Special Operations: Misunderstanding The Afghanistan Model


September 2, 2011: The fighting in Libya has revived the call for making large cuts in conventional ground forces (army and marines), and relying more on small numbers of Special Forces and commandos on the ground, in cooperation with heavy use of smart bombs. This is often called the "Afghanistan Model" and now, as in late 2001, it was declared to be the future of warfare. It’s not, and there are lessons from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and history in general that make it clear why.

The Afghanistan campaign created enthusiasm for transforming the armed forces to better exploit the "Afghanistan Model" in future wars. However, the proponents of this 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 forty 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 any 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 and the assistance of a majority of the population (especially the non-Pushtun majority, as well as many anti-Taliban Pushtuns). Surprise 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 prevents surprise.

Most pundits didn’t notice that there were no battles in Afghanistan after early 2002. That was because it had 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 was not over in Afghanistan by early 2002, just the smart bomb phase. Not sending in ground troops meant the corruption and tribalism would have allowed the Taliban to quickly make a comeback, as they eventually did, with the help of their drug gang allies.

In Iraq, there were other problems that prevented the use of the Afghanistan Model. First, Saddam had thoroughly terrorized and disarmed the Shia majority. The Shia had rebelled in early 1991. The U.S., adhering to the UN mandate and promises made to its Arab allies (to not invade Iraq), did not assist the Shia. After a year of brutal fighting, the Shia had been put down, and Saddam kept terrorizing the Shia (to keep them down) until the U.S. invaded 12 years later. Up north, the Kurds were a different matter. Saddam had left the Kurds alone while he took care of the Shia, and U.S. and British Special Operations troops moved in to keep the two main Kurd factions from turning on each other, and to provide ground controllers for American and British warplanes. In addition, the Kurds were in mountains, which were easier to defend from. When Saddam turned his attention to the Kurds, he quickly decided that it was not worth the effort to go after them. It wasn’t the first time Arab despots decided to leave the Kurds alone.

In Libya, not sending in ground troops was the best option, mainly because Kaddafi did not have the same kind of security force Saddam possessed. Saddam regularly used brutality and terrorism to deal with opponent. Kaddafi was a smoother article, which is why he lasted twice as long as Saddam. But when the revolution came, Kaddafi found he had fewer allies than Saddam. Providing the rebels with some 20,000 smart bombs and guided missiles, often directed by NATO commandoes on the ground, made all the difference. Kaddafi’s forces were picked apart and demoralized by the bombs. But the end has not yet arrived. It’s not a given that the rebels will be able to establish a stable (even by Middle Eastern standards) democracy. Then there are the Islamic radical factions within the rebel coalition. Will these groups be allowed to operate from Libya, with the usual proviso that they don’t go terrorizing Libyans? That was the problem in Afghanistan, where a lack of NATO ground troops would have meant that the drug gangs and Taliban could have bought the government and returned to being a terrorist sanctuary.

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. In Libya, it’s unclear what the end of the war will really look like. The "Afghanistan Model" is wishful, and dangerous, thinking.



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