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Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2001 / 9 Tishrei, 5762

Frederick W. Kagan

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How to Fight in Afghanistan: Winning won't be easy, but it's doable -- AMERICA is at war, says President Bush, and that is just as well, for only major military undertakings offer any hope of curtailing the threats posed to the United States by global disorder, including terrorism. In the first wave of anger after September 11 there was enthusiasm for a counterstrike, but as people now consider the magnitude of the task, many are daunted. There is an increasing sense that we are helpless and that taking significant action is beyond our power. Not so. This war will be long, it will be difficult to fight, and it will be painful, but that is no reason not to wage it or to imagine that the United States cannot win it.

The prospect of war with Afghanistan is unsettling to many people. Americans remember vividly the decade the Soviet Union spent trying to subdue the Afghan mujahedin, whom the United States supported with weapons and training. Americans also remember the frustration the Soviets experienced and their ignominious withdrawal as a beaten force, soon a shattered country. This awareness highlights the difficulty of a significant campaign in South Asia, but it should not deter us from action. If Americans stop thinking of Somalia and Bosnia as major operations and recall the vast conflicts this country has fought and won when challenged, if they reflect on the important differences between the conditions under which the Soviets lost and those under which the United States would enter the conflict, then the prospect, although sobering, is far from hopeless.

President Bush has made the killing or capture of Osama bin Laden a primary objective of any operation against Afghanistan. Whether or not bin Laden was the prime mover behind the events of September 11, he is a powerful agent for preparing and conducting attacks on the United States, and his destruction is essential to any counterterrorism campaign. The reports that bin Laden has gone to ground are surely right. He knows better than anyone how eager the United States should be to eliminate him. He will be a hard target to hit, but not an impossible one. Missile strikes intended to kill him are almost certain to fail, since we are almost certain not to have perfect real-time intelligence about his movements. The United States will have to send in special-forces hunter-killer teams, then, to root him out.

Such teams will have to begin with what intelligence we have and can obtain about his location and work to develop more information from positions in and around Afghanistan. They will require aerial, primarily helicopter, support from regional bases to infiltrate them, to supply them, and to evacuate them. It is possible that such groups by themselves will find and kill bin Laden and his supporters, or they may make possible the targeting and destruction of critical individuals either by helicopter attack or by longer-range weapons. Such operations may take time - bin Laden has years of practice at concealing himself and many friends in Afghanistan - but if they are pursued with sufficient determination and vigor, they will probably achieve their goal. In the meantime, they will force bin Laden constantly to look to his own safety, thereby diverting his focus from attacking us.

It is critical to remember, however, that killing Osama bin Laden will not solve the problem we face. The Taliban regime itself is an extremely destabilizing force in the entire South Asian region, where destabilization has just become infinitely more disturbing with the acquisition by Pakistan and India of usable nuclear weapons. The existence of a radical fundamentalist Sunni - not Shi'ite - theocracy strikes at the foundations of the moderate secular Sunni states on which stability in the Middle East depends. It is hard to imagine a peaceful and stable Muslim world in which radical groups hold power in large states.

There are a number of important differences between the Soviets' efforts in Afghanistan and operations the United States is likely to undertake that offer grounds for optimism. The Soviets were supporting a totally illegitimate regime that was attempting to overturn all of the most fundamental tenets of traditional village life in the country. The Soviets sent an ill-trained and unfit conscript army to the battle. America and other nations supported the mujahedin with weapons, supplies, and sanctuary.

The Soviet Union itself rapidly entered into the period of its final crisis, with corresponding confusion, lack of full commitment, and frustration as the war dragged on ineffectively. Last, the Soviets undertook a massive and brutal campaign aimed at driving the Afghan peasants out of the countryside into the cities - a campaign that created 5 million refugees in a country of 15 million people.

None of these conditions applies to prospective American involvement in the region. America's goal would be to establish a government that promises stability and peace with neighbors - a goal that need not be at odds with traditional Afghan values. The U.S. armed forces are highly trained and physically fit - they will be a match for the mujahedin fighters they encounter. The Taliban is a pariah regime - even Iran is working to seal its border, and Pakistan may be willing to shut down its limited cooperation with Kabul as well. America is strong now and made stronger by the attack of September 11. If Americans continue to understand the importance of the fight, there is no reason for their will to flag. Last, America will conduct the campaign with humanity and intelligence.

