US shapes a 'hit and run' war

Strategy in Afghanistan is to sustain pressure on Taliban long enough to fracture both its will and weaponry.

WASHINGTON

One month on, the US military strategy in Afghanistan is settling into a hit-and-run campaign of air attacks and ground raids designed to exhaust Taliban patience with months of continuous pressure.

In Pentagon doctrine, it's an "asymmetric" style of warfare that takes advantage of US air power and mobility, while avoiding the Taliban's strength - trench ground defenses.

Whether this strategy can produce something the American public recognizes as victory is an open question. Also unknown is whether US allies will grow impatient with such deliberate methods.

But it remains a kind of fight the Pentagon can prosecute for months to come with the intent of fracturing an opponent's will and weaponry.

"I don't think the Taliban understand what they have unleashed," says Steven Metz, chairman of the regional strategy and planning department at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

Since the US began bombing Taliban and Al Qaeda targets on Oct. 7, Department of Defense officials have been stung by criticism from some Western analysts and Northern Alliance rebels that the US attacks have been limited and ineffectual. The Pentagon didn't help itself when the person giving a press briefing, early on, inaccurately described Taliban combat power as "eviscerated."

Washington, in turn, has been unimpressed by Northern Alliance fighting prowess. Lawmakers are already openly speculating about the extent to which substantial deployments of US ground troops will be needed to root out Taliban forces.

Heavy US troop units indeed may eventually be needed, say Pentagon strategists. But that decision is in the future. For now, they are arguing that America needs to remain patient and, in essence, give war a chance.

"We're doing our work on our timeline," said Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, in a broadcast appearance over the weekend.

In a recent blitz of public statements, General Franks and other military leaders have been describing the Afghanistan effort as a war unlike any the US has experienced before. Its goal is not the occupation of strategic territory, but rather the destruction of a terrorist network and its support structure.

Turning up the pressure

Plans do not call for a linear progression of an air war, followed by Special Operations Forces, and then introduction of ground troops. Rather, these different kinds of forces are all "tools in our toolbox," according to Franks. At certain times, the US will use one or more of these tools, as conditions warrant.

The point is to ensure that the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies are always under pressure and on the defensive. This compounds any material destruction inflicted by US forces.

Eventually, goes the plan, the strain of constant vigilance will begin to crack Taliban leaders' control, communications, and will to fight. US officials claim that in some areas Taliban forces are already resorting to runners to send messages - hardly an ideal method in Afghanistan's vast open spaces.

"We have the momentum. The enemy has to react to what we do," says Edward Atkeson, a retired high-ranking Army officer and current senior fellow at the Institute of Land Warfare at the Association of the US Army.

The US bombing campaign may have been slow to develop, but it has been effective in its destruction, claims the Pentagon. The restrike rate - which measures second attacks on targets that have already been bombed - has been quite low. No major air-defense site has been bombed since Oct. 9, for instance.

Bombing on the Northern Alliance's main fronts has not destroyed the Taliban's network of trench defenses, precluding a rebel advance for now. But that may not be the only, or even the main, point of the air attacks in the northern and central regions.

"Most targets hit in the Kabul-Jalalabad-Khandahar [triangle] affect the Taliban's capability to supply and reinforce its forces throughout the country," writes Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an analysis of the air campaign.

In doctrinal terms, the US might be judged as trying to exploit positive asymmetry - its advantages in air power and targeting technology, as well as in special-forces training and weaponry. But the US surely faces negative asymmetry - Taliban efforts to exploit things its leaders see as chinks in American armor.

Risks of US approach

Impatience might be such an area of vulnerability. While the US public remains united by the terrorist strikes against the US homeland, Middle Eastern allies want the US campaign to be over and done with as fast as possible. Even some European allies are seeing a decline in public support for US actions in the face of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, what constitutes victory under this scenario? What if the Taliban falls, but Osama bin Laden escapes? US officials are careful to describe their goal as degradation of terrorist capabilities, but the US public may not be satisfied with anything short of the neutralization of Mr. bin Laden and his chief aides.

"The only way to do that without a massive ground invasion is to make the Northern Alliance an effective fighting force, which they are not now," says Ivan Eland, a military analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington.

It is Al Qaeda, not the Taliban per se, that is America's main enemy, says the Army War College's Dr. Metz. Even if the Taliban topples, a small terror group like Al Qaeda can work effectively from Western nations, where it can exploit legal rights, he argues.

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