EARLY LESSONS OF THE WAR AGAINST AL-QUAIDA AND THE TALIBAN
Originally Published January
comes to an end, so does the American campaign in Afghanistan. The war is not
over, as a transnational phenomenon such as terrorism cannot be defeated by
victory over any national regime.
However, the first stage, the campaign to destroy al-Quaida’s presence
in Afghanistan, and end the rule of its Taliban protectors is,
As of this writing too, it appears that Osama bin
Laden himself may well have lost his life.
The prospect of any military action in Afghanistan is an imposing one, no matter who takes part. The Soviet Union was
severely wounded through its war there in the 1980’s and never fully
recovered. Even though it bordered the country and thus had no issues of
force projection, the USSR was never able to win in Afghanistan.
Yet the United States did so, and quite handily, with some severe
handicaps. Unlike the Soviets, the
Americans had to project force over thousands miles, with some air missions
coming from as far away as Missouri. Furthermore, there
were no large American ground forces, nor extensive base areas, nearby. Nor
was Afghanistan ever in the American orbit of influence, so that the
American armed forces did not have long-standing combat experience or
political involvement there. During
the Soviet war American intelligence was active there, but with the fall of
the Communist government in 1992 the United States embassy closed down, and the Americans basically abandoned
the country to its own worst instincts.
Furthermore, the American campaign had a very tight
timeframe in which it had to reach a decision. Fighting in Afghanistan is bad enough, but doing so in the winter is even
worse. Yet the United States and its allies achieved victory in a matter of a couple of
months, before the cold and snow could become major factors.
The lessons of the campaign will take years to become
clear. In the immediate aftermath,
however, some of the reasons for the outcome are already apparent.
THE RIGHT FORCE
If the first task in wartime is the definition of the
conflict, the second is the determination of the forces to be used. Desert Storm was, from the beginning, the
quintessential conventional war of heavy armor, firepower and maneuver, and
the units dispatched to the Persian Gulf reflected that. The
United States Army kept its light infantry at home, relying instead on
armored and mechanized divisions, backed by large numbers of varied combat
jets, attack helicopters, naval power, even two battleships. Special operations troops did make their
appearance, and performed many vital missions, especially reconnaissance and
the rescue of downed pilots. However,
they were of decidedly secondary importance, more suited to lower-intensity
conflict than one in which the fortune favors the biggest guns.
Afghanistan’s only resemblance to the Arabian Peninsula is a shared religion among its people. It is a landlocked place of higher
elevations, upland deserts, mountains, valleys and forests, with some large
cities and agricultural, not just a sparsely-populated flat desert with a few
towns and nomads. Afghanistan, and Central Asia in general, is a much more varied environment than the
Desert Storm’s theater of operations.
The variety extends to the people. There is a division between the Sunni and
Shiite branches of Islam, and both are represented in Afghanistan, though the Sunni predominate. In September 2001 they were ruled by the
doctrinaire and harsh Taliban, adherents to a particularly repressive branch
of Sunni Islam, hardly shared by the rest of a country in which music,
dancing and poetry are treasured.
Furthermore, Desert Storm was fought in a territory
in which virtually all of the population are Arabs, speaking similar dialects
of the same language. There is no
majority ethnic group in Afghanistan; about forty percent of the people are Pashtun (or
Pathan), a group divided in turn by tribe and clan. The rest are a mixture of Tajik, Uzbek,
Hazara, Baluchi, and others, speaking a variety of dialects that include a
variety of Persian called Dari. These
divisions further serve as the foundation for a long-standing fractiousness,
in which violence often lurks just beneath the surface, and indeed Afghanistan suffered close to twenty-five years of civil war starting
in the mid-seventies.
Thus in terms of territory and population, Afghanistan is no Iraq. It would be
dangerous to assume that the same strategies, and the same armies, that won
Desert Storm in a one-sided manner could do the same in Afghanistan ten years later. It
would take a much different array of forces.
Airpower is the single shared element of American
force in both conflicts. It is the one
component of American military power that can go anywhere at anytime, and in
most of the world can do so at will, even from the center of the continental United States, in the case of the B-2 stealth bomber. Most of the United States Air Force requires
forward basing however, which is often a major limitation, as it was in the
campaign against the radical Islamists in Afghanistan.
Enter the navy.