A sensible campaign against Afghanistan will avoid cruise missile diplomacy and reliance on firepower. Nothing we can do to the Afghan people with such weapons will be a thousandth part as painful for them as the war the Soviets fought and lost. The only prospect for success lies in getting troops rapidly on the ground, seizing and holding the major cities, and working to offer the Afghans a positive reason to abandon the Taliban and cooperate with us. As we secure cities and sanctuaries, we must work to feed the Afghan people and rebuild the infrastructure destroyed by decades of war.

As the Soviets discovered, the seizure of Afghanistan's major cities is not difficult. Most are in relatively accessible terrain, and the mujahedin then and now lack the resources to oppose a mechanized force operating there. The logistics will be daunting, to be sure, since American mechanized forces have a voracious appetite for fuel and ammunition. In the worst case, forces and supplies will have to be airlifted into the theater, which will slow the deployment and stretch our limited lift resources to the breaking point. There is reason to hope, however, that the neighboring regimes in Pakistan and even perhaps Uzbekistan will agree to cooperate with us at least to the extent of allowing us to establish logistics bases and supply routes through their territory - after all, both of those secular Sunni states are seriously threatened both by bin Laden and by the Taliban. It is also true, of course, that bin Laden's supporters in Pakistan are strong, so the United States will have to work hard to persuade the Pakistani leadership that America is serious about destroying bin Laden and that their own best interests run with ours.

The cities once seized and relief efforts put in train, it will probably be necessary to move into the countryside to control the guerrilla warfare that the Taliban will no doubt unleash in the face of our assault. This sort of warfare is extremely challenging, and rapid victory is not to be expected. Even here, however, there is considerable room for hope that we could improve over the Soviet performance. First, as noted above, the United States will not suffer from any of the most significant failings that handicapped the Soviet effort. Second, the United States should aggressively support the internal opposition to the Taliban.

Unfortunately, the most effective leader of anti-Taliban forces - Ahmed Shah Massoud, the "Lion of the Panjshir," a former mujahedin commander against the Soviets - is now dead, assassinated earlier this month by bin Laden. But the northern coalition that includes his supporters and others opposed to the Taliban remains. Afghanistan is by no means united under the Taliban. Even under the impact of the horrific attacks the Soviets launched on the countryside, the Afghan resistance was riven with factional jealousies that occasionally blew up into open conflict. Our much less inhumane approach and the benefits we can offer to the Afghan people are likely to reignite latent resistance that has been beaten down by the Taliban's apparent ascendancy, especially if we provide effective aid to the internal opposition forces already in the field.

None of which is to say that the war will be easy or short. What is more, America's resources will be stretched to their limits just in this theater. Afghanistan is a country that must be won by units like the 101st Air Assault Division that rely on helicopter transports for movement and helicopter gunships for fire support. We have only one such division, although the 82nd Airborne Division, the 25th Light Infantry Division, and the 10th Mountain Division come close in capabilities. To fight and win this war while maintaining our deterrent capabilities in other theaters, not to mention other campaigns that may need to be fought against terrorists and the countries who harbor them, will require a substantial increase in the active duty armed forces. Nor will the United States be able to avoid or delay the fundamental reequipment and reorganization of the armed forces necessary to bring us fully into the information age. A substantial increase in the defense budget will, without doubt, be essential.

It is a price well worth paying. The preparations we make will indicate to would-be aggressors and terrorists our determination to oppose and destroy them, and the actions that we take will not only strike the targets at which they are aimed, but will deter other threats of which we are not even aware. We have become accustomed over the past decade to thinking on a very small scale about military operations and defense budgets, and that constrains our view. It was hard to fight World War II, it was hard to fight Korea. If you had asked a strategist in 1939 about American prospects in a war against Germany, the response would have been "awful." Many people in the late 1940s doubted that America could summon the resolve to oppose the Soviet Union for as long as it would take to win. Those who have doubted America's ability to stay the course and fight the hard fights have almost always been wrong. It is up to the current generation to show itself worthy.

Frederick W. Kagan wrote this piece for the Weekly Standard. . Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, The Weekly Standard.