The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
More Books by James Dunnigan
Dirty Little Secrets
Why the Afghanistan War Looked Easy
by James Dunnigan
July 22, 2002
Things always look easy when a pro is doing it, whether it be playing a piano, creating some really useful software or pitching a no hitter. But it's not that easy at all. Becoming a competent professional takes years of practice by people who have a talent worth improving in the first place. The success of American troops in Afghanistan was the result of new developments in many areas.
- The Revolution in Air War Control. AWACS aircraft made it possible for the bombers to be there over Afghanistan 24/7. The AWACS concept has been in development for nearly 60 years.
- Lots of well trained commandos. The Special Forces were on the ropes after Vietnam. Many of the senior generals did not like the idea of commandos. But some did, and the idea caught on with many elected leaders. Special Forces survived attempts to eliminate them. SEAL forces were expanded, Delta Force was created and eventually SOCOM and lots of specialized support from the air force came along. Without all that, there would not have been enough commandos to support the Special Forces, nor the specialized aircraft needed to move everyone around Afghanistan. It looked easy, it wasn't.
- Experienced and battle tested Special Forces troops. After Vietnam, the Special Forces had few supporters in the Army. But elsewhere in the Department of Defense and other parts of the government (CIA and State Department in particular), there was support for the Special Forces. By the late 1970s, Special Forces strength had declined from a 1960s high to 9,000 to 2,000. In the 1980s, the Special Forces were given more money and more than doubled in size. While only a few hundred Special Forces troops were needed to defeat the Taliban in two weeks, you needed a far larger number in order to have those with the specific language skills to work in Afghanistan.
- Smarter bombs. Smart bombs were invented, and first used, during World War II. They were good enough back then to sink ships and knock down bridges, but not to provide the kind of close support provided to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan . By 2001, smart bombs had become accurate and dependable enough to frighten even the battle hardened religious fanatics fighting for the Taliban. It's the norm for a "revolutionary new weapon" to take half a century to become really effective.
- More accurate reconnaissance. Drones and JSTARS made a murky situation a lot clearer. Both systems benefited from several decades of development and a lot of trial and error.
- Satellite communications (SatCom). While recon satellites were not all they were cracked up to be, communications satellites were another matter. The recon satellites were in orbit, and could take digital pictures of any place on earth as they passed overhead (several times a day.) That info was not current enough to be really useful for the Special Forces. But the explosive increase in communications satellites (there are several hundred of them up there now), made possible all sorts of useful services. Satellite phones were essential for Special Forces and commandos. The Department of Defense had "bought" (it was a complicated deal) the bankrupt Iridium satellite phone system in 2000 and was now able to provide lots of satellite phones, and cheap rates (25 cents a minute) to its troops. The Department of Defense was not able to get enough cheap satellite time to handle all the real time video coming off the drones and spy satellites, but there was enough to get by on. SatCom has been growing in importance since the 1970s. But in Afghanistan it was an essential component of the war winning formula.
- Agile diplomats and CIA agents. Like the Special Forces and commandos, the State Department and CIA like to work in the shadows. But the State Department and CIA were both essential players in the rapid victory over the Taliban. Afghanistan is landlocked, and surrounded by nations that are, more often than not, hostile to the United States. This undoubtedly made many Taliban think they were immune to any meaningful attack by America. But American diplomats promptly worked out deals to use airspace and bases in Pakistan and other nations to the north of Afghanistan. The CIA has been in the area all along, quietly developing contacts and sorting out who was who. This proved crucial when it came time to make deals with the Pushtun tribes in southern Afghanistan, and get most of them to rise up against the Taliban (or at least remain neutral.)
- Civil Affairs and Psyops trained and ready to go. These two functions have long operated in the background, but the United States is one of the few nations to maintain a substantial number of units for this kind of work. This proved useful during the Gulf War, and crucial during the Afghanistan war.
- The Color Purple. A major shortcoming of U.S. armed forces has long been rivalry between the services. But over the last twenty years there has been a major effort to "think purple." That is, put aside rivalries and do what's best for the war effort. Combine the colors of each service's uniforms and you get a shade of purple. Like the interservice cooperation, it ain't pretty, but it works. In Afghanistan, the air force shared their aerial tankers with the navy and the navy provided a carrier for army Special Forces helicopters. The army integrated air force controllers and navy SEALs into the ground operations. Without all this cooperation, victory would not have been as swift, or decisive.