Retired for years, and in a conflict in a landlocked country, the old
battleships would not appear in 1991.
But the backbone of American expeditionary naval power is the attack
aircraft carrier, and one can overmatch most national air forces. There were two arrayed against al-Quaida
and the Taliban.
In both Desert Storm and the Afghan campaign,
American and allied airpower had free rein.
Desert Storm began with a hail of cruise missiles and precision-guided
munitions, as well as other weapons, targeted against Iraqi airpower, command
and control, and Saddam Hussein’s sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses. In short order they were neutralized, and
though the Coalition did lose aircraft, it was never at the rates projected.
The Afghan campaign started similarly. The main exception was that the Taliban air
defenses were rudimentary at best, and generally presented a target-poor
environment to the American aviators.
Likewise, Afghanistan never had the kind of strategic targets that Iraq had. Therefore the
Americans could move on to attacking the enemy ground units immediately.
The nature of the airpower employed against the
Islamists was balanced and varied.
Precision guided munitions [PGM’s-----“smart bombs”] are a generation
advanced over those of Desert Storm, and are both the present and the future
of air-to-ground warfare. They are the
rapier of the air, and were fully employed over Afghanistan. But there were
still roles for blunt force, in the form of carpet bombing from
forty-year-old B-52’s, and the 15,000-pound “Daisy Cutter,” a weapon of
astonishing explosive power, psychological impact, and such poor accuracy
that it is rolled out the back of a modified C-130 cargo transport.
Not every weapon, and not even every family of
weapon, can accomplish every mission in a modern campaign. The latest war in Afghanistan demonstrated this, as the destruction of Taliban and
al-Quaida units from the air called for less precise weapons of a past
generation. They were targets for the
sledgehammer, not the well-directed (and expensive) rapier.
Ground forces represent a special problem to fighting
in Afghanistan. In 1990 and 1991,
the United States and its allies were able to move massive numbers of men
and machines to the Persian Gulf, unloading them at elaborate port facilities made freely
available in Saudi
Arabia. In the process, Saddam Hussein conveniently
stood by the border, refusing to invade Saudi Arabia or otherwise attempt to interfere. Then Coalition command of the air, and
well-developed staff and logistical procedures, permitted them to be moved
inland and deployed with utter impunity.
Afghanistan presents no such opportunities. Therefore it was impossible to deploy an
entire mechanized army on a par with that of Desert Storm, let alone do it in
the constricted time frame demanded by the war on terrorism.
The units earmarked for Afghanistan were tiny and very specialized compared to those in the
Gulf War. There were some light
infantry, at present apparently drawn mainly from the 10th Mountain Division,
deployed to Uzbekistan.
However, the majority of American ground forces were
special operations forces, or units that straddle the line between special
ops and conventional warfare. In
October there was one well-publicized raid by Rangers on the Kandahar headquarters of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammed Omar.
But the largest American ground contingent consists
of Marines transported by helicopter from the Arabian Sea. They have not engaged in missions to take
and hold ground, outside of establishing their bases at
Rhino and Kandahar airport, so there is really no comparison with the
conventional Army and Marine units that fought in Kuwait and Iraq. On the other hand,
they provide important, American-controlled aerial points of entry, serve the
intelligence effort by holding and processing prisoners, and as a small but
fully functional, mobile, combined arms reserve should one under unambiguous
American command, and divorced from local loyalties and considerations, be
required. There are some missions too
sensitive and crucial to be trusted to allies, especially new ones in an
alien landscape and culture, and the Marines provide a means of executing
such missions, or providing a base for others to perform them.
For example, Afghan culture and the country’s way of
civil war tend to give losing combatants means to escape capture through the
negotiation of generous, face-saving surrender terms. Then too, a losing commander might save his
own skin by offering a healthy bribe.
In a strictly Afghan context, this spirit has much to
recommend it, as it helps keep the element of desperation from seeping further
into destructive, fratricidal conflicts.
A defeated party will have opportunities to retreat from danger,
avoiding total destruction, and will take them more often than not.
On the other hand, the interests of the United States and its non-Afghan allies will conflict with the Afghan
way. For example, a Northern Alliance
or Pashtun tribal commander who allows a commander on the level of Mullah
Omar or one of his immediate deputies to escape capture frustrates American
objectives, which include the capture or liquidation of the top enemy
leaders, native Taliban as well as foreign al-Quaida. Having some American forces in country, and
the ability to bring in more at will, gives the United States an enhanced ability
to pursue its objectives on the ground, independently.
