IS NOT THE ONLY THING SLOWING DOWN THE U.S. ARMY
By Jason Vest
March 22, 2002
[A shorter version of this piece
appears in the April 8 issue of The
American Prospect. This version appears, with introduction
by veteran Pentagon analyst and defense rerformer Franklin C.
Spinney, on the Defense
and the National Interest website.]
INTRODUCTION & AIM
Last fall I interviewed a number
of current and former CIA officers who worked the Pakistan-Afghanistan
border during the days of the mujahideen's fight against the
Soviets. I also spoke with current and retired military officers,
some with combat experience ranging from Vietnam, to the Gulf
War, or the Balkans. The war in Afghanistan was in its earliest
stages then, and most of the people I interviewed asked me to
keep their comments off the record for the time being, "hoping
against hope," as one put it, "that this will all work
Yet the general sense among them
was one of reservation not because they thought the Taliban
would hold on to power but out of concerns about the state of
U.S. military strategy and intelligence. Would the United States
field the right troops at the right times in the right places?
Would the best people be sought out and listened to in devising
strategy and tactics? Were American forces really prepared to
fight in the rugged, high-altitude conditions of Afghanistan?
Would civilian leadership devise a sensible overall strategy,
and would sound military tactics follow?
In recent weeks, I spoke again with
some of the same military personnel. Naturally, all are in favor
of terminating al Qaeda with extreme prejudice, and all are confident
that the United States and its allies will eventually prevail.
But they're also concerned about how easily that end will be
All expressed reservations about
segments of the military chain of command particularly
the Army's - who are engaging in wishful thinking about resources,
capabilities, and political realities. They warned of an operational
myopia creating a situation that's quite the opposite of the
theory of dominant battlespace knowledge that is at the heart
of the "Revolution in Military Affairs" or "transformation"
being espoused by the bureaucracy, celebrated by the pundits,
and longed for by the industrialists.
With the war entering a new phase
of protracted guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operation in the
mountains, my aim in this essay is to examine some of the ramifications
of this wishful thinking and myopia.
One of the biggest problems now
afflicting the U.S. military flows out of the two things separating
it from virtually any other force in the world its large
size (in manpower and materiel) and its high-complexity technology
(particularly the "networked" array of robotic sensors,
computers, and precision-guided weapons and their accompanying
theories of friction-free warfare). When applied in combat, the
combination of size and technology leaves one with the impression
that the defeat of an enemy of any size, anywhere, is inevitable.
So, however and whenever success
is realized, most Americans are content to assume that everything
worked as it should have or if they didn't, it really
doesn't matter since the ostensible objectives were achieved.
Politicians of every stripe and careerist soldier-bureaucrats
often abetted by less-than-knowledgeable or cheerleading
journalists and self-interested industrialists thrive
on such views, because the perceived end can be easily spun to
obscure flaws in the means.
KOSOVO: A FLASHING RED LIGHT
The war in Kosovo should have been
a warning about the psychological dangers of this kind of incestuous
amplification: Recall how liberal interventionists praised it
as model of 21st Century war, worthy of emulation in other theaters,
because precision aerial bombardment achieved a political purpose,
as one enthusiast put it, by "stopping the ethnic cleansing
and allowing the Kosovars to go home".
Echoing such views on the martial
front were those of the influential military historian John Keegan
(and others) who decreed that Operation Allied Force had shown
ground forces to be bordering on obsolescence.
Unfortunately, these assessments
neglected realities that concerned many of the professional soldiers
I have interviewed over the last several years. Let's look first
at Kosovo and then segue to Afghanistan.
Some officers, for example, pointed
out that thousands of Kosovar lives might have been saved, a
refugee crisis likely averted, the economic destruction of Serbia
avoided, and the crisis window more quickly closed if, rather
than relying on high-tech airborne ordnance, Operation Allied
Force had been designed around a rapid deployment to Kosovo of
highly mobile ground forces backed up by close air-support.
To be sure, we would have incurred
casualties, but these officers believe a more decisive strategic
outcome might have set the grand-strategic stage for a more durable
stability in the Balkans. They note that after more than two
months of sustained bombing by an alliance of 13 of the world's
most advanced nations, the political "end" was ultimately
achieved due to Russian intervention, coupled with a reduction
of Allied demands, promulgated at the G8 meeting in May 1999,
to a level Serbia had effectively agreed to at Rambouillet prior
to the war.
