Terrorism: September 15, 2001


What Kind of War- In 1916, rebel general Poncho Villa and some of his men rode out of Mexico and into the United States. He killed some people, did a little pillaging and went back to Mexico. Outraged Americans demanded some action, so the U.S. Army went into Mexico to catch Villa. They came in on foot, on horseback, on trucks and in airplanes. After many months of scouring northern Mexico, the troops returned to the United States empty handed. In 2001, the U.S. Army plans on going into Afghanistan to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Afghanistan is about the size of Texas, and about the same number of people. And no oil. Afghanistan and northern Mexico have one thing in common, both have plenty of places to hide. 

But Afghanistan holds other dangers. The Afghans are much more antagonistic towards foreign invaders. For over three thousand years, Afghanistan has been an unruly area that was more likely to conquer it's neighbors than be conquered. Hundreds of hostile tribes and clans live in isolated mountain valleys. Violent feuds are common, and every few generations an exceptional leader unites many of the tribes and makes war on neighboring areas. These conquests rarely last long, and all that is left is fear of Afghans and great reluctance to invade Afghanistan. The Afghans are proud of their fearsome reputation and each generation is eager to reaffirm how tough and ferocious Afghans are. Even the cities are full of people who trace their origins to a tribe up in the mountains. Naturally, Afghanistan is ungovernable. Afghanistan's borders are guarded more by the neighbors fear of the Afghans than by anything else. But all of this comes at a cost. Afghanistan is the poorest nation in Asia, and has the shortest life spans (44 years).

Language also divides the nation. Pushtuns speakers are the most powerful, but comprise only about 40 percent of the population and live in the eastern half. About half the Afghans speak a dialect of Iranian and live in the west. A quarter of the population is Tajik, and live in the north on the Tajikistan border. There are Pushtun tribes in Pakistan to the east. To conquer Afghanistan you have to defeat hundreds of tribes and clans. There are two ways to do this. The Mongols came through and killed everyone who got in their way. Soon the survivors concluded that the Mongols were not so bad after all and surrendered. The more common method is to make deals and take advantage of tribal feuds. Use the "two handed" approach. Bullets in one hand and gold in the other. Even the Russians realized that some tribes could be bought off. 

So how do you fight in Afghanistan? Mostly, you don't. Offer each tribe or city bullets or gold. Or, considering the three years of drought Afghanistan has suffered recently, offer bullets or bread. But you can't go in as an aid mission. Your bullets have to be credible, and just making an awesome display of weapons is not enough. The troops will need Pushtun and Dari speakers. There aren't many of those in the U.S. armed forces, but there are several hundred thousand in America (legally and otherwise.) Perhaps a call for volunteers is in order, to become contract employees for the duration of the Afghan operation. Payment could be made in cash and green cards. Hey, it works for the French Foreign Legion.

Capturing the capital, Kabul, doesnt work, as the Russians discovered in the 1980s. Unlike the Russians, Americans wont be in there to conquer, just to capture terrorists and destroy terrorist training camps and equipment. Finding and destroying the camps will be easy. Getting the terrorists will be a lot more difficult. Bin Laden and his lads are sort of folk heroes to many Afghans. If the bad guys dress like the locals and are hidden by them, how to you find the terrorists? 

America has invested billions into satellites and electronic gadgets capable of finding stuff. But none of this gear can locate a Bin Laden associate in a cave or barn, unless the terrorist is using a cell phone. But the Bin Laden people are taught all about cell phones and American detection equipment. So you might capture some of the dumb or forgetful terrorists. But you really want the smart ones, especially Bin Laden and his close associates. These guys will be constantly on the move. OK, offer money, a lot of money, for anyone who will tip off our troops about where Bin Laden is. Youll have to throw in some green cards, because anyone known as the guy who ratted on Bin Laden would have a very short life expectancy.

Most of all, you must not enrage the Afghans. They will not fight you head to head. They will fade into the hills and snipe at your supply trucks. And there will be a lot of supply trucks. Each soldier will require at least a hundred pounds of supply a day. Without those trucks the troops have no food, water, ammunition or batteries for all their gadgets. If it sounds like Vietnam, it is. But worse. Vietnam had a nearby coast wherever you were, with several major ports and lots of rivers. Afghanistan has none of this. You either truck it in or fly it in. Moreover, American troops and supplies have to move past two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This population contains thousands of armed Taliban supporters and Bin Laden admirers. 

The war will only appear very quick of we get lucky, spot Bin Laden early on and grab him with helicopters carrying full of commandoes. But that will be far less than a major for victory, for the Bin Laden organization is thousands of well educated and highly motivated terrorists scattered throughout the Moslem world, Europe and North America. In retrospect, the hunt for Poncho Villa was easy.


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