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RESPONSE TO TERROR | IN THE BATTLE ZONE

Blended Tactics Paved Way for Sudden Collapse

Afghanistan: Air power aided by ground forces inflicted a series of pinpricks that destroyed enemy's ability to fight, experts say.

November 15, 2001|PAUL WATSON and RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KABUL, Afghanistan — Amid the tumult of war, the scorched shell of a pickup truck in a downtown intersection attracted only passing attention. Yet the truck, and the grisly remains of its occupants, suggest part of the answer to tantalizing questions:

How, after weeks of seemingly limited progress, did U.S. forces and the opposition Northern Alliance achieve a shattering breakthrough that almost overnight rewrote the military map of this troubled land?

Was the Taliban regime a paper tiger all along, or has the United States developed highly effective new tactics to fight so-called low-intensity conflicts in places such as Afghanistan?

And if so, what do the triumphs this week portend for the remainder of the U.S. war against terrorism?

The pickup truck in Kabul had been demolished by a "smart bomb." The torn military garb and mangled weapons of its riders left no doubt it had been carrying Taliban fighters. But how had an American pilot, flying high above the city, been able to distinguish this truck from scores of identical vehicles used by civilians?

The answer, as best as it can be reconstructed, appears to be that the pilot had help--friendly eyes on the ground, most likely a special forces infiltrator who spotted the passing soldiers and guided the ordnance to its target.

That, according to analysts inside and outside the U.S. military, represents in microcosm how the breakthrough was achieved: a textbook application of combined operations that highlights the Pentagon's ability to fuse air and ground operations.

Air power, special forces, covert operations, intelligence and local allies were blended using a formula developed during conflicts in the Persian Gulf, Kosovo and elsewhere. Though it starts slowly and progress is hard to measure from the outside, the approach offers the possibility of hollowing out an enemy force, leaving a front-line shell that cannot be reinforced or sustained once a ground offensive begins.

Specifically, heavier-than-ever use of smart bombs and missiles, guided by special forces units able to infiltrate even a Taliban stronghold such as Kabul and to supply precise, real-time target information, made air power a devastating weapon.

Equally important: When it came time for the ground offensive, U.S. military advisors, benefiting from lessons learned as far back as Vietnam, had cajoled fractious members of the Northern Alliance into cooperating.

And the precise blend of tactics was tailored to the particular vulnerabilities of this foe, and the unique characteristics that have distinguished warfare in Afghanistan for decades, if not centuries--especially the tradition of local warlords shifting their loyalties to the winner of the moment.

"The hallmark of air power is no longer Vietnam. It's the Gulf War and Kosovo," said military analyst William M. Arkin. "The only way to look at air power now is as a very precise and coercive instrument.

"It may not work on its own, and it may not be able to give us everything we want," he added. "But the dominating factor in those wars and in this war has been air power."

What remains to be seen, Arkin and others hasten to add, is whether this week's triumph leaves the U.S. in a better or worse position to pursue its ultimate goal: eradicating Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

"When you've got two players, not always can you expect things to go the way one side wants them to go. The other guy gets to play too," one military analyst said Wednesday, requesting anonymity because of his ties to the Defense Department.

Whatever the future brings, events of the past few days suggest that skeptics may have underestimated what the U.S. military can do, given the right circumstances.

Less than a week ago, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, was greeted with something close to derision at a news conference when he expressed satisfaction with how the war was progressing.

One questioner baldly suggested that Franks had failed to make his case with the American people and compared him unfavorably with the commander of Desert Storm.

"What you hear," the questioner declared, "is, 'Tommy Franks is no Norman Schwarzkopf.' "

That early criticism was shared by some Afghans on both sides of the conflict.

On a night of particularly heavy attacks on Kabul early in the air war, residents of the Lowaye Babajan district in the city's west end counted at least 35 explosions in the neighborhood. Alas, they said, the vaunted American bombs hit only wreckage--a handful of previously destroyed tanks and piles of rusting military junk.

The early assessments of Northern Alliance commanders were equally negative: The Americans were wasting time striking and restriking targets far from the front lines.

Moreover, when the focus shifted to the Taliban forces around the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and other strategic points, alliance commanders lectured visitors on the shortcomings of U.S. tactics.

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