Bear in mind, a key facet of the
military objective was not achieved: the prime target of our
military efforts, the Yugoslav Army, rolled out of Kosovo largely
intact we destroyed only 14 tanks, 12 self-propelled guns,
14 armored personnel carriers, and 6 towed artillery pieces,
not the hundreds claimed by Nato's headquarters. But as had been
the case in Vietnam and the Gulf War, once again the military
brass used a linguistic sleight-of-hand to grossly exaggerate
the amount of damage done, telling the American people that hundreds
of these vehicle had been destroyed. The real effect of the bombing
would have remained an unknown reality were it not for a few
courageous military officers who took the initiative to get the
truth out. While many in America reveled in the outcome as an
technological tour de force, quite a few current and former officers
saw it as another example of how the US partially chose, and
partially was unable, to go engage an enemy operating with a
more unconventional set of tactics, underscoring some real shortcomings
in US military cumbersome logistics and its continued adherence
to the obsolete attrition doctrine of methodical battle.
COGNITIVE DISSONANCE & THE
VIRTUAL BODY COUNT
Its worth recalling the cognitive
dissonance of Kosovo, because today, we're moving into a similar
albeit far more dangerous set of circumstances.
With pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda
"bubbling up all over Afghanistan," to borrow the memorable
phrase of a British defense official quoted in a recent issue
of the Telegraph, cognitive dissonance will be more difficult
to ignore in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the emerging theory of
"virtual attrition" suggests that the military is again
falling prey to its techno-seductions.
This can be seen in statements made
after the completion of Operation Anaconda in the Shah-i-Kot
Valley. The Army commander on the scene told reporters we killed
between 500 and 800 enemy fighters but allied Afghan commanders
said they found on 50 to 60 bodies and our Canadian allies say
there only a few direct engagements [see Boston Globe, March
20, pg. 29]. Nevertheless the American commander has stuck to
his claim. The logic supporting his claim can be found in a page
1 report of the March 19 issue of the New York Times, which said
"Senior Pentagon officials also declined today to estimate
the number of enemy fighters killed. But they said surveillance
images indicate that few enemy fighters have fled the region,
suggesting that many, if not most, had died in the fierce fighting."
In other words, our surveillance
technology (especially the TV cameras in the Predator drone)
enables American commanders to see the battlefield with so much
clarity and precision that the absence of information about enemy
troop movements is evidence they could not move and were therefore
dead. Bear in mind, this astounding claim is made in reference
to the outcome of an operation that began with a spectacular
intelligence failure about the location of enemy troops in the
helicopter landing zones (American troops landed on top of enemy
position in what was called a hot LZ in Vietnam).
THE MAGIC FORMULA
Prior to Anaconda, the storyline
in Afghanistan boiled down to an assertion that we had discovered
a magic formula for waging successful war in the 21st Century.
We could achieve our objectives and minimize casualties by using
the following combination of capabilities: smart bombs targeted
by precision intelligence flowing out of satellites as well as
the Global Hawk and Predator UAVs. + small numbers of special
forces on the ground to fine tune the targeting + larger numbers
of local troops to serve as our proxies in the ground battle
against an enemy now weakened by the bombardment. To be sure,
we would still need Special Forces deployed to help further the
process of mopping up the disorganized remnants of the Taliban
and al Qaeda, and we would need to retain additional US troops
stood in local bases as a ready reserve to conduct search and
destroy operations, guided by the same precision intelligence
capabilities, to truncate any reorganization or regrouping of
enemy fighters, should it begin to occur. This formula would
then permit the US could begin to bring a modicum of order to
a chaotic, hostile area and make up for past sins and aid the
in rebuilding of Afghanistan.
By early December, pundits and reporters
were waxing eloquently about how this formula quickly defeated
and routed the enemy with an awesomely effective aerial bombardment.
Their raft of "lessons learned' articles claimed the Revolution
in Military Affairs and the attendant theory of dominant battlespace
knowledge had been vindicated. Uncritical enthusiasm reached
even higher levels among senior Pentagon civilians and hawkish
commentators (most of whom avoided Vietnam or had not seen military
service) who began advocating the same formula (PGMs + SF + Proxies)
could be applied to the completely different conditions of Iraq
[see Washington Times, December 4]. CNN did its part to inflame
the mindless euphoria by filing reports (accompanied by the graphic
"Everybody Loves Rummy") about how in love the Pentagon
press corps is with the man they're supposed to have an adversarial
relationship with, and field correspondents waxed patriotic from
C-130 cargo bays or under F-14 contrail-streaked Afghan skies.
Then came the battle of Tora Bora
in mid December. Early reports said the Taliban and al Qaeda
fighters and leadership were "trapped," but it eventually
became clear that they escaped. Nevertheless, by mid-December,
a sense of triumphalism remained in the air, notwithstanding
cautionary remarks from senior officials in Pentagon press conferences.
