The U.S. Military Campaign in Afghanistan

The Method

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(One Analyst's Suggestions) Note: These nodes were in preparation several days before the U.S.-led air campaign began on October 6th. As a result, several of my assumptions and conclusions are fairly dramatically out of whack with reality. I offer them in their original form, however, as an example of a 'back of the envelope' study of a warfighting problem.

-The Custodian

There is no doubt that the policymakers of the Coalition nations (I just love how they resurrected that word, a nod no doubt to Daddy Bush) are even more mind-numbingly informed that you have been if you've read my past few nodes and managed to stay awake. The question is not then whether they know what they have, where they're going or why, but rather do they have a goal and a plan? Why and how are probably the most important two; I remain uncomfortable with the lack of discussion of either in public forums here in the U.S.

For the purposes of this analysis, I will conjure up a set of goals and assume them to be realistic. If you disagree with them, that's fine; the rest of this paper may not mean much to you. They are, from most general to most specific:

  • Ensure the security of the United States and its citizens
  • Ensure the security of the armed forces of the United States
  • this by: Reducing the probability of the attempt or success of large-scale, preplanned terrorist actions against the U.S. and its troops
  • In this particular case, reduce the threat posed by the Al-Qaeda network and whichever other networks were involved in the 9/11 attacks
  • this by: Cutting off resources and havens to such networks and persons, and
  • Capturing or killing principal members of these groups to lessen the threat they pose
  • ...and especially: the leadership of these movements, which have been shown in the past to be fairly 'top down' phenomena - mass mobilization by a fringe elite. In short: Get bin Laden and his pals.

That's not a short list. Nor is it an easy one. However, if the chain is set out in advance in explicit detail, it will provide a framework of order and clarity that will be sorely needed later, when troops in the field may find themselves unsure of what they're doing there, or U.S. citizens begin to wonder why their sons and daughters are overseas doing what must be considered inside a society terrible and forbidden, evil things. By this latter, of course, I refer to what the primary (I won't go so far as to say sole, but close) job of the Armed Forces of the United States. They are very, very simple to describe. Ready? Repeat after me. The U.S. military's raison d'être is embodied in its two tasks:

  1. Breaking things*, and
  2. Killing people.

Despite your personal preferences as to the validity of this statement, I must say that as far as I can tell, that is what the military itself believes its role to be; it is what the founders of our nation believed the military's role to be, and it should be what our leaders' idea of its role is. Our nation's founders were so sure of this that they wrote measures into our Constitution that make it extremely difficult to maintain standing forces, for fear that they would be used by a tyrannical Federal Government against its own states and citizens. Some argue that has already happened; however, I would simply say that as the world goes, the United States has what I believe to be the world's most loyal and controlled military, if you measure loyalty and control by their adherence to the orders given them by the civilian authorities.

Onward. So, if the military's main task is breaking things and killing people, which things should we break, and which people should we kill? This prompts us to flesh out the list of goals a bit. Let's work backwards, this time.

Get bin Laden and associates
If the Taliban have not handed bin Laden over to a coalition nation by the time military action starts, it is highly likely that either a) they will choose to suffer destruction in an attempt to incite Muslims worldwide, or b) (more likely) they really have no control over his movements whatsoever, if even knowledge of his whereabouts. I'm inclined to believe the latter. Osama bin Laden has been cited as providing training for members of the Taliban militia in the camps he and his associates operate for al-Qaeda; he may (or may not) control a great deal of money, and he commands the personal loyalty of a relatively capable set of paramilitary followers. While they may not be regular military, the Taliban themselves rely on local thuggery rather than centrally-organized military forces by necessity, and going up against bin Laden's group would not be high on their list of Things To Do This Winter.

I will presume that the U.S. and its partner nations have a list of people they would like detained and extradited (since Presidential Order prevents the active targeting of foreign governor/rulers for assassination). In addition, there is likely a list of known and/or suspected training and support facilities inside Afghanistan which would be the target of any air campaign.

The problem with this as a specific goal (and the Bush administration has backed itself into doing this, or 'failing,' by their own statements in the media) is that it will be difficult to achieve at all, probably impossible without ground forces, and it will be quite easy to succeed in a number of ways but still fail in these the declared goals.

Assuming the U.S. does manage to capture bin Laden, it may be possible to defuse the entire situation by having him tried, if not in the U.S. under open press, then in a relatively non-aligned state (if such can be found). The U.S. is unlikely to settle for this, however. If bin Laden dies before, while or after being captured, the U.S. risks martyring him to all those Muslims who look to him and that 'fringe' of organizers for purpose and direction.

