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David Miller: Tactics for a New Type of War

David Miller Online

Tactics for a New Type of War

Over the past week, the Bush Administration appears to have backed off from the threat of launching immediate retaliatory air strikes against targets in Afghanistan. At this point in time this is a wise move as it is doubtful that an air offensive would achieve the objectives of destroying the al-Qaeda network so early in the campaign against terrorism. Instead, the immediate tactic is for special operations forces to conduct reconnaissance of the Afghan terrain in an effort to provide intelligence on potential targets and in a bid to try and locate Osama bin Laden. There have been reports made by Qatar’s al-Jazeera television network suggesting Afghan forces had captured US special operations personnel and even though these reports are likely to be false, they do represent the potential dangers the US and its allies face when adopting this tactic.

The United States has a number of units at its disposal. These include Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Green Berets, Air Force Special Operations units and the Delta Force. The British have admitted that they will be deploying the elite troops of the 22nd Special Air Service regiment and although this unit is not as large as their US counterparts numerically, they are the most highly trained and effected commandos in the world and the most experienced. New Zealand and Australia also have Special Air Service squadrons and both governments have offered to deploy these troops to work along side US and British forces in their operations.

The role of the special operations forces is primarily reconnaissance. Their job is to deploy behind the enemy lines, establish the location of the people and facilities that will be the targets of a more intensive campaign and then extract. They may engage in hit and run operations against certain targets, carry out sabotage or the extraction of selected personnel as was the case with the Balkans war criminals, but reconnaissance is their main role. As these forces usually travel in small groups they try to avoid contact with the enemy as much as possible and often they are lightly armed. This increases their mobility factor and this is a key to their means of operation. It is likely that their role at the moment will be to provide information on the terrain of Afghanistan and on potential targets for the air strikes. It is unlikely that at this early stage they will have engaged in a search for bin Laden himself.

The United States and Britain must refrain from deploying conventional ground troops to Afghanistan if possible. One lesson New Zealand has learnt from its role in East Timor is that once these forces are deployed it can be incredibly difficult to withdraw them as their departure creates a power vacuum and possible instability. Should the US and Britain deploy troops and remove the Taleban from power in a conventional operation, then those troops become responsible for maintain the peace and stability in the country. If the Taleban are not destroyed completely, then those forces become the targets for what could become a bloody guerrilla campaign. The US has never forgotten this lesson from Vietnam and every Administration since has been wary of repeating this mistake. History shows that Afghanistan is not the place to make it again.

Covert operations of this kind do not always go according to plan or prove successful. The SAS experience in the Gulf War and the failed raid to capture a Somalian warlord in 1993 demonstrated that when a special forces solider is captured it becomes a propaganda victory for the enemy and the US will not want to see a repeat of its Somalian experience when the bodies of its Rangers soldiers where dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The problem facing any commando operation in this conflict is the nature of the Afghan terrain. The majority of the country is mountainous and this provides excellent cover and defensive positions to soldiers of the al-Qaeda. This terrain must be negotiated when the order is given for these forces to go after bin Laden himself and this will not prove easy. Another risk these forces face is that if they do encounter an enemy force it is likely they will be outnumbered and lacking in firepower.

Since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, it is clear that in the minds of the Bush Administration and the majority of the American people that they are now engaged in the first war of the new millennium and since the attacks the US has begun to deploy large numbers of its forces to the Middle East. However, as I have suggested in my last two columns, this enemy is unlike any the US has faced in the past. For a start, it is not a state, but the organisation that is led by one man and it is elusive. Its exact size and areas of operation are not fully known and as the attacks demonstrated can include the US itself. Hence the US must rethink its tactics to combat this new threat and look to design new tools for the task at hand.

Concepts such as deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) appear as historical as the Cold War, as this is not about the size of one’s military or the number of nuclear weapons a government has. This war is about what is happening in people’s minds and it is psychological as much as it is tangible. In this case MAD is rendered useless. It does not matter how many planes or ICBM’s the US possesses because the American soldier does not welcome death and the US people do not welcome death among their military personnel. On the other hand, the operatives of the al-Qaeda are not afraid to die.

Given the characteristics of this new enemy, special operations forces are the best weapons the US currently has at its disposal. At this stage, bombing will not defeat bin Laden and deploying ground troops would prove a fatal mistake. The way to defeat this elusive enemy is to be even more elusive then him and that way more effective.


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