Little noticed by the reporters and pundits was a reason for
the Pentagon's caution.
Intelligence analysts began to suspect
that a large albeit unknown number of Taliban and al Qaeda had
simply dispersed in classical guerrilla fashion and disappeared
with their weapons into the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A wide range of estimates is now available from online open-source
intelligence organizations with close connections to military
intelligence sources. At the lower end, ORBAT.com estimated on
December 23 that a hard-core of 5,000 to 10,000 of the best-armed
and most highly motivated Taliban fighters retreated to well
prepared positions in the mountains. At the upper end of the
scale, DEBKAfile, an Israeli based open source intelligence organization
with a reputation for making "worst-case" analyses
based on information gleaned from inside sources, estimated on
December 31 that as many as 21,000 to 24,000 Taliban and 3,000
to 3,500 al Qaeda fighters had escaped
It also became clear at Tora Bora
that the goals of the warlords leading the Afghan proxy forces
did not always coincide with US goals. If the proxy forces could
not be trusted, then the magic formula was fatally flawed - and
that fear set the stage for the conception of Operation Anaconda,
which was designed around the commitment of a significant number
of regular Army troops as well as Afghan proxies to the fight.
Claiming they had found a universal
formula was a amateurish idea. There are no fixed recipes in
war, because nothing is ever the same, and even if it looks the
same, people will act on previous experience. Moreover, adherence
to a formula makes one rigid and predictable, and that makes
it easy for your adversary to counter your actions. The glorification
of the magic formula in early December by the high level civilians
in the Pentagon and its uncritical acceptance by the press is
indicative of a deeper myopia, and in my opinion, that myopia
is still causing a series of dubious decisions in Afghanistan.
Let us leave Mount Olympus and shift
our orientation to lower levels of social organization.
CONCERNS AT THE WORKING LEVEL
Almost without exception, the active
and retired CIA and military officers I interviewed last Fall
feared that elements of civilian and military leadership were
vulnerable to wishful or status-quo thinking about resources,
capabilities and political realities. Almost with exception,
they also believed the civilian leadership was overly enthusiastic
about the effects of the so-called military-technical revolution
on military's operational capabilities to defeat a wily foe in
a harsh environment. This enthusiasm, they believed, fed a sense
of exceptionalism and unilateral(ism) in the use of military
Operational Art and the Question
My sources weren't particularly concerned about or surprised
by a speedy "collapse" of the Talibs' initial position.
They were more worried about what would happen when the Taliban
dispersed in the face of American firepower. In an interview
echoing his comments in late September, Army Major Donald Vandergriff
author and editor of several books on strategy, tactics
and personnel noted that a push against the cadre of bin
Laden and Mullah Omar would likely be a quick victory. "You
had an enemy that had been fighting the Northern Alliance for
years; the Northern Alliance wasn't doing enough in terms of
attacking, and the Taliban was fighting from fortified trench
positions that were equipped to deal with direct ground fire,
but not air attack," he said. "You bring in air power
with Special Forces guys designating targets and pushing the
Northern Alliance to really attack, a collapse is a given."
Vandergriff wasn't the only one
with this view before the fighting commenced. On October 3, several
days before the bombing started, Alex Spillius reported in the
Telegraph that the Taliban had no internal support among the
Afghans. He said the local Pashtun tribes were ready to revolt.
Afghan sources told him that the Taliban would quickly collapse,
because many of the Taliban rank and file were about to mutiny.
They also told him that Mullah Omar and most high-level officials
had already fled to the hills (presumably to prepare for the
inevitable guerrilla war).
The initial phase of the bombing
campaign against the Taliban's non-existent infrastructure, with
its attendant collateral damage, may in fact have created a counterproductive
"rally round the flag" effect that slowed down the
spread of the Pashtun rebellion.
A CIA veteran of the Mujhadeen days
I interviewed on October 1 was equally unequivocal: "The
Taliban is not that strong of a force, and it's not going to
take much to kick them over."
H. Thomas Hayden, a former Marine
Lieutenant Colonel who's written on modern military operations,
also shared Vandergriff's view of the inevitable, noting in early
November that with "a very weak military command structure,
no firm chain of command, no supporting general staff, no trained
supply and logistics staff [and] no major reserves to shift to
strategic locations and certainly no planning level headquarters
that could have directed the changing back and forth campaign,"
the Taliban and its al Qaeda adjuncts weren't likely long for
this world as an organized military opponent.
From where Vandergriff and others
sat, it wasn't what happened after the Taliban and al Queda began
their retreat that was problematic; it was what didn't happen.