No matter what happens, the U.S. must be extremely careful how it treats the civilian population of Afghanistan. These folk have been ill-used by one superpower already in the past twenty years. The U.S., for its part, has declared that its quarrel is with the narrow leadership, not the people of Afghanistan. No doubt memories and current images of the Palestinian Intifadah weigh heavily on many minds at the moment.

So, we have two relatively opposite goals. 'Getting' bin Laden and company as well as their installations will require that the U.S. break things (a lot of things) and kill people. However, by the same token, the U.S. does wish to acquire and retain the goodwill or at least indifference of the population, who after all are part of the pool from which the next generation of hijackers and suicide bombers will be recruited. Breaking things and killing people, especially a people who have spent so long in profound deprivation and suffering, are not ways to win over a society.

This is the core of the method I propose. The problem the United States has always faced is that it typically only makes its power, size and resources visible overseas to the average man in a negative fashion. U.S. forces show up, American bombers raze areas around the world for various reasons, American made or paid-for weapons in local hands kill, and so on - all the while the U.S. is busily pushing high-octane visions of our resource-rich and leisure-geared lifestyle out around the planet by means of MTV, films, and other popular media. Even American journalists reinforce this; as can be seen in local media, Americans have now begun toting around portable satellite communications uplinks with them, along with cameras, microphones, translation gear, PDAs, GPS receivers, and all the myriad of tools a working news team keeps handy.

I'm not making any value statement here as to the 'rightness' or 'wrongness' of this. It's a fact of life. The point is that when every member of the U.S. armed forces and every journalist carries, for example, a GPS receiver whose cost is an order of magnitude higher than the per capita GNP of the country they are in, it is very easy to breed resentment.

I propose, then, a Push/Pull War. On the one hand, pursue the traditional American means of coercion and persuasion; employ the bombers and strike fighters, the troops, the special forces, and the Navy as we always have. Pursue bin Laden and company around the countryside in constant raiding without occupation; use diplomacy and bribes if necessary to ensure that the border of Afghanistan remains sealed. This is the 'Push'.

On the other hand, offer what we can of America to those people whose only crime is that of the bad luck of being trapped in the arena in which we have the resources and will to go deal death and destruction in. (Note: The U.S. is, in fact, performing relief airdrops; however, it is widely seen to be a completely ineffective move on the ground, being done merely for propaganda. I agree; two C-17's a day of HDRs doesn't sound like much of a commitment when compared to the $30 million in Tomahawks we seem happy to rain down on them every couple of days!)

If we are serious about sparing no expense to increase our security and punish those responsible, I propose we put up or shut up. The U.S. should fund and take the lead in building semi-permanent refugee installations around the borders of Afghanistan - and if ground ops take place, within the country itself. It would probably be impossible to provide housing for so many people, but the U.S. should do its best to ensure that enclaves are set up that can provide basic services to as much of the population as possible. The procedure would be as follows: The U.S. would pick a site (ideally a set of sites), and would construct on that site the following:

Then announce to all of the local populace that the U.S. has no quarrel with them at all. Make it clear that unfortunately, some in their country have done us harm, and we will punish those responsible; however, that list is short and public, and we have no wish to harm any of the local inhabitants while we do this.

Since the U.S. may be forced into ground operations to capture bin Laden and company, and since said ground operations (due to the problems of importing armor as described in The Means) may require massive expenditures of firepower in the areas of operation, we would like all residents of the area to relocate temporarily to these sites, where we will undertake to do our level best to provide them with as many of the comforts of our nation as we can. We will heal their sick, and school their children; we will provide food, water, and most important, shelter. Not in the physical sense, although of course tents wouldn't be that hard to acquire; more importantly, in the sense of security.

The cardinal rule would be that any Afghan civilian would have the right to enter the encampment, which would be protected by U.S. and coalition military stationed on the outside, and partake of anything offered therein. However, there would be no weapons of any kind allowed in the camp (traditional blades would probably have to be allowed, or some special provision made for their safekeeping). Anyone entering the camps would be permitted to leave and enter again at will, as long as the rules were obeyed: No weapons, and no violence or intimidation. In essence, we would be providing a 'safe zone' for the people of Afghanistan. Our goal would be to provide them with as much as possible in compensation for the hell we're going to have to visit on parts of their country. Make no mistake, demonstrations of what that means should be available and ample!