This can be important, as the vast majority of
conventional ground forces are Afghan.
From the beginning the Northern Alliance, representing the primarily
Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara mujahadin who tried to govern Afghanistan
following the defeat of the Communists, and were themselves driven out of
power by the Taliban newcomers (who had substantial Pakistani assistance),
allied themselves with the United States.
This was to be expected, as the Northern Alliance had been pushed back
to controlling barely ten percent of the country, was hanging on just to
maintain its existence, and just prior to September 11 had seen its renowned
commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, killed by al-Quaida suicide bombers. Therefore the spirit of “The enemy of my
enemy is my friend” was entirely predictable, particularly when that new
friend was as powerful as the United States.
Despite the successes achieved through inducing
Taliban to surrender, there is a long-term need to make sure that that they
stay surrendered. Rebuilding Afghanistan means more than replacing bridges and bringing food to the
starving, even more than reestablishing destroyed institutions: It means
preventing any chance that what is left of the Taliban, or their spiritual
heirs, are never able to attain power.
Better yet, Afghanistan should be rebuilt to the point that people are never again
so desperate for peace and security that they see such a repressive
government as preferable to the status quo.
Alliance was the backbone of the maneuver
war on the ground, at least until events shifted south to Pashtun tribal
areas, and leaders there joined the fight.
Its quality was problematic at times-----as was the human rights
record of some of its disparate factions-----but it had the advantage of
being on the scene from the very beginning.
US Army heavy divisions would have been ideal for destroying the main
force of the Taliban and al-Quaida.
But the Northern Alliance was the reality, and was free of a need for complex
sealift and logistical preparations, and more than anything else, time. The last was a luxury that the United States did not have.
In the long run, the most important American ground
troops were the special forces.
Despite that single known Ranger operation, it is clear that their
most pivotal roles were not as raiders or traditional commandoes per se. The Green Berets functioned instead as
their doctrine has mandated for over forty years, as military teachers,
leaders, and liaisons with native forces.
A part of this mission, and probably the most
frequently important, was to bind together the Afghan ground forces with the
American air war. They have the
training, which encompasses a lot more than purely military skills, to
function alongside their Afghan allies.
At the same time, the special forces are training and equipment to
coordinate airstrikes. This is a
capability that even the most senior commanders lack, and even if they did,
it is unlikely that American decision makers would easily trust access to
this massive aerial firepower to anyone in Afghanistan but other Americans.
The liaison role of the special forces soldiers is
also one of general command and control, and diplomacy. Any strategy demands
consistency, but any alliance of Afghans is more likely to stress distinct
agendas among the component groups; the independent-mindedness of the Uzbek
warlord (and ex-Communist) Rashid Dostum is the prime example. Having American specialists with Afghan
commanders can at least warn Washington when an ally is departing from the program.
At best, they can convince the local commanders to
work together, and work with the United States. The special forces
job description stresses diplomacy, and the skill set emphasizes the
communications skills, and overall people skills, to convince strong-minded
(and well-armed) individuals and parties to work together, and with the
United States, making the most of the best assets of each.
The Vietnam War was alleged to impart a number of lessons,
one of which was that a people with a strong ideology, and the determination
to succeed, can win out over a more powerful enemy. It calls to mind Napoleon’s maxim that the
moral is to the physical as three is to one, and renders irrelevant superiority
in weaponry, manpower, even sustained tactical victory.
In retrospect, one can see that Vietnam was a special case, in which cultural, geographic and
military factors made Communist certainty of victory more potent over the
long run than American firepower.
Desert Storm reinforced earlier conclusions that the strongest and
most dearly-held ideology can be fatally undermined by military defeat. For example, there was no denying the
determination of the Japanese in World War II; they had a strong sense of
destiny that they would be the collective arbiters of Asia, and that they
served the cause of a divine emperor.
