The U.S. Army's special forces cannot boast a very impressive track record as far as operations deep into enemy territory are concerned.
In 1970, an American commando unit was sent by helicopter to Son Tay prison near Hanoi to free U.S. prisoners of war, only to find that the POWs were no longer in the camp. In 1980, special forces personnel were dispatched to rescue hostages in Tehran. Their helicopters crashed during fueling and eight soldiers were killed. In 1993, 18 members of a U.S. special unit, code-named Task Force Ranger, lost their lives in a bid to capture a Somali clan leader, Mohammed Farah Aidid, in Somalia.
Senior officers in the U.S. Army claimed this week that there has been a notable improvement in the performance level of soldiers attached to the special forces units. According to retired Lieutenant-General Thomas Burnette, a former chief of operations for the Army, there have been "a lot of fairly successful ones [raids] that nobody will talk about."
Pentagon officials are hoping that Burnette's assessment is correct, because the fate of the entire war the U.S. is spearheading depends on the successful outcome of the special forces' mission. With the stage of aerial assaults about to end soon, it has now become apparent that ground forces operations will be needed to attain the goals of this war.
The special forces will consist of members of the 101st Airborne Division, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) and the 10th Mountain Division. All of these units specialize in commando operations, and the members of these special forces will be carrying out their mission deep into Afghanistan. The goals of their mission are: to strike hard at Osama bin Laden's troops, to attempt to break the fighting spirit of the units in the Afghan army and to destroy the Taliban's control and supply centers.
A senior American army officer this week gave an Israeli friend a fascinating professional analysis of the military options available to the special forces. The officer pointed out that Afghanistan has never been captured and he argued that the Americans should make no attempt to occupy that country. Having served in Aghanistan in the late 1990s in the context of United Nations efforts to clear landmines and to provide humanitarian assistance, he knows the Afghan army well. He warns of the danger of any plans for holding on to territory in Afghanistan and he similarly cautions against a war of attrition in the pursuit of Afghan warriors amid the country's mountainous terrain.
The high-ranking American officer describes the level of the Afghan army's military prowess as very low and he notes the army contains a number of groups, each of which has its own agenda. He recommends that the Afghans' tendency toward internal disputes be utilized in order to isolate the soldiers in the Afghan army and to turn that army into a loose grouping of units without any connection to central command.
Nevertheless, Afghanistan's soldiers are famous for their endurance. As experience demonstrates, they can withstand for a very long time the kind of harsh conditions that could break the spirit of a Western soldier. He calls special attention to the brutality of Afghan soldiers, which was dramatically illustrated in the war against the Soviets. According to this officer, one should expect to see, at some time in the future, video cassettes depicting the ruthless execution of American POWs.
One of the central targets of the American special forces personnel operating in Aghanistan will be the 55th Brigade, whose soldiers are sometimes referred to as the Afghan Arabs. The soldiers of the 55th Brigade are primarily from Saudi Arabia. They followed bin Laden to Afghanistan and have become a key component in the Afghan army. The brigade has some 1,000 soldiers who are scattered throughout the country, while several hundred of them constitute bin Laden's personal bodyguard unit.
The liquidation of the 55th Brigade would carry great symbolic importance and thus, the officer advises, the special forces should place particular emphasis on securing that goal. Nonetheless, he cautions, the members of the 55th Brigade can be expected to fight to the death. There is a considerable amount of distrust between the brigade and the local population, which regards them as a foreign element that has taken control of the country. In his view, the Americans should take advantage of this state of affairs to isolate the soldiers of the 55th Brigade.
The special forces will make use of Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopters, which will transport them to their destinations. The helicopters will take off from the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, which reached the Indian Ocean earlier this week. Alongside the operations of American ground forces, helicopter gunships will be deployed in order to destroy the enemy's armored units - the Afghan army has between 400 and 500 antiquated tanks at its disposal - and to strike a mortal blow to concentrations of Afghan troops. The primary threat to the pilots of these helicopter gunships could turn out to be the Stinger missiles in the Afghan army's arsenal. Ironically, these missiles, whose effectiveness against helicopters was amply demonstrated when the Afghans fought the Soviets, were supplied to the Taliban by the Americans themselves.
The American ground forces do not have much time left in which to carry out their mission. The Afghan winter is fast approaching and by early November it will be nearly impossible to use most of the country's roads. Low clouds could make it exceedingly difficult for fighter planes and helicopter gunships to fly at low altitudes.
An additional suggestion the senior officer offered is that the warriors of the Northern Alliance be provided with large sums of money that can be used to buy off Taliban warriors. He proposes the Americans work in collaboration with the Northern Alliance but they maintain a low profile in that collaboration arrangement; otherwise, the very legitimacy of the Northern Alliance will be undermined in the eyes of the Afghan population.
A major lesson of the Gulf War was the importance of merging combat operations with the provision of humanitarian aid to the civilian population. According to this senior officer, the U.S. must increase the assistance it is extending to the citizens of Afghanistan, including Afghan refugees who have sought asylum in neighboring Pakistan.
Furthermore, he advises, the Americans should carry out infrastructural work in regions that are not under the Taliban's control. Finally, he suggests, American female military personnel should not serve in combat functions. No self-respecting Afghan would ever cooperate with a soldier whose combat comrades include women.
The goal facing the Americans in Afghanistan will be extremely difficult. The war they are fighting will be won by the side that can show a higher level of determination, resoluteness and decisiveness.
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