Leadership: November 14, 2002


The Afghanistan campaign has created enthusiasm for transforming the armed forces to better exploit the "Afghanistan Model" in future wars. The proponents of this have failed to heed the lessons of history, as well as the unique conditions found in Afghanistan. First, there's history. The Special Forces sending out small teams to work with local tribesmen and using airpower when a heavy hammer was needed is nothing new. In fact, it's a concept that was used successfully over thirty years ago in Vietnam. The Special Forces and the air force were successful back then, even without smart bombs. But the Special Forces were not able to defeat the North Vietnamese. The reason was simple, the North Vietnamese were far more determined and formidable fighters than the Taliban. Moreover, the North Vietnamese had an asset the Taliban lacked, lots of jungle and other vegetation to hide under. 

The Special Forces, and troops like them (LRRPS, SOG RTs) comprised about ten percent of the infantry in Vietnam. These guys were the best we had and the North Vietnamese admitted that they feared these troops the most. Not just because "death from above" often followed such an encounter with them, but because these fellows were, well, very good, thoroughly prepared and superbly led infantry. Let us not forget that, in Afghanistan, we had our best fighting a pretty hardscrabble bunch of opponents. Despite all the hoopla about the "wily Afghan warriors," these guys often operated like an armed mob and were more deadly as bandits than as soldiers. The North Vietnamese would have cleaned their clocks in short order. 

But the Afghans, and especially the non-Afghan al Qaeda, were quick learners. Within a few months they developed techniques to deal with smart bombs, Special Forces and assorted other international commandos. Just as the North Vietnamese quickly learned that you don't fight the American army in a straight ahead battle, the Afghans figured out how to become less vulnerable to smart bombs. The Afghan solution, which is quite similar to the North Vietnamese one, is to stay out of the way of the Americans, don't bunch up, and, in particular, dig deeper, and more numerous hiding places. Then you wage guerilla war until the impatient Yankees lose interest and go home. 

Afghanistan was conquered (but not pacified) in short order largely because we had the element of surprise. This is a weapon that, from antiquity, has always proved to be a most decisive one. But it's a weapon of the mind, not the bomb racks. You can't manufacture surprise and stockpile it for the next war. You have to come up with something the enemy hasn't thought of and then hammer him with it before he has time to wise up. The Taliban underestimated the Special Forces and ignored the potential impact of the widely publicized smart bombs. It's easy to understand in hindsight, but accurate foresight is what creates surprise.

Have you noticed that there have been no battles in Afghanistan since early 2002? That's because is has turned into a guerilla war. Fortunately, this is what the Special Forces train for. But this form of combat is much less dependent on smart bombs. So if you're going to talk about the Afghanistan Model" you have to deal with the entire war. It's not over in Afghanistan, just the smart bomb phase.

Any future war will involve smart bombs and Special Forces. But there is no "Afghanistan Model." What we saw in Afghanistan was what went on as a part of the Vietnam war. Against a determined enemy, expect hard fighting, and being on the receiving end of nasty surprises. The "Afghanistan Model" is wishful, and dangerous, thinking.




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