First the Taliban retreated from Mazar-e-Sharif; next, Herat
and finally, Kabul and Kandahar. While the number of bombing
sorties had increased as had the deployment of Special
Forces teams advancing with the Northern Alliance but
there weren't any conventional forces positioned cutoff the Taliban
retreat from their defensive positions. "There should have
been at least two air assault brigades on stand-by," opines
Vandergriff, now as he did then, "units that could have
swept in and assumed blocking positions at key points."
Others I talked to at the time spoke
similarly, including the ex-CIA officer, who noted that while
not enthusiastic about sending in lots of US troops, it would
be much better to maximize Taliban prisoners and casualties than
let large numbers flee to higher ground.
In combat, the rate of capturing
prisoners is usually, though not always, a reliable qualitative
indicator of success (much better than a body count). A rapid
accumulation of prisoners usually suggests the enemy is coming
unglued and cannot adapt to menacing circumstances in a focused
way, whereas a high body count may indicate the enemy has retained
his moral stability and was willing to fight to the end. Viewed
through this lens, the negligible number of hard-core Taliban
and al Qaeda prisoners taken to date is not reassuring.
To be fair to the US government,
inserting ground forces quickly into blocking positions was,
to some extent, easier said than done, given the issues of basing
rights in neighboring countries and the logistical difficulties
of transporting a force into such an inaccessible area. But,
according to a growing number of Army officers, the fact that
there were no regular Army units ready to go coupled with
the fact that first ground forces into Afghanistan were Marines
highlights some very serious institutional problems the
Army has yet to fix.
It's not like the Army leadership
is unaware of these problems; the force's top officer, General
Eric Shinseki, has talked at length about the service needing
to make itself over into a lighter and more maneuverable force
of smaller units that can deploy anywhere with speedy deliberation.
Alas, Shinseki's efforts seem to be moving about as quickly as
an Abrams tank stuck in a bog. And while everyone interviewed
for this article were largely praiseworthy of the Army's Special
Forces, they also noted that their strength is, as one of their
own put it, "Going in, really messing stuff up and getting
out. You can't fight every battle or conduct operational-level
maneuvers that way."
Indeed, as one captain stated in
late December, the situation was yet another example that "we
have the world's fastest strategically immobile Army." West
Pointer Bob Krumm -- a captain with cavalry experience currently
posted to the Army's Training and Doctrine command went
so far as to post his personal views in an on-line forum
frustrations that give some insight as to why the Army has a
real problem holding on to junior officers.
"My Army is operating equipment
designed to fight Soviets in the Fulda Gap, and the stuff in
the pipeline is just a more expensive version of the same,"
he wrote. "My Army has a personnel system that was built
to defeat the Kaiser. My Army trains to fight fictional forces
in make-believe lands instead of focusing on real-world missions.
My Army has one-half the number of generals as we did at the
height of World War II, even though the force is one-tenth the
size. The end result of all this is we get to watch the Marines
perform Army missions because they can do them better."
While the New York Times coverage of the Marines arrival in Afghanistan
as military-business-as-usual, the magazine Government Executive
noted the fury of mid-level Army officers, chagrined that a sister
service who's specialty is amphibious operations had been the
first corps of regular troops into Afghanistan a land-locked
By March, however, elements of the
regular Army's 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Division were
seeing action in Operation Anaconda in the Shah-i-Kot Valley.
And once again euphoria in the media began to break out.
According to immediate analysis
pieces in the news media, Anaconda was a good thing, in that
it showed the Army had learned the lessons of Tora Bora, where
US forces failed to capture scores of Taliban and al Queda soldiers,
thanks to their reliance on the notoriously fickle Afghans
who many old CIA hands had warned couldn't be trusted. (For an
excellent critique of Tora Bora, readers should examine Phillip
Smucker's brilliantly reported piece in the March 4 edition of
the Christian Science Monitor.)
Commentators on the Jim Lehrer Newshour,
for example, waxed eloquently that Tora Bora failed because it
was a hasty engagement whereas the Army had plenty of time to
plan for Anaconda a comparison that triggers howls of
derision from seasoned combat soldiers, who point out that the
mark of a professional army is precisely its ability to adapt
quickly to or exploit unforeseen fleeting circumstances. In the
case of Anaconda, while 1000 Afghan troops would still be used,
1000 American troops (the equivalent of a reinforce battalion)
were deployed as a blocking force as well. The Pentagon line
was that hi-tech satellites and UAVs had been tracking the quiet
return of al Queda cadre to the Gardez area for over a month;
Anaconda would throw 2000 US and Afghan troops in a circle around
the enemy, closing in on him like a snake and crushing him.
