October 28, 2001

October 28, 2001 | Commentary on

Two Fronts: Unconventional Forces For an Unconventional War

America's forces may have been set up to fight conventional wars, but they seem to have adjusted well so far to war as we know it in the 21st century.

Against a faceless enemy in an unfamiliar land, American military forces are fighting a new form of warfare in unconventional ways. Today, the United States and its allies are using Special Operations forces, primarily designed to support a conventional war (large armies of tanks, infantry and artillery maneuvering on a battlefield supported by air and naval power), at the point of attack. So far, the Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Marine reconnaissance units and commandos have performed exceptionally well at this form of 21st century warfare.

This war cannot be won from the air.

The United States and its allies still need to control the airspace over Afghanistan to guarantee freedom of movement for reconnaissance, for air support of ground actions, and to attack Taliban targets; however, victory will not come from the sky. Only "boots on the ground" -- Rangers, SEALs, Marines or allied ground forces -- can ultimately destroy Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network.

But "boots on the ground" does not mean that large conventional armies, like those used to expel Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, would be effective. Recent history (the Soviet experience from 1979 to 1989) and ancient history demonstrate that unconventional operations are more effective in Afghanistan, where the population is hostile to foreigners, especially Westerners, and the terrain and weather favor the local Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Furthermore, United States forces cannot solely depend on friendly (or even mildly sympathetic) Afghan forces to designate targets or provide all the intelligence and reconnaissance. There must be American or allied "eyes on the target" to ensure that friendly forces are not drawn into an ambush, or that some feuding tribesman doesn't send a dynamite-strapped foot soldier, the Taliban version of the "smart bomb," against a rival group.

While this is a new form of warfare, Americans should take some comfort in the knowledge that since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, U.S. military planners and strategists at War Colleges and in military journals have been thinking about how to fight in these situations. There is an established, albeit untested, doctrine on "how to fight" in these situations that incorporates the lessons of Somalia, Chechnya and the Balkans.

There is no traditional "lodgment area," a place where U.S. forces can establish large bases from which to operate and manage supplies and repairs. Instead, the strength of American technology and the ability to project power at great distances are critical factors in the prosecution of this war.

Americans are in Pakistan at the invitation of the government of President Pervez Musharraf. But he doesn't have the full support of his own military, and bin Laden may be more popular with some of the rank and file of the Pakistani population than Musharraf. And even in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, from which some U.S. and allied forces operate, the predominantly Islamic population is not happy that non-Muslim Westerners, or "infidels," are waging war against other believers of Islam.

For these reasons, it would be a mistake to send in large numbers of American ground forces in an attempt to occupy and hold large areas of territory in Afghanistan, or to attempt to fight house-to-house and door-to-door in Afghanistan's cities. In fact, the debate over whether to go into cities in combat raged in American military circles in the late 1990s. For the most part, U.S. Marine Corps strategists argued for fighting in the cities, while many U.S. Army strategists argued that cities should be treated like other forms of complex terrain in war -- they should be bypassed and cut off or surrounded.

To avoid excessive casualties, cities should be cut off from food, water and power, and the political leadership of the country (or city) should be cut off from communication with the rest of the populace, with provisions for innocent civilians to escape and find refuge elsewhere. And Americans don't have to be the ones who surround the cities; forces of the Northern Alliance already have initiated plans to surround Kabul. Americans, meanwhile, can carry out traditional special operations missions: long-range reconnaissance, sniper operations, ambushes of enemy forces and enemy commanders, capturing prisoners of war to gain information, and lightning-fast raids, like the one conducted last week by U.S. Army Rangers against a Taliban leadership compound.

With better control of the ground and command of the air, Americans could ensure that relief convoys taking food and medicine to refugees are not subject to accidental air attack, or even take charge of food supplies, keeping them safe in response to fears that the Taliban intend to poison food drops and blame it on the Americans. And the convoys can be protected from enemy forces with air cover.

