Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Thank God for Afghanistan

One of the reassuring plattitudes we were led to believe in the run-up to the war in Iraq was that Afghanistan showed how the "New War" worked - light on the ground troops, but heavy on air power. This, of course, is the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that so many thinkers have heralded as a new era of war fighting. There's some things that suggest this could be a far more effective use of force - using smart bombs and drones rather than B-52s and kilotons of explosives. However, there's a huge difference between thinking that new technologies can help soldiers fight in new ways, and thinking that new technologies make soldiers obsolete. Afghanistan, proponents of RMA claim, shows that all you need is "a guy on a camel with a cellphone" to call in air strikes, and you can destroy the enemy without the massed armies of old.

In a way, this is a technical fallacy similar to the dogma of strategic bombing before and during WWII - except it's the mirror image. Rather than believe (as we did back then) that massive bombing campaigns against the enemy's homeland can cripple the enemy's will to fight, we now seem to believe that smart bombs alone can win a war.

Of course, the reality of Iraq and Afghanistan has showed that if the enemy is going to mass in numbers, you'd better have the numbers to push back. In Iraq, you have significantly less than 100,000 combat soldiers to patrol an area the size of California and a population slightly smaller than Canada's. The situation in Afghanistan is probably worse.

If this were the only lie used to sell Iraq, we might not have fallen for it. But we were also told that the US Army was such a superior fighting machine, that it was unthinkable that any significant resistance would last long against it. I thought of that when I read this review by Phil Carter, of a book called Not a Good Day To Die:
But as the crew waited for the landing ramp to drop, an al Qaeda fighter fired his rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) into the Chinook, blowing out the electrical system and rendering the bird's navigational displays and radios useless. Shrapnel from a second RPG sliced through the aircraft, spraying hydraulic fluid all over the chopper floor. The Chinook had been on the ground for all of 45 seconds. Enemy soldiers were now visible to the naked eye, as was a donkey lashed to a tree and a goat or lamb carcass hanging from the branches.

Clearly, the intelligence had been wrong....

Operation Anaconda began as an attempt to destroy what the U.S. military thought was a scattered group of about 250 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in and around the Shahikot Valley, 81 miles south of Kabul. A number of those fighters were thought to be high-value targets—many suspected Osama bin Laden might be among them. Having just failed to block the escape of al Qaeda forces (and possibly bin Laden) from Tora Bora, the military was determined not to make the same mistake again. And yet it did. Instead of a couple hundred jihadists, the Shahikot Valley region turned out to hold a few thousand. And though the military would declare Operation Anaconda a “victory,” Army War College professor Stephen Biddle has written that it may have actually been a victory for al Qaeda and the Taliban, in that it showed they could stand up to a conventional U.S. force on the battlefield, much as they did to the Soviets two decades before.
Naylor (the author) goes on to describe in great detail what went wrong at Shahikot, including an incredibly bad planning aparatus - essentially, the battle plan was being drawn up in Florida, with Pentagon officials apparently more concerned with how to brief the press than what the mission objectives were. Bad management, to say the least. As for that line about how bad the intelligence was, well, feast your eyes on this:
Satellite photography caught one RPG, which, warned one officer, probably meant there were more, but no one knew just how many. A thousand enemy fighters were estimated to be in the valley. As it turned out, there may have been 10 times as many, and they weren't just in the valley but on the tactically crucial high ground above.

But U.S. commanders refused to change their plan. It was, according to the 10th Mountain Division's chief of operations Lt. Col. David Gray, “unreasonable to expect wholesale changes based on a single source.” But, writes Naylor, “[chief planner Maj. Paul Wilie] acknowledged that writing the plan had been such a painful process of compromise and negotiation that nobody could face the prospect of tearing it up… simply because the enemy might not be where they were supposed to be.
Yes, it would be terrible if you had to remake all those Powerpoint presentations, just because the enemy had the high ground. Naylor is right in emphasizing the importance of the high ground, especially in a case like Afghanistan where valuable air and artillery assets were already being moved to the Persian Gulf, and were thus unavailable to destroy the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is doubly the case when bureaucratic incompetence puts 1,500 US infantrymen on the ground with nothing heavier than the machine guns on their backs.

Read the rest of the review here - it sounds like an excellent book, and I hope I'll be able to get it soon. Oh, and spare a happy thought for Phil Carter - he's been called in to active duty in Iraq.

You might guess that I'm unsympathetic to the chuch of RMA, and you'd be right. Not that I don't think that these new technologies are militarily valuable - quite the opposite. But there are limits to their usefulness, and eventually the ability to control a situation is highly (though not completely) dependent on numbers. It's worth noting that the strongest proponents of the RMA are by and large not in the Army, but in the Air Force and Navy. Some have said (I believe with good reason) that much of the bombast behind the RMA dogma is simply designed to keep the air force, and to a lesser extent the navy, at the front of the line when it comes to spending. For the record, Donald Rumsfeld is an old Air Force man, as is Gen. Myers, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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