Inside the camp, bring in Western volunteers, teachers, doctors, counselors, and the like. Offer to provide transport and like access for the same from any Muslim group that would care to help. Ensure that the press is free to roam, and make the entire operation as transparent as possible. Put it on CNN and Al-Jazeera; put webcams in, for pete's sake. The goal is for the world (especially that part of it that is itching to use this crisis as ammunition for anti-American vitriol to attract followers) to be unable to credibly say that the U.S. is heartlessly bombing civilians.

One of the first negative associations that leaps to mind with this plan is the word 'Vietnamization', or 'strategic hamlets.' In this plan, the U.S. hoped to spread South Vietnamese and U.S. influence and security by forcibly relocating local populations into central village areas where they could be controlled. This is not the goal. The U.S. should make abundantly clear that it does not intend to operate these facilities forever; we are in their country to do a necessary but unfortunate task, and when it is done, we will leave. If requested, we will give serious thought to making the core facilities of each site (water, hospital, school, roads, electricity) a fixed installation before we leave, allowing them to be used as the central components of settlements by the Afghans. This would be contingent on their wishes; if they didn't want us to, we would also be happy to bulldoze the sites upon our departure.

Another objection to this plan is that it might give the impression that all one needs to do to extract resources from the U.S. is have a sacrificial small group enact terror against us. The means of preventing this line of thinking lie in the pursuit of bin Laden and company. It must be abundantly clear that those people we do have a quarrel with are going to suffer; also, the country as a whole will take damage that would otherwise have been avoided. The sites are not a bribe, but an attempt to mitigate a necessary harm that the U.S. has to do their homeland due to the actions of a few.

I have been told by some I have aired this to that there is the possibility that the terrorists (or the local Taliban paramilitary, who aren't on any watch list) would naturally attempt to infiltrate the camps, if for no other reason than to partake of the offered services. This is true! However, this is to our advantage; we have no problem accepting pointing fingers from local civilians who (while inside the camp) have nothing to fear from these infiltrators. Also, once they are inside the camp, with no weapons, finding and separating them becomes purely a law-enforcement problem, as opposed to a military one. We have more experience in coping with problems of that nature in groups; send police, military police, FBI, and the like who have experience dealing with large groups of divisive, volatile and unhappy people.

The safety of the camps is key. Terrorists will see them as natural targets, to blame the U.S. for any incidents that occur inside. U.S. forces should be deployed around the area to defend it from any incursion; if ground troops are being used in pursuit of suspected terrorists, they can be based near to these installations so that their garrison security encompasses at least the approaches to the aid sites. It is important to convey to the Afghans the nature of the relationship between the U.S. people and the U.S. military - that is, the military works for us, not the other way around. We can keep them out of the camps but rely on them to protect the people and installations contained there. Surely, small groups of soldiers and the like should be allowed into the camp whenever they wish, but should (ideally) be held to the same 'no weapons' policy as the local peoples. The only armaments inside should be held by designated police units, and should include as much non-lethal force as possible. The soldiers aren't far if they're needed, but garrisoning them outside the emplacement would contribute greatly to lessening the psychological intrusion of their presence.

Above all, humanize the U.S. Send high school students to talk in the schools and meet Afghan children. Emphasize that any Afghan should feel able to stop personnel if they have a problem and ask for help. This would probably involve the creation of 'roving Ombudsmen,' likely local due to language skill requirements, in obvious dress. Such must be carefully monitored, and any attempt to abuse such positions should be visibly and swiftly met with punishment - ideally, with the participation of the local citizens.

In any case, do everything possible to encourage human ties between Westerners and the Afghan peoples. Friendships, acquaintances, pen pals, anything; these are the ties that will go furthest towards characterizing the U.S. as a distant friend, or just another group of people, rather than a distant, unitary oppressor.

The cost of this, of course, will be staggering. However, Congress appears quite eager to spend money on the whole affair, and I suspect (but have not shown) that the cost of each of these encampments would pale next to the cost of moving and operating a U.S. armor division in the same location. I do intend to study the logistical requirements of the two types of action.

It would provide a means for allied nations who do not wish to (or cannot) participate militarily to assist. Since the U.S. military would not be inside the facilities in force in any case, they would not be 'freeing up' US military assets with their participation. All the aid channels into the area, which now are decrying the U.S. 'isolation' of Afghanistan, would be able to practice their assistance under the full protection of multiple nations' forces, backed by U.S. money. Local nations would be most profitably drawn in to the enterprise; if Iranian civilians or government personnel, for example, could be enticed into participating, it would provide U.S./Iran relations with some sort of boost - and such can't hurt.

