Terrorists are more vulnerable than many believe

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10/09/2001 - Updated 04:04 AM ET Terrorists are more vulnerable than many believe

By John A. Warden

Most commentators have been telling us for weeks that the United States has little capability to fight a war against terrorism and that attacking Osama bin Laden and his supporters in Afghanistan will lead to the same disasters that befell the Soviets in the 1980s and the British a century earlier. They say this war is completely different from the Persian Gulf War and that our high-tech weapons will be of little value.

Happily, they are wrong on all counts.

A decade ago, the coalition formed by the earlier President Bush to fight the Gulf War made parallel, near-simultaneous attacks on Iraq as a system not just against its occupying army in Kuwait. The objective was to paralyze the system and bring the war to a rapid conclusion, with a minimum amount of bloodshed and long-lasting destruction. It worked.

The concept of system warfare, while new, is not difficult to understand. All organizations, including al-Qa'eda and the Taliban government, are systems with distinct interconnected elements. Think of five concentric circles: The innermost circle contains the leadership elements (bin Laden, Taliban leaders); the second circle from the inside contains process elements (such as communications and financing); the third circle contains infrastructure elements (airfields, training camps); the fourth contains demographic elements (Afghan civilians); and the fifth contains combatants (Taliban aircraft, bin Laden fighters).

This "Five Rings" methodology was the concept behind Gulf War targeting. Each of these rings contains a center of gravity that, if attacked, has a much greater impact on its parent system. To paralyze a system, it is important to attack its centers of gravity in parallel in other words, in a very compressed time frame. Not all attacks need be negative; we are "attacking" the civilian ring with food and other humanitarian assistance, for example.

If you try the old method of just hitting one or two things like bin Laden and a training camp the remainder of the system (the Taliban, al-Qa'eda) is still fully functional or quite capable of repairing itself and conducting counterattacks. Likewise, attacking the elements one at a time also gives the system ample opportunity to repair itself and to react. So, parallel attacks striking many centers of gravity across the entire system leads to a far higher probability of system paralysis and of success. It also is the least-expensive way to fight in terms of dollars and human lives on both sides.

Not surprisingly, the first overt military operations Sunday were focused against the terrorist systems in Afghanistan and the Taliban government that supports them. We saw attacks against centers of gravity in all five rings:

Ring 1: Defense ministry, other Taliban and terrorist headquarters.

Ring 2: Communications and possibly electrical power.

Ring 3: Airfields, terrorist camps.

Ring 4: Positive operations with food, medicine and information to support that large part of the Afghan population that has no love for either the Taliban or the terrorists that it supports.

Ring 5: Taliban aircraft and air-defense units and specific terrorist groups.

We should expect that in a short time, if not already, the Taliban will experience the start of paralysis, which will leave it in a perilous situation. That in turn will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Taliban to support or protect terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

At the same time, this paralysis paves the way for dissident groups such as the Northern Alliance to take actions that would have been nearly impossible when the Taliban was fully functioning, able to communicate effectively across a country the size of Texas and able to move with some rapidity to counter uprisings or trouble spots.

As the Taliban's paralysis spreads, the terrorist groups within Afghanistan will see their own mobility and communications severely restricted and begin to feel vulnerable and trapped.

Note that an attack on any single one of these elements would have produced little the Taliban and the terrorists could not have dealt with easily. For example, because the U.S. responses to the embassy bombings in Africa were single point a bin Laden camp and a plant in Sudan they had little prospect of doing anything but convincing the Taliban and the terrorists that they could attack the United States with impunity.

No longer. After the first set of U.S. attacks, it becomes easier and easier to focus on individual terrorist groups within Afghanistan and more and more difficult for those groups to escape, defend themselves or respond effectively. At the same time, it becomes much easier for the United States to conduct humanitarian missions to save lives and show the majority of the Afghan people that America is much more their friend than is either the Taliban or the plague of terrorists that it has nurtured.

At this moment, terrorists and their supporters around the world must be experiencing the first real anxiety of their modern history, for the United States and its allies have shown their ability to apply weapons ranging from the cyberworld to the stealth world against the terrorists' entire system and on a worldwide basis.

Conversely, Americans should feel better and safer than they have since Sept. 11. Their country is on the offense and that is by far the most effective defense against a virulent and evil enemy.

Retired Air Force colonel John A. Warden, a key air-strategy planner in the Gulf War, is the co-author of Winning in FastTime.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 09, 2001


This is the best upbeat, reassuring outlook I've read in the past few weeks. Sure hope he is right.

-- Uncle Fred (dogboy45@bigfoot.com), October 09, 2001.

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