Article Published in The San Diego Union-Tribune
President Bush has said that this will be a war like no other in U.S. history. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said it will not involve massive airstrikes and the maneuvers of armies. It will be fought in many countries. We have been told that some battles we will hear about; some we will not. It will be a war fought in the shadows.
It is difficult to understand how this new kind of war will be fought. This is particularly true with respect to the apparent site of its first battles, Afghanistan. The idea of occupying this benighted, landlocked country is ludicrous. Attempting to hunt down Osama bin Laden, hidden in a fortified cave bunker and surrounded by his own bodyguards, seems impossible without first defeating the Taliban and perhaps not even then. Massive bombardment of Afghanistan is likely only to bolster their opposition and inflame the Islamic world. The might of the world’s sole remaining superpower seems to count for naught in this first campaign.
Yet, a plan for the first battle of this war has already been written and is available to us. It was produced over a century ago. The officers and soldiers of the European expeditionary armies of the 19th century, who campaigned from the Moroccan desert to the high peaks of the Hindu Kush, wrote it.
Their objectives were at times political and punitive, not pacification and occupation. They faced similar political, physical, technological and operational hurdles as do U.S. forces today.
Largely speaking, they were victorious. The record of their campaigns and its methods provides a script that today’s generals would be well advised to study. It is important to know that there is a plan to wage war in Afghanistan, one that has been used with success.
Americans are treated daily by the media to the myth that the Afghans have defeated every army sent against them since Alexander the Great. In reality, their record of victory is about one success a century.
There was a disastrous British expedition in 1839-42 that ended with the slaughter of an entire British army. There was the failed Soviet invasion some 140 years later. The Soviet Union lost because it tried to pacify and occupy that country.
The preponderance of the evidence is that the Afghans can be beaten. In 1879, for example, a relative small British expedition, commanded by Lord Robert, conducted a punitive campaign against the Afghan tribes. It successfully marched from the Northwest frontier of India to Kabul, taking the city and, after additional heavy fighting and some local reverses, forced the emir and the tribal leaders to sign a peace treaty. This campaign is only one example of the script that was employed repeatedly and was largely successful for Western armies. For nearly a century, small contingents of British troops kept the Afghan tribesmen at bay and maintained the security of the Empire’s frontier.
What are the contents of this script?
It begins with the warning from Lord Lytton, the viceroy of India, to Lord Roberts at the start of his campaign in Afghanistan. “It is not justice in the ordinary sense, but retribution that you have to administer on reaching Kabul . . . your objective should be to strike terror, and to strike it swiftly and deeply.”
In the Afghan campaign of 2001, it will be important that Taliban forces are sufficiently fearful of engaging U.S. and coalition forces that they avoid contact with our troops and thus do not interfere with the effort to hunt down bin Laden.
Perhaps the most useful source for understanding how this war should be conducted is a single book, “Small Wars, Their Principles and Practice,” written in 1909 by Colonel C.E. Callwell. Callwell’s analyses and observations of almost two centuries of small wars provide the script on which to base the present campaign.
Callwell’s most important observation was that that while tactics favored Western armies, strategy favored their indigenous opponent. This was because the adversary could win by playing for time, refusing battle, and drawing out the conflict. From this observation Callwell concluded that it was imperative that once conflict begins, Western forces act swiftly and decisively to achieve the rapid collapse of organized resistance.
Drawing on Callwell, the elements of the script are relatively easy to define. Good intelligence is absolutely necessary and sufficient time must be taken to acquire it and develop the best understanding possible of the field of battle and the opponent. The contest for information superiority must continue unabated throughout the campaign.
U.S./coalition forces must exploit their advantages in discipline, combined forces, and mobility to conduct operations in places, at times and in ways that deny the opponent the time to think and the ability to respond appropriately. Fortunately, the United States has the advantage of not seeking to occupy or pacify Afghanistan. This reduces significantly the need for fixed positions and established lines of communications that create predictable targets for the opponent.
Opportunities need to be created for decisive engagements where the superior technology and organization of U.S.-led forces can prove can be most effectively employed.
The campaign plan must identify and target whatever the opponent most prizes, the destruction or deprivation of which has the prospect for bringing the war to conclusion.
Speed and surprise often count for more than numbers or even firepower, although the ability to concentrate dispersed forces rapidly can often provide the advantages of both numerical superiority and surprise. U.S. forces should exploit their ability to operate at night and in bad weather.
Can a 100-year-old script be applied to a 21st century war?
Most certainly. The Taliban is no different than the warlord and tribal armies of the past. While they have more modern hardware than their predecessors, relative to the United States and its allies, the technology gap is even greater today than a century ago.
We know from experience that the acquisition of necessary intelligence and the deployment of the requisite forces will determine the timing and pace of the military campaign. This will likely involve old-fashioned methods such as bribes to those that could be weaned away from the Taliban or exploited for intelligence purposes. It also will include modern multispectral surveillance and intelligence collection. The intelligence requirements to support military operations are both wider and deeper than that needed to find bin Laden. Acquiring the necessary information undoubtedly will require the presence on the ground of U.S./coalition soldiers in Afghanistan well before hostilities commence.
One key to implementing a modern version of Callwell’s script against the Taliban and bin Laden will be the use of aerospace power. This might seem contrary to the conventional wisdom that dismisses the wasted cruise missile strikes in 1998 and talks almost exclusively about the role of ground forces.
However, aerospace power is a unique U.S. asymmetric advantage. Airborne and space-based surveillance, including new unmanned aerial vehicles, will be employed to obtain intelligence. Air mobility force will serve as the modern equivalent of the 19th
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