That the Japanese soldier was ready to die for this cause was
demonstrated by high casualties he suffered, and by the few prisoners taken by
the enemy. As for the civilians, they
showed the strength, indeed certainty, of their national-religious ideology
by suffering through American blockade and bombing right to the end, and on Saipan, by willingly
choosing suicide on the cliffs of Marpi Point over surrender to the
Ultimately it took the combined blows of blockade,
B-29 fire raids, Soviet intervention, and two atomic bombs to overcome that
ideology. But it was overcome.
In Desert Storm, Iraqi commitment to the cause was
uneven to put it charitably. Saddam
Hussein and his immediate subordinates were undoubtedly committed; apart from
belief in the Ba’ath Party agenda and any feeling that Kuwait was the
legitimate nineteenth province of Iraq, the chances of their political and
physical survival were directly proportional to the chances of achieving at
least a limited victory (that they did survive catastrophic defeat was in
spite of the odds). The same could be
said for the most loyal of their combat units, the Republican Guard, and
Special Forces (political troops bearing no resemblance to the American Green
For the average Iraqi soldier, the world view was
entirely different. He did not have
the political commitment of his leaders, the Iraqi army’s main line units
hardly fought to the last bullet for Saddam’s cause. Stories of units surrendering to CNN were
atypical, but when faced by a blistering Coalition firepower, operational
acumen, and practiced tactical abilities, the Iraqi army collapsed in short
Yet the Iraq had just outlasted Iran in a long, punishing war.
Saddam Hussein had perpetrated the aggression against Iran, in a greedy and cynical attempt to exploit the latter’s
internal Islamist revolution and consequent hostage crisis with the United States. That Iraqi
national will sustained the initial stages of the war should be no surprise,
especially considering the brutality with which Saddam has always enforced
loyalty to his regime.
Then the war went badly for Iraq, as Iran withstood the first blows, and then brought its superior
manpower and resources to bear in order to expel, and then bring down, its
attacker. If anything, the Iraqi
national will got stronger, as the war of aggression became a struggle for
survival. Eventually Iraq did come through it alive, gaining a marginal though very
expensive victory, with the aid of its later foes in the Arab world and the
The examples of Vietnam, Imperial Japan, and Iraqi’s two conflicts show the danger
of making sweeping generalizations about the preeminence of ideology and
national will in war. Having the
stronger willpower is of great, even decisive advantage. But it has to be coupled with superior
military capabilities and above all performance. God really does favor the better
On the face of it, the ideological commitment of the
Islamists in Afghanistan appeared unassailable in September 2001. The Taliban were the world’s most
authoritarian and doctrinally rigid Islamic regime, sparing no effort to
enforce their peculiar brand of the faith on the country that they
ruled. The evidence of their moral
certitude is overwhelming; burqas, destroyed televisions, banned music,
amputated limbs, public executions, disenfranchised (in fact dehumanized) women,
and exploding Buddhas.
As for Osama bin Laden and his al-Quaida, their will
was demonstrated all too vividly on September 11. If there were any doubts left.
American war aims in Afghanistan were to destroy both entities and kill their leaders, or
bring them before the bar of justice.
By the time that the first bombs fell, America’s own national will, its ideology of righteous agrievement
and nationalism, was itself strong and determined.
Experience in Afghanistan proved that there was no central, overall Islamist
will. As in Iraqi a decade earlier,
the ideology of the Taliban leaders did not necessarily trickle down to the
fighters on the ground. In retrospect,
one can see that many of their units were not really members of the Taliban
movement, but allies of it, who joined out of self-interest, or even a desire
for respite from civil war, and not a shared attachment to the Taliban’s
The American campaign again appealed to their
self-interest. These commanders and
fighters were beset by heavy bombing from the air, and attacks on the ground
by a resurgent Northern Alliance (and then by the Taliban’s own Pashtun kinsmen), amply
supported by the United States and its allies.
Starting with the defenders of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghan Taliban began
taking the route of honorable surrender, or outright defection, in
ever-increasing numbers. This built up
a momentum toward victory that the Islamists were incapable of stemming.
Here, strength on the battlefield combined with
traditional Afghan views of acquiescence to a victorious enemy to undermine
Taliban ideological commitment. Mullah
Omar and some otherse might have remained firmly attached to the Taliban
cause, but the men with the guns, ultimately the men who mattered, took a
dissenting view. The ultimate result
was a complete collapse of the Taliban.