The economic impact would probably be positive as well. Much of the raw supplies needed for this effort would (to save transportation) be purchased as close to the area as possible. While Afghanistan doesn't have the resources to supply its own people, much less in this less efficient fashion, local states with surpluses could profit greatly.

To return to the military side, the U.S. and Allied forces should go to great lengths to avoid the notion that they are 'occupying' the country. Look where that got everyone else who tried it! Rather, they should be used for constant 'raiding' or herding operations in an attempt to isolate and capture those persons on the 'watch list.' Their quarry disarming and entering the camps would be a perfectly acceptable result - here is a perfect venue for the vaunted face-recognition technology that civil libertarians (correctly, in my mind) object to so strongly when placed in U.S. public places. We cannot fall into the mindset that the aid sites are 'America' in any way; they are places of comfort and sustenance, but we are not there to impose our notion of civil society on the locale. We are there to capture a set of people and destroy a certain type of site, countrywide. That is the goal. The sites are one method of allowing us to do this with minimal harm to the civilians who inhabit those areas.

In aid of that, it will be difficult to maintain aplomb in the face of people whose homes and cities your forces may have just flattened in pursuit of Al-Qaeda; however, we must keep firmly in mind the alternative - that we would do so with the residents either still there or starving in the countryside. If they object, then it is quite reasonable to offer them the option of leaving the site.

So, how to carry this out? Light, highly mobile infantry forces, backed by massive fire support, appear to be the best answer. There are no targets for large armor formations, and plenty of rocks for guerrillas with ATGMs to hide behind. These light forces must be constantly reminded that they are not there to 'impose order' or 'nation-build.' They are there to perform their Primary task (remember, breaking things and killing people) in pursuit of a specific goal. Everything else going on is secondary.

If, of course, the people of Afghanistan want to ask the international community for help rebuilding, the aid sites offer that line of communication. That, however, is not the task of the U.S. forces in-country, and they should not waste effort, time or concern on it.

The forces necessary would not be small. At the very least, two to three divisions of light infantry both for garrison and for raiding purposes, along with a preponderance of the available attack and transport rotorcraft (AH-64E Apaches, Blackhawks, etc.) as well as as much artillery as can be safeguarded and supplied.

Although it will be difficult, there should be some heavy weapons available for reinforcement. Perhaps a brigade or ACR of heavy forces, in case there is a need to reduce urban or fortified terrain. It should be recalled, however, that to the mujahedin a tank is equivalent to a target, and appropriate care must be exercised in deploying armor.

The Special Forces would continue likely along the lines they are operating on already; reconnaissance, scouting, and information gathering. They would have backup available if needed, but would not be expected to fight infantry battles. The goal is to avoid the debacle seen in Mogadishu; if a coalition team is to go somewhere visibly, it should do so in force, and not hesitate to suppress the surroundings. Ideally, inhabitants could be warned and directed towards the aid sites, but no effort should be spared from protecting our forces.

Care must also be taken that the troops on the ground do not take up the notion that they are indefinitely deployed in an 'open-ended' strategy. At the outset, conditions for withdrawal should be laid out, as should the conditions to apply in case we are not successful in capturing bin Laden and company. We cannot go into combat (as Bush seems determined to do) with a mission statement of 'we win or else we fight forever.'

If, in some predetermined time, we are unable to neutralize those suspects we can identify, we should be prepared (and announce) that we will close our presence in Afghanistan by a systematic attempt to reduce the facilities available to the enemy before leaving. We would of course endeavor to avoid immediate civilian casualties; however, if necessary, we would pack up and resume aerial bombardment at a relatively constant rate, akin to the no-fly zones over Iraq, if necessary. Since this is not a desirable outcome, impress upon all concerned that a successful exit would be infinitely preferable!

In any case, this is the Push/Pull war. On the one hand, pursue those responsible with every means at our disposal, and do not shirk at punishment. On the other hand, such assistance as described above would go a long way towards neutralizing or erasing the anti-American sentiment, anger (and, no doubt, actions) which will come from a purely military response.

* Note: cordelia informs me, as an ex-member of the military, that I really should change 'breaking things' to 'blow shit up.' I retain the original form for those poor, deprived military souls who don't happen to have any C-4 or Octol or Tritonal available, but *still* need to smash up a barrier, and are thus forced to use, say, tanks. Those work great on buildings, too; if they're three stories or under just drive through them!

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