2002 November 26 Tuesday
Steven Biddle On Afghanistan And Military Doctrine

Steven Biddle has written an article for strategypage.com arguing that the experience of US special forces in Afghanistan does not serve as a model for revolutionizing US military doctrine.

The key to success, whether in 1916 or 2002, is to team heavy, well-directed fires with skilled ground maneuver to exploit their effects and overwhelm the surviving enemy. This kind of skilled maneuver, however, is beyond the reach of many potential indigenous allies. In Afghanistan, U.S. proxies with American air support brushed aside unskilled, ill-motivated Afghan Taliban, but against hard-core al Qaeda opposition, outcomes were often in doubt even with the benefit of 21st century U.S. air power and American commandos to direct it. Where we face opponents with the gumption and training to stand and fight, our allies need the same, even with all the modern firepower we can offer them.

This in turn implies that we should neither restructure the military to wage Afghan-style wars more efficiently, nor reflexively commit conventional U.S. ground forces in every conflict. Where we enjoy local allies with the needed skills and motivation, we can expect the Afghan Model to work, and we should use it. But we will not always be so lucky. In Iraq, for example, the lack of a credible, trained opposition bodes ill for an Afghanistan-style campaign without major American ground forces. Deep cuts in ground capability could thus be very risky in spite of our strengths in air power or special operations forces. More broadly, though, we should be wary of suggestions that precision weapons, with or without special operations forces to direct them, have so revolutionized warfare that traditional ground forces are now superceded.

You can download the full 68 page report as a PDF file (requires Acrobat reader or equivalent software for viewing).

I base these findings on a new collection of primary source evidence centered on a series of 46 interviews with key American participants in the conflict,ranging from Special Forces Sergeants to the Major General who commanded CJTF Mountain during Operation ANACONDA,and including subjects from the Special Operations Command,the U.S.Army,the U.S.Air Force, and the Central Intelligence Agency.13 These interviews were complemented with official written documentation on the conduct of the war and direct physical inspection of the Anaconda battlefield in Afghanistan s Shah-i-kot valley, together with available secondary source accounts,chiefly from the print news media.This body of evidence cannot be considered complete;a definitive history of the Afghan campaign would require years of research on a much broader range of issues.Rather,my intention here is to focus on one key issue the new Model s role in the Afghan campaign and its implications for the future and to muster as much evidence as can be produced in the near term,so as to make initial findings available sooner than a definitive history would permit,but with a stronger foundation in the evidence than the debate to date has offered.

Biddle points out that most of the defections from the Taliban side occurred after the tide of battle had shifted against the Taliban. So the argument that the CIA bribed its way to victory (touted in write-ups on Bob Woodward's Bush At War book) is not credible.

As for the use of precision-guided missiles (PGM), their efficacy decreased as the war progressed. Al Qaeda fighters quickly adapted in a matter of weeks and became increasingly better at avoiding detection until attacking ground forces got quite close to them. By the time of the battle for Shah-i-kot Valley they had become very skilled at concealment.

At Operation ANACONDA in March 2002,an intensive pre-battle reconnaissance effort focused every available surveillance and target acquisition system on a tiny, ten-by-ten kilometer battlefield.Yet fewer than 50 percent of all the al Qaeda positions ultimately identified in the course of the fighting on this battlefield were discovered prior to ground contact.In fact,most fire received by U.S. forces in ANACONDA came from initially unseen, unanticipated al Qaeda fighting positions.69 How could such things happen in an era of persistent reconnaissance drones,airborne radars,satellite surveillance,thermal imaging,and hypersensitive electronic eavesdropping equipment?The answer is that the earth s surface remains an extremely complex environment with an abundance of natural and manmade cover and concealment available for those militaries capable of exploiting it.

The full PDF article provides a number of fascinating details about the course of a number of battles in Afghanistan. In one case, the battle for Bai Beche, the outcome was the result of an accidental cavalry charge (presumably on horses) of Dostum's forces just as JDAM strikes were in-bound. The cavalry was able to overrun the enemy position without being destroyed by the JDAMs due to an enormous luck of timing.

Biddle has written a great essay. If you are interested in getting a detailed understanding of what happened militarily in Afghanistan and what its ramifications are for the future of warfare his article is well worth the time it takes to read it.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 November 26 04:56 PM  Military War, Rumours Of War

Joe Katzman said at November 26, 2002 8:03 PM:

Great post, Randall! Thanks.

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