended to pursue two broad goals: the weakening of the Taliban militia and the destruction of the terrorist networks they have supported. The initial air strikes have likely been focused on degrading the Taliban’s ability to threaten our own air assets-including tactical strike aircraft and humanitarian airlift transports-as well as beginning to go after the larger training facilities and limited infrastructure of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Follow-on strikes in the weeks ahead will take on a different look and one that will be largely invisible to the cameras of the international press, namely Close Air Support (CAS).
CAS is a mission as old as combat aviation that through technology and training has been honed to a level of sophistication never seen before. CAS involves the attack of targets in close proximity to friendly forces. It has been used most recently in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the danger of hitting friendly forces or civilians in a dynamic environment was so great that use of cruise missiles or long-range bombers was out of the question. CAS aircraft are directed in their attacks by Forward Air Controllers (FACs)- qualified personnel on the ground or in other aircraft-who have a detailed understanding of who is hostile and who is not. These missions will be performed by F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets flying from US Navy aircraft carriers, as the Air Force will not likely have tactical aircraft within range of such targets.
Whom will these CAS aircraft support? I don’t know what ground forces will eventually be committed to action in Afghanistan, but it’s important to understand there is no reason for the US to attempt a full-scale ground occupation like the Soviet Army. The objectives will not include occupying Afghanistan. For political and logistical reasons, they will strive to accomplish the objectives with as small a ground presence as possible. Large battalions and divisions require enormous logistical support and provide rhetorical ammunition to those claiming the US wishes to establish a permanent military presence. Instead, what is needed is a force mobile and fast enough to appear and disappear at will. American and British Special Operations teams can fulfill this role.
A Hypothetical Mission
I cannot address specific targets and tactics, but imagine the following. A team of 6 men scaling a mountainside in central Afghanistan. Each has the conditioning of an Olympic athlete. Their leader is an experienced, highly-educated graduate of a top university. They are experts in hand-to-hand combat as well as cutting-edge communications and weapons technology. They have trained in deserts, arctic conditions and jungle swamps and can live off the land and fight the kind of war the Taliban and their terrorist guests know so well, but with a major difference. It is midnight and they see as though it were daytime. They are in contact with someone hundreds of miles away who sees every move they make from above and anything that moves within a couple of miles. An F-14 FAC (Airborne) orbits overhead, watching. When these men find their target, they eliminate it at close range. If further away, they point a laser at the target and a 2,000-pound bomb levels an area the size of Spangler. They will be six men against thousands. Many such teams can hunt down terrorists and guerrillas hiding in the mountains. It is as dangerous a mission as exists, but these are the best warriors on the planet. Some will perish. Most will prevail.
This is how war is fought today. Americans and their adversaries accustomed to the knee-jerk cruise missile spasms of the previous eight years have been conditioned to false expectations of American use of force. While many Americans became wrongly convinced that we could successfully conduct a sanitary war from the air with little loss of American lives and minimal collateral damage, potential adversaries have drawn similar conclusions from the recent past. They have become convinced that the US is unprepared to risk lives and will run away from anything threatening casualties. This is an anomaly of the past decade.
Military leaders know warfare is a horrible thing that is never “sanitary.” Innocent people will die and the likelihood increases when misguided politicians insist on surrogating cruise missiles for ground troops
or manned aircraft, rather than using them as supporting weapons against fixed, high-risk targets. One should not mistake the more aggressive appearance of ground troops for a more brutal war. While exposing our own people to greater risk, commitment of ground troops usually hastens the end to war and minimizes collateral damage; a soldier can tell civilians from combatants far better than a computer chip can.
It is impossible to say what type and how many ground troops will be committed. Without them, though, nothing will be accomplished. The goal of this first military phase of operations will be to get in and break the backs of terrorist organizations, eliminating as many of them as possible while avoiding civilian casualties and a protracted commitment on the ground. Additionally, US forces can assist Afghan groups attempting to return the country to a less-repressive government, bringing about a quicker end to hostilities and the present human suffering.
Attacking the nerve center of the terrorists in Afghanistan is just the first step in this long struggle. The greater challenge is maintaining stability in the rest of the region-and in Pakistan in particular-while doing so. This crisis presents the Alliance with great risk but also great opportunity. Long-term success will rely on the Alliance’s ability to foster relationships with the nations of the region and encourage long-term reforms that will render their societies infertile recruiting ground for the future Bin Ladens.