Magazine article Insight on the News

Conventional War-Fighting Remains U.S. Mission

Magazine article Insight on the News

Conventional War-Fighting Remains U.S. Mission

Article excerpt

U.S. soldiers unexpectedly were forced into fierce ground combat in Afghanistan in early March after an allied Afghan general reportedly retreated under fire from Taliban and al-Qaeda foes who may have been tipped off about the attack. The retreat by the local warlord and subsequent battlefield confusion swiftly led to American combat deaths and allowed hundreds of enemy fighters to rush into the fight from their hideouts.

This incident should cast into doubt the overconfident assertions of many commentators that the Afghan campaign has produced a new template for war, one that relieves the United States of the need to deploy, or even maintain, a large Army trained and equipped for sustained ground combat.

Even President George W. Bush, who has done so much to dispel the malaise that gripped strategic thinking after the Cold War, succumbed to this mood in a speech at The Citadel last December. The president hailed the combination of "real-time intelligence, local allied forces, Special Forces and precision air power" that had shattered the Taliban regime, proclaiming it the model for future war.

There are problems with seeing the Afghanistan campaign as such a template. Despite all the emotion stirred up by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the campaign was only a punitive expedition. Afghanistan had no ballistic missiles or weapons of mass destruction or even a conventional military of any size. The poorly armed Taliban and al-Qaeda forces numbered about 50,000 -- one-tenth the size of the Iraqi forces engaged in Operation Desert Storm.

This is not to diminish the valor of those Americans who fought and died in the campaign. War never is easy at the individual level but, in terms of national effort, the war has been as one-sided as anything in the annals of Queen Victoria's "little wars" of the 19th century. It cannot be assumed that the next challenge (nor the one after that) will be so easy.

The campaign in Afghanistan was an exercise in "decisive warfare" meant to overthrow the Taliban regime and sweep the country of al-Qaeda terrorists. There was no question that ground forces would be needed. Bush was determined not just to "pound sand" as his predecessor had done.

The United States was able to initially enlist local, armed opposition groups to provide the bulk of the ground troops, but such forces cannot always be relied upon to do the job alone. …

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