A persistent view in both academic and military circles concerns the effectiveness of conventional military power fighting unconventional wars. 1 The failure of counter insurgency campaigns by the Europeans in their former colonies, the US in Vietnam and Somalia, the Soviets in Afghanistan and more recently in Chechnya suggests that conventional military forces are ineffective when fighting unconventional wars. Interestingly, this problem is also apparent within the context of conventional forces of Third World states; a good example of this being the failure of the Vietnamese army in its war in Cambodia in the 1980s, all of which suggests that this failure is due to some intrinsic weakness of conventional military power.
The apparent success of the US military campaign Operation 'Enduring Freedom' (OEF) against the Taliban government of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden's 'terrorist organisation', 2 Al Qaeda, presents a new perspective that challenges this orthodox view because, on paper at least, the conventional force fought a successful campaign against an unconventional opponent. Indeed, although it is acknowledged that significant problems remain to be confronted, OEF is seen as providing proof that the ongoing 'transformation' of the American military means that it can operate effectively in all the spectrums of conflict. 3 Thus, according to Air Force General Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, while recognising the need for a multifaceted strategy to defeat the threat of global terrorism, in the military realm the most effective way of addressing the threat was through greater investment in C4ISTAR technologies. 4
However, what if the victory achieved by the US was a chimera? This essay explores this possibility. As such it begins by questioning why conventional military power has performed so poorly in unconventional wars in general. It then focuses specifically on why the Taliban collapsed so spectacularly and assesses whether the US will realise its political objectives through the use of force in Afghanistan and the wider campaign against Al Qaeda. Given the speed with which the Taliban regime was defeated a discussion of failure might seem rather at odds with the reality on the ground.