According to a March 5 analysis
in The Washington Post, Anaconda sent a powerful "message
of US resolve," where the choices for the enemy (numbering
"perhaps 400," as the Post deferentially quoted Pentagon
officials, adding that "100-200" were already dead)
were, in the words of a retired marine general, "stark,"
forcing the enemy to either flee to his death or fight and die.
It was also a "classic military maneuver routinely practiced
by light infantry units," a "movement to contact that
pushed the enemy against a pre-positioned blocking force"
that would be made even more deadly and effective by the use
of direct fire, mortars and coordinated airpower.
While Anaconda may be all of those
things, again, a number of CIA veterans and military officers
back in the states were immediately skeptical, if not incredulous,
for a number of reasons. The first was the maneuver itself and
the rationale behind it. While the military was saying, and media
reporting, that the operation had been mounted to encircle an
enemy quietly creeping back in preparation for a new wave of
attacks, some observers here took the opposite view: the fighters
of Al Queda were, in fact, untroubled by observations of their
movements, because they were looking for fight in which they
could (a) kill Americans, and make martyrs of themselves, necessary
and (b) use (a) to fire up public opinion in the Arab and Muslim
worlds. Less interested in launching an offensive or inviting
a siege, the utility of the action was also more likely rooted
in seeing how the Americans fight and how many could be killed
as a means of preparing for wider guerrilla operation when the
snows melt in the Spring. "It's more like, they've got us
surrounded, and now we've got them where we want them,"
said one CIA veteran.
It wasn't just uncertainty over
the enemy's motivations that irked veterans of combat operations,
however. Before noon on March 5, I received an email from a now-retired
combat Marine who, in addition to having written books, has also
penned some official US military training manuals. Irked by the
Post's analysis "another example of over concentrating
on the big picture at the expense of the little picture,"
he wrote he took extreme issue with Post's obsequious
approach, and proved to be remarkably prescient, predicting both
a likely influx of enemy troops spread out over an area greater
than the military expected, which it later admitted.
"On 1:250,000 map, 70 square
miles doesn't look like much," he began. "But to the
US infantryman crawling uphill against carefully planned machine-gun
fire, this particular 70 square miles in Eastern Afghanistan
must seem as big as Texas. To make matters worse, this patch
of highly precipitous terrain in Paktia Province may be honeycombed
by tunnels extending beyond its imaginary borders something
all to often encountered by US cordon operations in Vietnam.
That 100-200 enemy soldiers have been killed is mostly speculation
a probably estimated from 10,000 feet of what an inordinate
amount of high explosives can do to loosely controlled and highly
innovative people who have been preparing for quite some time
to avoid its effect. The enemy has only to disperse more widely
to avoid destruction from the air. Until 'smart' bombs learn
how to fly deep into tunnels, penetrate recessed blast doors,
find every rear entrance, plug every air shaft, and for all practical
purposes discover how to outthink human beings, they will not
take the place of highly skilled ground forces."
The ex-Marine wasn't the only one
concerned about the ratio and selection of troops to geography
gave some observers pause. That a total of 2000 troops
including some Afghans whose trustworthiness was at best questionable
would be presented as being able to quickly and effectively
encircle an enemy over a 70 square mile swath of land on top
of enemy tunnel complexes over brutal terrain at high altitudes
struck many as being more than a little short, manpower-wise.
While the fact that Americans and Afghans could rush reinforcements
in as the battle unfolded might have seemed impressive to layman,
not to mention the reporters at the Washington Post, professionals
here took this as a sign that Anaconda's planners had seriously
underestimated the strength of the enemy, as well as his location.
When US and Afghan troops first came under enemy fire, it was
as they dismounted from trucks -- something usually done 4-5
kilometers away from where the enemy is believed to be.
The most enduring aspect of Operation
Anaconda may be an at-best hazy sense of just how many of the
enemy were present at any one place and at any one time, who
the actually were, and how many were killed. It is yet another
example of the fatally flawed theory of Dominant Battlespace
Knowledge that lies at the technical and conceptual heart of
the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs.
The danger of papering over this
flaw can be inferred by comparing two news dispatches from March
16. One, from Agence France-Presse, decrees that the "core
of al Qaeda officers" have been "wiped out in Anaconda,"
and attributes this contention to the "US military".
