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America Not Yet Ready to Pounce


America Not Yet Ready to Pounce

Constant claims that the United States has already deployed massive military forces to the region around Afghanistan in readiness for a large retaliatory strike are misguided, according to a Massey University senior lecturer in Defence Studies. On the contrary, says Dr Joel Hayward, America's build-up of forces in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf region has not been noticeably large or quick.

America has indeed sent several aircraft-carrier battle groups to sea, but this should not be seen solely as a sign of imminent aggressive intent. Dr Hayward noticed that they and other major warships were sent to sea immediately after the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were hit, which indicates merely a desire to remove the carriers - the American military's greatest treasure -- from danger of similar attack. A docked aircraft carrier would be relatively easy prey to terrorists, whereas a carrier at sea, with its cruisers, destroyers, frigates and other support vessels providing protection, is remarkably safe.

It is the same with the few squadrons of aircraft sent from bases in America to those within strike range of possible Persian and central Asian targets. It all looks impressive and frightening, but surprisingly few squadrons have gone or received orders to do so. Dozens of key squadrons still sit idly, although doubtless on a heightened alert status, at bases around the United States. Certainly fewer combat and combat-support aircraft have left the United States in the last two weeks than did so during the same period in August-September 1990, when America resolved to protect Saudi Arabia after Iraq's brutal invasion of Kuwait.

The call-up of Reservists has also been very low-key. The post-Vietnam US Defense Forces were designed to interweave the Reserve and National Guard forces with regulars so that no serious military operation can occur without calling up Reserves and mobilizing National Guard forces. This supposedly compels political leaders to secure public approval before committing troops to any operation.

Political support for a retaliation for the evil but very clever 11 September terrorist strikes is very high, but the degree of reservist and National Guard call-up has been surprisingly small. While it may be the highest in several years, it does not yet come anywhere near to matching that evident in the months before Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

All things considered, then, these are not the signs that an invasion of any nation, including Afghanistan, is imminent and possibly only days or a week or two away. That does not mean that the United States isn't considering such action; merely that it is proceeding with much greater deliberation and circumspection than the flood of television reports are telling us. That greater care may stem from Colin Powell's centrality in the Bush administration. Paradoxically, given that Powell retired from the military in 1993 as a four-star general and Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, his voice is one of the most moderate (and hopefully influential) that President Bush is hearing.

Powell learned from Casper Weinberger in the 1980s a doctrine that is now, thanks to his own advice to the first President Bush before and during the Gulf War, called "The Powell Doctrine ". This advocates that American military force should only be used as a last resort, after all other financial and diplomatic options have been tried. The doctrine says, however, that if military force must unavoidably be used it should be used decisively and overwhelmingly to guarantee success. The Vietnam-style incremental or gradual deployment of forces must not occur under any circumstances.

Most importantly, says Powell's doctrine, before force is threatened or used, the US President must ensure that the political objective is very carefully defined, is in America's national interest, is well understood by the American people, is totally supported by them, and has finite boundaries to prevent escalation and "mission-creep". In other words, the President must establish exactly what it is he wants to do, and what it is he can't afford to do - or what he simply MUST NOT DO!

At present the National Command Authority, which has George W. Bush and Colin Powell as key members, along with the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is doubtless working their way through these issues. Although they have publicly stated that Afghanistan lies at the heart of their thinking, they have said very little more. This is not only so that they don't give away their strategy, as President Clinton clumsily did in March 1999 when Nato's war on Yugoslavia commenced, but also because they are defining possible goals, testing them against thorough criteria to establish their potential effectiveness, their risks of escalation and chances of success.

The primary activity right now isn't the movement of forces. It is the collection of intelligence data from every available source. And only when the widely scattered pieces of the intelligence jigsaw are assembled - which may be weeks away yet - will Bush and his advisors know what the whole jigsaw looks like. Even then it won't be a complete picture. Some pieces will always be missing. Best guesses will hopefully fill in those gaps. Before that, America's leaders can do relatively little but make rousing, patriotic statements in order to increase public morale and sustain support for whatever may come next.

Powell is no fool; he wants to eliminate the chances of further terrorist attacks against America and its friends, but he doesn't want to initiate a global conflict to do so. He and his Commander-in-Chief, President Bush, are clearly waiting until they have established their goals and then ascertained their palatability among potential coalition partners. Only then, and after a mighty diplomatic effort to win allies, neutralise potential nuisances, and construct a coalition of the willing, will America begin to assemble and stage its forces in preparation for a campaign. And that takes at least several months (it took five before the Gulf War), which is a grave worry with a northern hemisphere winter fast approaching.

What all this means is that, while some sort of conflict looms, we cannot yet do more than guess at what its likely goals, shape, size, nature, start date and duration will be. All we can say is that, despite the disturbing warlike rhetoric emerging from the White House and the Pentagon, America is not rushing to strike as soon and incautiously as many people assert.

-- Dr Joel Hayward teaches military history, strategy and operational art in the Centre for Defence Studies at Massey University.

Dr Joel Hayward,
Senior Lecturer and
Programme Coordinator,
Centre of Defence Studies,
Massey University,
Private Bag 11-222,
Palmerston North,
New Zealand

Tel.: NZ 06 350 4234
Fax: NZ 06 350-5676

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