Furthermore, it must be remembered that the Taliban
had few resources of popular support upon which to fall back. In Vietnam, although the Communist effort proved to be directed
entirely from Hanoi, the Viet Cong and its political cadres did make a
strenuous efforts to build up popular support, which gained them steady
supplies of local manpower, logistics and intelligence.
To a great extent, the Taliban ideology was foreign
to the Afghans upon whom it was imposed.
The Vietnamese Communists were able to tap into popular perceptions of
nationalism, anti-colonial resentment, and local disgust with corrupt and
illegitimate enemy authority. Based on
this, they could use the most appropriate means of agitation, propaganda,
political organization, and coercion to build a popular base in the theater
The Taliban made no such effort. As the designated agents of Allah, they
felt no need to rally the people to their cause when times were relatively
good and there were measures of security and peace in Afghanistan. They should have
been legitimizing their regime, and instead wasted time and effort on
repression and self-absorbed cultural conflict. This was a regime with no appreciation of
its own opportunities.
On the other hand, the willpower of al-Quaida was
much more durable. These were the most
committed Islamists in the world, drawn to Afghanistan for the privilege of waging holy war. Had they been less dedicated, they would
have stayed home.
However, they had the handicap being in Afghanistan, but not part of it.
If the Taliban were a foreign theological/ideological growth on the
country, al-Quaida was that, plus they were literally foreign. Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and others,
when Afghanistan came under pressure they were the odd men out.
This had the effect of making them fight harder. Their Afghan hosts, for the most part, had
the option of honorable and physically safe surrender or defection. The al-Quaida fighters had no such line of
retreat; they had no transportation out of Afghanistan, and even if they could go home, they would be regarded as
criminals and insurgents by most of their own governments. Even those that might have given tacit
approval to al-Quaida could not support them in the crisis due to American poltical
and military pressure.
With no place to go, al-Quaida had no choice but to
The nature of the Islamist enemy in Afghanistan, and
the fissures among the factions, created opportunities for the United States
and its allies to divide and defeat them in detail. Taliban commanders and their troops could
be induced to leave the war, thereby leaving the hard core of al-Quaida
unprotected and unsupported.
A good measure of that inducement came through brute
force, judiciously applied. American
firepower proved to be the ultimate instrument of coercion. Daisy cutters, B-52 strikes, perhaps even
the sight of combat jets ranging at will over Afghanistan, could bring home in unambiguous terms the danger of
sticking with a cause to which many Afghans had not given their terminal
loyalty. It provided the force that
convinced them to take the path of least resistance offered through their own
culture, and its accommodation of former enemies.
Thus combat power won out over the ideology. On its own it could not break the backbone
of al-Quaida’s will, but it could strip it of its protection, and so render
it vulnerable to defeat.
CHARACTER OF BATTLE
Seizing and maintaining the initiative in war is a
multi-faceted task. It starts with
being to do what one wants, when one wants, and ideally wherever one
wants. There is a deeper aspect to
initiative as well, which is the ability to dictate the kind of war to be
That is a matter of getting the enemy to play to
one’s own strengths and to the other side’s weakness. One of the key reasons for the Communist
successes in Indochina was that they induced first France, and then the
United States, which were potent conventional powers, to fight a
counterinsurgencies, and then on ground on which the Vietnamese felt at
home. In a standup fight in a
conventional context, either Western enemy could have annihilated the Viet
Minh and the Viet Cong before breakfast.
So the latter drained the energy and diffused the power of the other
side by drawing them into wars of insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and small
units, in which concentrated firepower, maneuver and large formations became
not just ill-suited, but counterproductive.
There were times that the Communists tried to make the
transition to the third stage of insurgency according to the Maoist model,
which is maneuver-oriented offensive conventional operations. However, the record is decidedly
mixed. The Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu was a
major success, one of the most crucial battles in history, but from a
military perspective the Tet Offensive and the Easter Offensive of 1972 were
disasters of the first magnitude. The
Tet Offensive came to be regarded as a master stroke solely through the
failure of American national will as a reaction of the operation taking
place, not due to the outcome, nor was it defined as an objective of the
Communists, who aimed instead of force the collapse of the South Vietnam and its army. The
American declaration of defeat was just a happy and unpredicted bonus to an
otherwise terrible result.
Terrorists themselves gain far greater success than
their numbers or armament would indicate, precisely because they are capable
of dictating the character of the engagement.