Going into further detail, a "senior military official"
reports that "some of [bin Ladens] most hardened leaders
and trainers" have been killed, "few" managed
to escape, and cites the contention of an Afghan official that
"fewer than 100 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters were left
in the region." The Associated Press, meanwhile, headlined
its story "Operation Anaconda Ending in Muddle," reporting
that "there is little hard evidence to support claims by
US officers that hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were
killed." The AP report actually cites specific but conflicting
casualty numbers from different sources whose commonality is
in their paltriness. The article also notes "disagreement"
between Afghans and US soldiers as to just how many caves there
are in the area; too, the Afghans report that substantial enemy
cadres successfully fled, while the Americans say not. The dispatch
and reports that "Afghan commanders say they have received
no indication that any Al-Qaida or Taliban leadership heavyweights
were among those holed up in the Shah-e-Kot area." The piece
also quotes a US general as having considerably revised upwards
the estimate of al-Qaida fighters in the area when the battle
began to 1000.)
Indeed, three days into Anaconda,
more than a few career CIA officers were growling about the potential
enemy size. According to them, CIA field assessments from earlier
this year had put the number of not only al Queda, but also Taliban,
cadre in the general area in the thousands, suggesting an easy
flow of reinforcements into the battle. Tactical information
used for battle planning is, however, mainly the province of
military intelligence, who in the March 8 view of a CIA veteran,
"did a very poor job" in this case, because "it's
clear they were not prepared for what they met."
The military officers interviewed
for this piece between March 4 and March 8 also expressed skepticism
that an air-tight cordon capable of preventing enemy infiltration
and exfiltration was realistic, a view seemingly reflected by
the constant readjustments by the US military of enemy troop
strengths. When I spoke on March 5 with retired Colonel Michael
Wyly - a key architect of the Marine Corps' doctrinal reforms
in the mid-1980s - he said emphatically that establishing impenetrable
cordons in combat zones is impossible. "I used to get that
order all the time as a company commander in Vietnam," he
said, "and I am telling you, people always sneak through."
Other officers wondered just how much field artillery and forward
medical assets had been deployed in Anaconda, and whether the
regular troops deployed were the most appropriate and/or ready
for the battlefield.
TRAINING AND READINESS FOR MOUNTAIN
Again, I recalled the October discussion
I had with one of the CIA officers who held a senior position
during the Mujhadeen operation. He wasn't enthused at the prospect
of US forces fighting at high altitude. "They're not adequately
trained for it," he simply said. "You're fighting two
foes the Afghans, and the physical country itself. At
high elevation, artillery and everything else will not function
like they're expected to. The weather can change quickly, and
change everything. They may have some success, but our guys really
are not trained for this."
Efforts at fleshing out this point
yielded some interesting answers that anyone interested in reforming
or improving the US Army would do well to examine. When I rang
Lt. Col (ret) Lester Grau the Army's leading scholar on
Afghanistan and author of three books and numerous articles on
Soviet-Afghan tactics and battle history -- on March 7 to chat
a little more about the historical lessons of mountain combat
in Afghanistan, he very reluctantly told me he was unable to
help; not, he said, because he didn't want to, but because the
Army had ordered him not to discuss any of his work in the context
of Operation Anaconda.
Other officers I interviewed found
it interesting that the person arguably best suited to help the
public understand what was going on in Shah-i-Kot had been muzzled,
and were not charitable in speculating as to what that meant.
One officer who follows Grau's work did, however, draw my attention
that day to a recent article co-authored by Grau for the Military
Review Bulletin, published by the Army Command and General Staff
College. Entitled "Ground Combat at High Altitude,"
the article flies in the face of early official optimistic pronouncements
about Anaconda, essentially stating that the US Army's knowledge
about high-mountain combat defined as 10,000 feet and
higher is disturbingly deficient. (Anaconda ranged over
turf from 8500 to 13,000 feet). "The US Army has no experience
fighting in truly high mountains and its mountain warfare manuals
deal primarily with low and medium mountains," the piece
begins, adding that the Army "needs to know how to conduct
high-altitude mountain warfare, develop the tactics, techniques
and procedures to do so, and share the experience of other armies
to understand and prepare for possible high-altitude conflicts."
In light of how Operation Anaconda
has unfolded, it's worth excepting a few of the article's other
key points, verbatim:
* Physical conditions at high altitude
are often more dangerous than enemy fire. Nothing is fast in
high-altitude combat, and the first enemy is the environment.
Maneuver is slow and limited. Movement is calculated in time
rather than distance at high altitude.
* All experienced armies agree that
high-altitude acclimatization cannot be achieved in less than
10 days, and an acclimated soldier is still not an experienced
mountaineer. Training for mountain combat is not simply light
infantry training. Soldiers selected for high-altitude duty should
be screened for their ability to function in this environment.
