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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Afghanistan Yields Lessons for Pentagon's Next Targets

Military: Strategists study the campaign's successes and failures with eyes on new fronts.

January 21, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Like most Northern Alliance generals, Abdul Rashid Dostum's experience with Russian bombers during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s left him skeptical about calling for help from the air. You never knew when--or even where--the bombs would hit.

But on Nov. 8, he had no choice. It had been days since his rebels won their first victory in Mazar-i-Sharif, and he was watching Al Qaeda fighters amassing to retake the northern city of Kunduz.

"We need some air," he told a young U.S. Air Force special operations lieutenant.

Within 20 minutes, the eyes of Afghanistan's most feared warlord widened as a succession of fireballs erupted over an expanse the size of a football field, killing 259 Al Qaeda fighters and taking out a command center, artillery and armored vehicles.

"You've got to be kidding," Dostum said. He hadn't expected the strike for a day or more.

Such a precise, rapid air assault could not have occurred in any previous war. And not just because of the technology.

The episode encapsulates much of what went right for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, a combination of factors that had never been pulled together successfully before. This included a unique, on-the-ground collaboration between Americans and a disparate, half-trained collection of local fighters; nearly seamless ground-air teamwork, thanks in part to the debut of a laser range finder that let the troops below direct pilots to their targets; and an assortment of "smart" bombs and rejiggered "dumb" bombs that turned even the ungainly B-52 bomber into a virtual attack fighter.

As such, the tale is one of the success stories combat commanders have sent to the desk of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who will decide how the lessons of the Afghan war could be used on future fronts in the war on terrorism.

They will be balanced against the apparent failures--foremost, the escapes of hundreds or thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters due to the willingness of some members of the proxy army to look the other way. There were civilian casualties of the U.S. bombing, as in every war, touching off a fierce debate within the Pentagon over whether the military was reckless or actually so obsessed with avoiding "collateral damage" that it missed targets and prolonged the war. And there was the decision to make airlifted food rations the same color as cluster bombs.

All of it is being sifted for guidance on how and where to proceed next in the war on terrorism.

Somalia and Iraq, for example, offer the tantalizing prospect of enabling the Pentagon to reprise a combination of U.S. air power and proxy forces on the ground. Pentagon planners, fearful of reliving a failed 1993 mission in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed and one was dragged through the streets, are considering using Ethiopian rebels to help engage suspected Al Qaeda sites in the vast ungovernable expanses of Somalia.

The proxy strategy that gave Dostum access to a B-52 bomber was ill-formed when the campaign began. Defense officials feared the Northern Alliance could not keep up with the pace of U.S. air gains, and disaffected southern Pushtuns would refuse to raise arms against their ethnic tribesmen in a ground war led by northern ethnic rivals.

"It wasn't really totally thought out that they were going to become a surrogate army," said a senior Air Force official involved in crafting the campaign. "The strategy evolved as it came along. The idea of using the Northern Alliance as surrogates was always there, but the confidence level of whether they could do it wasn't always assured."

The strategy has its shortcomings. For one thing, local forces don't always have the same agenda. More than once, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has been reported to have negotiated a surrender with anti-Taliban forces only to escape. Some Pentagon officials have speculated that Afghan allies on the ground, more interested in control than capture, simply looked the other way as Omar and others fled.

In Iraq, the presumed proxy army would be the anti-government Kurds, who have spent much of their time fighting among themselves and lack the military might mustered by the Northern Alliance. The State Department recently rescinded funding for one major anti-government group, the Iraqi National Congress, over financial mismanagement.

"The model sort of falls apart," said Michele Fluornoy, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of "To Prevail," a book on the anti-terrorism campaign. "I don't think we can contemplate the use of the model in Iraq without the use of ground forces on a major scale."

A Proving Ground for Alliances, Weapons

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