Israeli military and political strategy are reactions to a great
degree to the history of attacks, and promise of future attacks, by
terrorists who operate in groups of as little as one person. But that one person is capable of causing intense
suffering and fear, not to mention revulsion and rage, through a single
determined and suicidal act at the time and place of his choosing. This plays right to the terrorists’
strengths, which are ruthlessness and a willingness to die for his cause,
while making irrelevant all of Israel’s airpower and armor.
The same holds true for the start of the American war
on terrorism. A scant nineteen
terrorists, armed with nothing more sophisticated than box cutters and
perhaps a fake bomb or two, were capable of killing over three thousand
Americans, citizens of the world’s last full-service superpower, in their own
Yet the sometimes a strong power can dictate the
nature of the war against a weaker opponent.
The latest war in Afghanistan proves that.
Afghanistan is a place that lends itself to insurgency and
unconventional warfare; the survivors of the Soviet war can attest to
that. It is also a dirt poor country,
one suffering from long-term drought as well civil war and economic collapse,
in which the tools of a high-tech war are distinctly out of reach. So a guerrilla strategy relying on
plentiful infantry weapons would have been a good choice for the Taliban and
al-Quaida, despite their alienation of most of the populace.
Instead, the United States forced them into a conventional conflict, making it just a
matter of time (and not really much time at that) before the Islamists
lost. First, the United States laid the groundwork for an intelligence superiority that
would make fighting both conventional and guerrilla combatants easier. This was a balanced effort relying on both
technology, in the form of airborne and satellite sensors and new unmanned
reconnaissance drones, and by putting special forces on the ground. The Green Berets could not just orchestrate
Afghan allied operations, but tap into local knowledge, and coordinate
scouting, patrols, and a general sharing of information. This would prevent the Islamists from being
able to hide, a prerequisite of effective unconventional warfare.
Intelligence superiority further denies the enemy the
advantages of dispersal. If units can
be found, and weapons (specifically airpower and the new generation of armed
drones) directed toward them, dispersal becomes little more than the
proliferation of smaller targets.
At the same time, American strategy forced the
Islamists into a war of position that favored the United States and its Afghan allies.
A protracted air campaign emasculated what air defenses that the
Taliban and al-Quaida had, then turned on static, support targets such as
headquarters and terrorist training camps.
From there it segued into an effort against troop concentrations, and
close tactical support for the Northern
The war of position was prosecuted by the Northern Alliance, which began the war controlling just about ten percent of
the country, a corner in the northeast.
With American air support, it was able to break out and begin
investing Taliban-controlled cities and towns. Since the Islamists had to defend them, the
conventional ground campaign also had to concentrate their troops, producing
prime targets for the bombers.
Having viable local allies, ones that even possessed
armor, capable of conventional operations was the decisive element in
defeating the Islamists. With American
air support, they were capable of mounting the kinds of assaults that take
and hold ground, inflict casualties, and build up a perception of success
that draws others to the cause; in Afghanistan, it was the Pashtun elements who joined against the
Taliban so as not to be left out of the victory once Kandahar was endangered. In
addition, these allies presented the Taliban elements less committed to their
theology with a credible force to whom they could surrender or defect without
Finally, the United States effectively denied the Islamists the luxury of a secure
base of operations. A safe, though not
always fortified, base area is can form the redoubt of last resort that
enables an army to reform and regroup in the event of defeat or retreat, and
then build up its resources to retake the initiative. The Duke of Wellington’s unassailable
fortified lines at Torres Vedras are a clear example. Later, on a grander scale, so was the United Kingdom in World War II.
Nor is it limited to conventional strategies. The base at Yenan was indispensable to the
Chinese Communists when fighting the Nationalists and the Japanese, leading
Mao Zedong to argue that a secure base was necessary to revolutionary
warfare. The Greek Communists found
that out the hard way after World War II, when Yugoslavia ceased giving them sanctuary on Greece’s northern border, leading to defeat.
