U.S. shifting toward strategy of limited military response

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This may be good news, as it reduces the potential for cascading into World War III. But what will happen if the Afghans do unite in opposition as feared?

Hyperlink: http://www0.mercurycenter.com/premium/nation/docs/military28.htm

Published Friday, Sept. 28, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

U.S. shifting toward strategy of limited military response


BY TOM INFIELD, Mercury News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration signaled this week that its military moves in Afghanistan may be more limited than President Bush initially led many Americans to believe. Officials who requested anonymity said that in planning the fight against the elusive Osama bin Laden and his followers in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is departing from the military doctrine of overwhelming force that has dominated U.S. strategy and tactics since the Civil War. The evolving military strategy includes elements of medieval siege warfare and frontier cavalry raids, directed by high-tech intelligence and communications gear and backed by American air power.

``Our core competencies are high tech and great communications and stealth, the aircraft,'' Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Wednesday aboard a plane returning from a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Belgium. ``Their core competencies, right at the top of the list, are hiding and deception.'' Rather than sending large forces into Afghanistan's rugged mountains, where first British and later Soviet troops were suckered into ambushes, the United States aims to cut off bin Laden's ability to communicate with his followers and his sources of money and supplies. Then it will use pilotless drones, surveillance planes and commando teams to try to spot his forces whenever they attempt to move, and to strike them with aircraft circling overhead like birds of prey. That won't be easy: Bin Laden's foot soldiers are adept at hiding, often among civilians. Finally, teams of U.S. and British special forces will begin moving into bin Laden's strongholds, mostly in southeastern Afghanistan. Some plans, one official said, call for strikes from all directions, not just from the north, where American and British forces already are using the territory controlled by the United Front opposition to Afghanistan's Taliban government.

A clandestine struggle ``This isn't going to have the kind of flashy visual images that one might expect in a wartime confrontation,'' said Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of counterterrorism operations at the CIA. ``This is a dark, clandestine struggle.'' To conduct such a campaign, which officials warn is likely to be long, the U.S. military first needs to be able to operate freely in the air.

Some administration officials hope Taliban military officers distance themselves from bin Laden, who is a native of Saudi Arabia, not an Afghan, instead of fighting to protect him. But a former Afghan air force pilot who defected to Pakistan in the 1980s with a Soviet MiG fighter said in an interview with Knight Ridder this week that all Afghans would unite against a new invader. ``Even the people who don't like the Taliban will be standing with the Taliban if the American attacks,'' said the former pilot, who was in the United States. He asked that his name not be used. The ex-pilot predicted that the Afghan air force, which has been engaged in warfare of one kind or another for two decades, would put up stiff resistance to U.S. fighters and bombers. The Afghans' planes are old -- mostly Soviet MiG-21s and Su-22s -- but their pilots are experienced and professional, he said. If they did not think they could bring down American aircraft in aerial combat, they would crash their planes into U.S. installations in suicide dives, he said. If the Afghan military sticks with bin Laden, as many U.S. officials also expect, military action could begin in earnest with what's called a SEAD campaign, for Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, aimed at the Taliban's ragtag air force and its anti-aircraft missiles and artillery. The first wave might consist of cruise missiles fired from as many as four aircraft carrier battle groups in the Arabian Sea and from big B-52 bombers now based on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. On their heels, the Air Force could send stealthy F-117 fighter-bombers and B-2 heavy bombers, which can take off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, hit targets halfway around the world and return, refueling in midair several times.

Missiles cause concern No matter how effective an SEAD campaign was, the Taliban and bin Laden would still have some anti-aircraft artillery and as many as 200 of the shoulder-fired Stinger missiles that proved deadly against the Soviets after the CIA grudgingly began supplying them to the Afghans. It's not clear how well the Stingers would work after being kept in caves and huts for more than a decade, but the Afghans also have some old Soviet bloc SA-7 and British Blowpipe missiles, and Pentagon planners say they take that threat seriously.

For the next phase of the campaign -- sweeping the mountaintops of bin Laden's men and Taliban troops and pouncing on any who move -- military planners could use the 225 attack planes aboard three aircraft carriers in the region. The U.S. Air Force has planes based in Kuwait and perhaps elsewhere. Army and Marine Apache attack helicopters and Air Force AC-130 gunships also could join in the hunt.

On the ground, the assault is likely to involve secret operations by special-forces soldiers from the United States and Britain rather than larger conventional forces, analysts say. ``In my opinion, the military action is going to be less dramatic and less extensive'' than the non-military actions the United States is already taking, said Thomas A. Keaney, the executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Anthony Cordesman, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private foreign-policy research group in Washington, said special forces may ``seize or kill'' terrorists in Afghanistan. They may also be sent in to direct cruise missiles and aircraft with more precision than the 1998 cruise-missile attacks that were launched after bin Laden's operatives bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Any commando missions would be extremely dangerous, conducted on terrain better known to the enemy and strewed with land mines, and success is likely to require luck as well as skill. But analysts say George Washington's ``fight and run away'' tactics of the American Revolution are likely to serve the United States better in Afghanistan than the big frontal assaults of the Civil War or the Persian Gulf War.

At least 5,000 U.S. ground soldiers are stationed in Kuwait, and two Marine expeditionary units, each with 2,100 Marines, will be in the region soon. An additional 20,000 British soldiers are nearby, participating in a military exercise in Oman. But except for the stateside call-up of several thousand more National Guard soldiers this week, the armed services have reported no significant additional deployments since Saturday. And only small pieces of the force already arrayed in Central Asia are likely to take part in an attack, which military and strategic analysts say may not be imminent.

A delicate balance In fact, sending heavy ground forces, or even relying on a massive, gulf war-style aerial bombardment, could backfire:

- Moderate countries in the region -- Saudi Arabia and Pakistan among them -- worry that a large Western military presence on Afghan soil would stir opposition to their own governments. Bush has succeeded in rallying support from most nations in the region, including Russia. But that support could evaporate if military operations escalated into massive bombing or a ground war.

- Putting large numbers of soldiers in Afghanistan would involve the United States in the muck of Afghan politics. Bush at one point said a U.S.-led coalition might also seek to oust the Taliban. But he appears to have backed away from that as a military objective. Ehsan Ahrari, a professor at the U.S. military's Joint Forces Staff College, suggested that for both military and political purposes, the United States should launch airstrikes only from outside Afghanistan. He said it should not try to set up a base inside the country. He emphasized that he was giving his own opinion, not that of the college or anyone in the military.

- Afghanistan has as many as seven air bases with runways capable of handling the heavy cargo airplanes that the United States may want to ferry in and out of the fighting area, Ahrari said. But he said such an air base would require heavy defenses. Politically, he said, its presence could incite radical Islamist opposition in other nations.

``I think it can't be stressed enough that everybody who is waiting for military action . . . needs to rethink this thing,'' Wolfowitz said Wednesday at the NATO meeting. Army Gen. Henry Shelton, the retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested at a Pentagon briefing Thursday that diplomatic and intelligence activities would play as big a role as military might. ``Not overreacting . . . with the military, in my opinion, is the right thing to do,'' he said. Copyright, 2001 The Mercury News, Fair Use for Research and Educational Purposes Only

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), September 28, 2001

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