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NPR Morning Edition November 21, 2001

Military analysts reviewing successes of war in Afghanistan

BOB EDWARDS, host: When the United States began the military campaign in Afghanistan last month, Taliban forces controlled about 90 percent of the country. The opposition Northern Alliance had made almost no headway in several years of fighting the Taliban. Many experts predicted the United States would be sucked into an unwinnable war. Taliban forces now are backed into opposite corners of the country, and military analysts are reviewing the campaign to determine what worked. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN reporting: The Taliban forces and their allies in Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network seemed fearsome, holy warriors prepared to fight to the death. The United States was not prepared to send its own troops into battle against them, and the Northern Alliance rebel force seven weeks ago was underequipped and disorganized. Perry Smith is a retired Air Force general and former commandant of the National War College. General PERRY SMITH (Retired, US Air Force): You've got to realize that the Northern Alliance only had about 15,000 troops and they were facing about 45,000 Taliban troops and another 5 to 10,000 al-Qaeda troops. And so it was very much on the advantage of the Taliban forces, and yet, in a short period of time, it turned around. And so what you have to say is, how is that possible?

GJELTEN: The clearest answer is that the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the last few weeks felt the effects of a modern US bombing campaign focused squarely on them. In World War II, bombs missed their targets by an average of 3,200 feet, now it's 10 feet. The accuracy of US bombing means enemy troops targeted in Afghanistan may have felt the air strikes were in some way punishing them personally. Richard Hallion, the official Air Force historian, says the way Taliban fighters abandoned their front-line positions was consistent with what he has seen in other wars that featured precision bombing. He cites an interview with a Serbian soldier after the Kosovo war.

Mr. RICHARD HALLION (Air Force Historian): The air attackers knew everything about him. They knew where he was moving, his entire unit had been targeted. This went on for days. Fifty percent of the platoon that he was in had been killed. All he wanted to do, he said, was get away in the woods, get away for 10 days and think by himself. So it has very powerful psychological effects, and I think we certainly saw here the same sort of thing. You saw a large number of desertions, you saw people pulling back out of positions, you saw a rapid collapse.

GJELTEN: The precision of the bombing in Afghanistan was due in large part to advanced air power technology: computers determining strike coordinates, lasers guiding the bombs to their targets. But there was also a human factor: Highly trained American Special Forces, including Green Berets and Air Force operatives, were on the ground advising US pilots of what targets to hit. Retired Air Force General Perry Smith says war planners will be studying this campaign for years to come.

Gen. SMITH: This is a big breakthrough here, because now we're combining the very best of air power with the very best of Special Forces folks on the ground who are very well-trained, know the area well, know how to work well with forces on the ground, and we didn't see that, you see, in the Gulf War. We didn't see that in Kosovo. And so now as we go after terrorist elements or anybody else that we go after, we now have developed even better procedures and better techniques to work air-ground together in a very powerful kind of a way.

GJELTEN: Perhaps the most notable feature of the Afghanistan campaign, in fact, was the way it brought together techniques from the past with the technology of the future. The US Special Forces who were deployed with the Northern Alliance fighters in Afghanistan rode into battle with them on horseback, but they were equipped with 21st century gadgets. Primitive though it may have seemed, the Afghanistan operation struck John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org as a space war.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (GlobalSecurity.org): The United States was using navigation, communications, reconnaissance, Signals Intelligence satellites to stitch together American forces to coordinate those with Northern Alliance and other resistance forces on the ground, providing a level of surveillance of the battlefield that simply was unanticipated by the Taliban, could not have been done by any other country, couldn't even have been done by the United States prior to a few years ago.

GJELTEN: After each war, experts analyze the lessons learned. In this case, there is a winning formula: mighty US air power guided by satellite-based intelligence, supplemented by Special Forces on the ground daring to get close to battle. William Arkin, an independent analyst and military consultant, sees just one problem. He's not sure which of those various features was key.

Mr. WILLIAM ARKIN (Analyst): I think that the danger in doing lessons learned from this day on is crediting some silver bullet--air power itself, Special Operations itself, intelligence itself, precision-guided weapons itself. And I'm already hearing Defense Department spokesmen starting to refer to, 'Oh, well, this just shows that long-range precision air power is the future of the US military.' I think that would be a terrible lesson learned, because it's unclear, first of all, that that's what's responsible for the victory, and second of all, it's unclear whether or not that's going to be a sufficient military force in order to deal with all of the challenges that we have ahead of us.

GJELTEN: Maybe Afghanistan was unique. Michael Vickers, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, is a former Green Beret. Air strikes by long-range bombers combined with Special Operations may be the way to go in places similar to Afghanistan, he says, but he cautions against drawing too big a lesson from this operation.

Mr. MICHAEL VICKERS (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): The key element in Afghanistan is that we had an opposition force in place that we won't always have in other conflicts. And so we may need to use conventional ground forces in other cases where there is no opposition and where time is critical or some other factor dictates a different mode of operation.

GJELTEN: A final point: the Taliban regime may now be largely vanquished, but this was not the US military objective with Afghanistan. The goal instead was to destroy a terrorist network there, and in that war effort, US officials are not yet claiming victory. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.


Copyright 2001 National Public Radio (R).