There are some 45,000 Special Operations Forces available to the United States, including those in the Reserves and National Guard. But not all of them are involved in the war. In fact, in this instance, the total number of troops being used is secret. This is done not only to confuse the enemy, but also to shield cooperating Islamic governments like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from criticism by their own people, some of whom are sympathetic to al-Qaeda terrorists and the radical Islamic Taliban.

Secrecy is also needed to ensure that vital intelligence sources or conduits don't dry up. Meanwhile, since there are probably still al-Qaeda cells operating clandestinely in the United States, secrecy helps to protect the families (and home bases) of the deployed forces from terrorist attack.

At the same time, while the war on terrorism is being fought, the threat of a conventional war in Korea, or again with Iraq, remains a distinct possibility. And only a short six months ago, China held a U.S. aircraft crew hostage for two weeks claiming that the United States had no right to fly over international airspace in the western Pacific.

The number of aircraft involved in the Afghan theater varies from day to day, with some coming from the United States or overseas bases, and others deployed on three Navy aircraft carriers. For America's enemies, now is the right time to begin a conflict or to engage in activities that the United States opposes, like weapons proliferation.

Another dimension that this new war requires is non-military operations outside the theater of conflict. In conventional warfare the battleground is generally well defined, the war is fought against another nation or group of nations, and enemy forces can be identified with reasonable accuracy.

The war on terrorism requires the United States and its allies to fight what is called a "non-state actor." The enemy has small but deadly cells all around the world, even if its main support is from the Taliban theocracy that claims to govern Afghanistan. The enemy recruits its soldiers from a variety of nations, but has no nation state, and, in this instance, the enemy is motivated by a religious zeal that seeks death as a way of redemption.

Today, there are some Army Special Forces personnel and Navy SEALs in the Philippines helping the government there deal with Abu Sayyef, a terrorist group that has links to al-Qaeda. Therefore, the war that is going on resembles the "drug war" that the United States fought (and is fighting) in Latin America in some ways: an ill-defined force operates globally with a few identifiable base areas, using decidedly unmilitary means of communication and transportation and supplied with huge amounts of money.

Some of the lessons learned in the "drug war" apply in the war on terrorism. Going after the financial sources of the terrorist organization is as important as killing members of the terrorist cells. Gathering intelligence from a variety of sources, spies in the enemy organization, cooperation with sympathetic intelligence services, satellite imagery and air reconnaissance, and intercepting enemy communications are critical to fighting the war. Here too, as in direct combat, the better the knowledge of the enemy and the battlefield, the more effective our forces can be.

Finally, it is important, perhaps vital, that the U.S. actions in this war on terrorism be defined in military terms and not political terms. This war is a military action to accomplish political aims -- the safety of American citizens in their homeland from attack by terrorists. But the ambush of enemy leaders by U.S. Special Operation Forces is not the same as political assassination. And the use of snipers is not a "targeted killing." Those are political acts. Raids and ambushes are military missions.

And Americans should realize that U.S. forces are carrying out their operations according to the established laws of war. Prisoners of war are not being tortured or mistreated, the civilian populace is not targeted, and U.S. forces are not using outlawed biological or chemical agents.

All that said, this is a war, not a police raid, and the object is to destroy the enemy and his capacity to resist. Enemy fighters will be killed, Americans will die in combat, and, regrettably, there will be mistakes that may lead to civilian casualties.

This is a just war, however, in defense of the United States, of democracy and the freedom to live and worship as one pleases without interfering in the life of another. It is a war being fought against a group of people who have taken it upon themselves to wipe out anyone who does not worship God in the way that they do. And those in the United States who think they can reason or bargain with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorists are dooming future Americans to the same fate as those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001.

Larry Wortzel is a defense and foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. He served in the U.S. military for 32 years, retiring as an Army colonel. He was a Ranger and parachutist who spent the early part of his military career in light infantry units before becoming a military intelligence officer.

About the Author

Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

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