* Equipment especially trucks
and helicopters will not function, or will function marginally,
at high altitudes. The use and effectiveness of artillery are
constrained by high-altitude combat. While helicopters are preferred
for mountain warfare, mountains aren't the optimal helicopter
environment; as such, intense, specialized training is required.
* Mountains restrict effective bombing
and strafing by jet aircraft. It is difficult for them to pick
out targets that are camouflaged or concealed by natural cover.
Weather, deep shadows and the environment also restrict pilots
vision. Climate and terrain restrict jet aircraft from diving
freely or flying low enough to engage targets effectively.
Regarding the environment and the
troops sent to fight in it, on March 10, the Associated Press
reported that US soldiers had been "unprepared for the subfreezing
temperatures at 10,000 feet," with some reporting that "they
hadn't even brought sleeping bags" and had taken to sleeping
"by day when it was warmer"; there were also "cases
of hypothermia," the dispatch continued, adding that "drinking
water froze in the cold." While news stories focused on
the bravery and endurance of troops in these conditions, they
did so at the expense of holding the chain of command accountable
for putting soldiers in such conditions. "No wonder some
troops left their sleeping bags behind," an active-duty
officer told me. "The leads they have to carry even without
them are incredible, and that's without considering ammunition,
which because it's an expendable item and not part of a table
of equipment, most Army logisticians appear to believe has no
weight and takes up no space." Mule transportation, he noted,
would have been better echoing another point in Grau's
article: "High mountains are counter technology. Mules are
a good option for high-altitude logistics." (Author's aside:
I found this particularly resonant, having seen the Ethiopian
army successfully break its stalemate with the Eritrean army
in May of 2000 by eschewing machinery and sending mule-supported
troops through high mountain passes to commence a surprise attack
on Eritrean forces.)
Too, early reports of troops "inching
within 100 yards of enemy bunkers" belied the reality that
what mattered was not the distance, but the amount of time it
would take to move. Students of Grau's work were also particularly
troubled by a report which stated US forces were not only surprised
by the fact that al Qaeda took the offensive, but were surprised
that the assault relied heavily on mortars; as Grau noted in
his article, "mortars are frequently more effective than
guns or howitzers" at altitude, "easier to shift around,
and can better engage reverse slopes and me moved closer to forward
Additional comments on the preparation
of our forces for mountain warfare can be found in my 21 March
essay posted on the American
Prospect website .
Skeptical that Anaconda's planners
had taken to heart Grau's publicly available advice on appropriate
selection and training of personnel, I asked an Army officer
for his opinion. He noted that Fort Drum, the home and training
center of the 10th Mountain Division in upstate New York, is
on ground that bear little resemblance to Afghanistan. (And when
it was reactivated in 1985, the 10th wasn't actually set up for
mountain combat, but as a general-purpose light infantry force;
the "mountain" designator was, in fact, deployed in
the hopes that it would endear the Army to then-Senator Bob Dole,
who served in the original, World War II-vintage division.) "The
10th really isn't a mountain division at all -- it's been deployed
so much for peacekeeping missions that it hasn't been able to
focus much on mountains," he said. "And while we do
have an excellent mountain warfare school in Vermont, but it's
only for individuals, not units."
He also referred me to a September
2000 report written by a US Senate staffer that now seems more
germane than ever. Entitled, "10th
Mountain Division, Ready or Not?" - this report notes
a "favorable overall readiness rating and understandable
expression of confidence by various commanders," but the
author also found that "the 10th Mountain is today experiencing
multiple, serious shortage of people and material resources,
training deficiencies, and other impediments to readiness, a
large number of them resulting from policies imposed by Washington."
Among other things, it noted that "expensive advanced communications
technology" not suitable for combat was being provided "at
considerable cost, [but] basics such as training ammunition,
lighter machine gun tripods, and road marching gear are not provided";
Army personnel policies "are imposed that seriously degrade
unit manning and readiness," and the at "training is
allowed to deteriorate, but an intense deployment schedule is
Not that this should come as a surprise:
Last year, the latest in a series of influential reports by another
congressional staffer who writers under the nom de plume
Spartacus revealed that Pentagon funds earmarked for things
like training and maintenance (or "readiness") have
been siphoned off to fund other defense programs, and that the
Bush Administration was keen to continue drawing off money for
new weapons systems. "With defense spending increasing and
with readiness spending declining, the current defense budget
has achieved a condition of declining readiness at increasing
cost," the report marveled.