Americans know the phenomenon all too well from Vietnam. The North
Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong had sanctuary along all of South Vietnam’s borders, across the Demilitarized Zone in North Vietnam and in the “neutral” countries of Laos and Cambodia. A base, rendered
safe by politics more than fixed defenses, was never too far away, copiously
supplied by the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The Islamists of Afghanistan were denied any such
cross-border sanctuary. There were
long-standing tensions between the Taliban and Iran, rooted in the former’s antipathy toward Persian-speakers
and Shiites, not to mention its killing of Iranian diplomats when it took
Mazar-e-Sharif from the Northern
Alliance warlord Dostum. The United States, and Russia, gained at support, or at least friendly neutrality, of
the former Soviet Central Asian States to the north. Pakistan, the sponsor of the Taliban without whom the militia never
could have taken power, bowed to American pressure and joined the alliance.
Thus the Islamists were cut off on all sides. Some might escape across the border into Pakistan, but that is hardly the same as an orderly retreat to a
Apparent from the beginning, the Taliban and
especially al-Quaida in Afghanistan have no sanctuary because Afghanistan is supposed to be that sanctuary. This was the place from which terrorists
were dispatched, and where they could go when conditions elsewhere became too
dangerous. There are Islamist terror
cells based elsewhere-----even the United States-----but no country was a wholly-owned subsidiary of terror
as was Afghanistan, and nowhere else could they train and operate with
The American and allied victory in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 was not one easily predicted. Without even considering the opposition,
the arena is frightening enough as a place that eats empires. Then factor in an apparently dedicated
governing militia convinced that their cause was for their one true God, and
their equally certain, quite well-armed and wealthy terrorist “guests,” and
the picture becomes even more daunting.
Yet the campaign ended quickly, and was relatively
One reason is that the Islamists were neither as
strong-willed nor as capable of military resistance as perhaps originally
thought. Under pressure, the Taliban
units proved to be more Afghan than Taliban, and fissures between the native
Taliban and foreign al-Quaida widened greatly. When faced with the full aerial might of
the United States and a resurgent local opposition, their morale and
dedication were overwhelmed by opposing firepower, and Afghan custom
permitted many Taliban fighters to go home instead of being forced to fight
to the death.
Al-Quaida’s units had no such privilege. Split from their Afghan protectors, they
had to fight on alone; thus there was no truly unified Islamic army, but two
separated along natural fault lines.
Together, they would have had a hard time resisting. In the end however, al-Quaida left to its
own devices had no chance.
Beyond all the lessons of national strategy and
military operations, there are two major ones that should be borne in mind,
one positive and the other cautionary.
The positive one is that the United States and its allies can fight terrorism. In previous years doubt was always in the
picture; Jimmy Carter spoke of the limits of national power, and the specter
of Vietnam, partially exorcised by Desert Storm but always lurking in
Third World irregular wars, remained. Furthermore, in Lebanon and Somalia the American people exhibited a crippling aversion to risk
and casualties. When American
politicians looked for reasons not intervene against terrorism, they had some
compelling reasons. They were wrong,
but then so were the American people.
Then September 11 changed everything.
Afghanistan has shown that a superpower can fight and win with the
weapons at hand. In Afghanistan these were free-ranging and potent airpower, native allies
who had at least the potential to be effective in their home environment, and
well-developed and flexible special forces units. Among the tools not required were heavy
mechanized divisions, massive sealift, and ports. Compared to Desert Storm, the campaign in Afghanistan was run on a shoestring. With support at home and a grasp
of the mission, the operational art and local conditions, the American
military and its allies were able to win where few since Alexander had won,
and do so with breathtaking speed.
The cautionary conclusion is that not every country
is Afghanistan. What worked there
might well fail in Iraq, where there is no coherent military opposition similar to
the Northern Alliance, or in Somalia or Yemen, where tribal politics present a different tangled web of
allegiances. The remedy to terrorism
has to be tailored to the theater of operations: Perhaps a later campaign
will resemble the Gulf War more closely, or be a matter of law enforcement or
covert action, waged by beat cops and spies instead of bomber pilots and tank
The need to constantly adapt is driven home by what
is, for many people, one of the defining images of the campaign: American
special forces operators accompanying Northern Alliance troops, all on horseback.
This was a campaign that had places for both the stealth bomber and
the warhorse. In order to win, the United States had to accept and learn to use both.
Ultimately, that image is emblematic of military
strategy in the early twenty-first century.
Victory demands an acceptance of local conditions, so that there are
times when the most high-tech weapons are appropriate, and there are others
in which it is best to look back to the ponies of the Mongols.