On the purely technical front, there
was actually some surprising good news from Shah-i-Kot about
one model of helicopter, the Apache: originally designed with
sophisticated defense to evade hi-tech Soviet ground-to-air systems
like heat-seeking missiles, the Apache actually held up rather
well under small arms and RPG fire. According to one official
familiar with the damage reports, 5 of 7 were disabled, but the
helos withstood a surprising amount of punishment. But others
noted that the Apache requires so much logistical support that
it was necessary to use some of them as hanger queens to support
the others in this operation. Moreover, one officer said the
rotary air support that appeared to have borne most of the burden
were Cobra attack helicopters from the Marines -- which, unlike
the Apache, don't require 20-30 man-hours of maintenance per
flight hour, a requirement which isn't exactly optimal for combat.
On the other hand, there was virtually
unanimous criticism that some rotary wing aircraft were misapplied
in the battle -- particularly in the case of the CH-47 Chinook,
two of which were shot down incurring fatalities. A particularly
vulnerable and unwieldy helicopter, the Chinook was never meant
to be exposed to small arms or anti-aircraft fire; in fact, it
shouldn't be close to the line of contact at all. But as they
were, it begged another question: While much had been made in
news reports of air superiority including the use of AC-130 Spectre
gunships, the Spectres didn't seem to be anywhere near the Chinooks.
At the core of my interviews is
a widening gulf between the orientation of high level civilians
and general officers and the lower level professional cadre of
serving and retired officers. At its heart lies a conflict between
the assumption that technology will lift the fog the war making
the conduct of war an intellectually easy effort versus the chaotic
day-to-day realities of the operational art that cause almost
unimaginable difficulties for soldiers doing the heavy lifting
in the small units at the pointy end of the spear.
In this regard, it is worth pointing
out a passage in Grau's article that noted how other armies sometimes
build their force structure around the smaller-sized regiment,
and managed personnel by assigning them to longer tours of duty
in same units. This practice stands in sharp contrast to the
US system, which is centered around large divisions and frequent
individual personnel rotations. The regimental system tends to
do best in high altitude combat. (In his March 5 email, the ex-Marine
tactician expressed concerns about this: while "the Army's
plan is not without merit," he wrote, "encircling an
undergunned but otherwise powerful enemy force involves dangerously
dividing one's own. Each encircling unit must have the tactical
skill to weather a concerted attack. It cannot depend on firepower
alone, but more importantly on human skills and the cohesion
of small units." He noted that below company size, American
units seldom acquire advanced infantry methods through overemphasis
on large-unit, long-range combat may have unintentionally developed
a shortfall in small-unit, short-range combat."
Intriguingly, Grau's regimental
orientation parallels the approaches advocated by Colonel Douglas
Macgregor, a controversial but highly regarded officer, in his
book Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the
21st Century, and Major Donald Vandergriff, another highly regarded
officer, in his forthcoming book, The Path to Victory: America's
Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs. In early March, Macgregor
was reassigned over the Army's objections to a position at the
National Defense University, where he'll be reporting directly
to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- a sign many take to mean
Rumsfeld may actually be serious about making real changes in
the defense establishment. Vandergriff remains buried as an ROTC
instructor at Georgetown University.
On the other hand, reformers weren't
buoyed by the Washington Post's analysis pieces on March 5 and
March 10, which one reformer characterized as "triumphalist
spin, the first of which basically said 'We knew what we're doing,'
and the second of which basically said, 'Well, actually, we didn't,
but that's ok, because none of this could have been avoided because
we couldn't have known any better, and really the important thing
is that the whole operation proves you can trust the administration,
because they said this war wasn't going to be quick and dirty."
And then there's still Afghanistan.
Veterans of the CIA's covert operations there are growing increasingly
concerned that the US is getting hopelessly enmeshed in the seething
tribal conflicts that have always been characteristic of Afghanistan,
where alliances are constantly shifting and bribery and deception
are coin of the realm. There's a vague consensus among these
guys that getting US forces out of Afghanistan sooner is better;
they and see the potential for a slide into a scenario where
more troops are deployed in the service of playing "whack-a-mole"
against an enemy who pops up, fights, leaves some dead and pops
up again, all against a backdrop of inter-tribal conflict the
US cannot hope to ameliorate and in which US forces could find
itself used and deceived more than it would care to admit.
Of particular concern on March 10
was the movement of ethnic Tajik troops from the Northern Alliance
into Shah-i-Kot in support of US soldiers: "If we're not
careful," said one former intelligence officer intimately
familiar with the region, "it's going to start looking like
that barroom scene in Star Wars, with us caught in the middle.
[Operation Anaconda] wasn't a disaster. But if [the military]
keeps repeating this, it's going to start looking a bit like
the Soviet model."