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Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy

Authored by Dr. Stephen D. Biddle.

November 2002

68 Pages

Brief Synopsis

America's novel use of special forces, precision weapons, and indigenous allies has attracted widespread attention since its debut in Northern Afghanistan last fall. It has proven both influential and controversial. Many think it caused the Taliban's sudden collapse. For them, this "Afghan Model" represents warfare's future, and should become the new template for US defense planning. Critics, however, see Afghanistan as an anomaly - a non-repeatable product of local conditions. This briefing examines the Afghan Model's actual role in the fall of the Taliban using evidence collected from a combination of 45 participant interviews, terrain inspection in Afghanistan, and written documentation from both official and unofficial sources.

The results suggest that neither of the main current interpretations is sound: Afghanistan offers important clues to warfare's future, but not the ones most people think. The campaign of 2001-2 was a surprisingly orthodox air-ground theater campaign in which heavy fire support decided a contest between two significant land armies. Of course, some elements were quite new. Precision firepower was available in unprecedented quantity and proved crucial for success; special operations forces served as the main effort in a theater of war. In an important sense, though, the differences were less salient than the continuities: the key to success in both Afghanistan and traditional joint warfare was the close interaction of fire and maneuver, neither of which was sufficient alone and neither of which could succeed without sizeable ground forces trained and equipped at least as well as their opponents. In Afghanistan, our allies provided these ground forces for us; where others can do so, the Afghan Model can be expected to prevail. Hence Afghanistan is not unique. But not all future allies have armies trained and equipped to their enemies' standards. Without this, neither the bravery of our special forces nor the sophistication of our precision guided munitions (PGMs) can ensure an Afghan-like collapse in a resolute opponent—and this implies a very different set of policies for the armed forces and the Nation than many of those now prominent in the public debate on the war.


The defense debate tends to treat Afghanistan as either a revolution or a fluke: either the “Afghan Model” of special operations forces (SOF) plus precision munitions plus an indigenous ally is a widely applicable template for American defense planning, or it is a nonreplicable product of local idiosyncrasies. In fact, it is neither. The Afghan campaign of last fall and winter was actually much closer to a typical 20th century mid-intensity conflict, albeit one with unusually heavy fire support for one side. And this view has very different implications than either proponents or skeptics of the Afghan Model now claim.

Afghan Model skeptics often point to Afghanistan’s unusual culture of defection or the Taliban’s poor skill or motivation as grounds for doubting the war’s relevance to the future. Afghanistan’s culture is certainly unusual, and there were many defections. The great bulk, however, occurred after the military tide had turned—not beforehand. They were effects, not causes. The Afghan Taliban were surely unskilled and ill-motivated. The non-Afghan al Qaeda, however, have proven resolute and capable fighters. Their host’s collapse was not attributable to any al Qaeda shortage of commitment or training.

Afghan Model proponents, by contrast, credit precision weapons with annihilating enemies at a distance before they could close with our commandos or indigenous allies. Hence the model’s broad utility: with SOF-directed bombs doing the real killing, even ragtag local militias will suffice as allies. All they need do is screen U.S. commandos from the occasional hostile survivor and occupy the abandoned ground thereafter. Yet the actual fighting in Afghanistan involved substantial close combat. Al Qaeda counterattackers closed, unseen, to pointblank range of friendly forces in battles at Highway 4 and Sayed Slim Kalay. Al Qaeda defenders eluded detection or destruction by American air attack and had to be overrun at Bai Beche, Highway 4, and Operation ANACONDA. At Tora Bora, failure to commit properly trained and motivated ground troops to traditional close combat probably allowed the al Qaeda quarry to escape.

None of this means that precision weapons or special operations forces are not tremendously valuable. Few 20th century combatants enjoyed anything like the power or efficiency of U.S. high-tech fire support in Afghanistan. But just as weeks of bombardment failed to kill the entirety of 1916’s trench garrisons, so 2001’s precision-guided fire support killed many but not all of its al Qaeda opponents. And even a handful of hostile survivors armed with modern automatic weapons can be lethal to unskilled militia allies, just as they were to poorly trained draftees in 1916.

The key to success, whether in 1916 or 2002, is to team heavy, well-directed fires with skilled ground maneuver to exploit their effects and overwhelm the surviving enemy. This kind of skilled maneuver, however, is beyond the reach of many potential indigenous allies. In Afghanistan, U.S. proxies with American air support brushed aside unskilled, ill-motivated Afghan Taliban, but against hard-core al Qaeda opposition, outcomes were often in doubt even with the benefit of 21st century U.S. air power and American commandos to direct it. Where we face opponents with the gumption and training to stand and fight, our allies need the same, even with all the modern firepower we can offer them.

This in turn implies that we should neither restructure the military to wage Afghan-style wars more efficiently, nor reflexively commit conventional U.S. ground forces in every conflict. Where we enjoy local allies with the needed skills and motivation, we can expect the Afghan Model to work, and we should use it. But we will not always be so lucky. In Iraq, for example, the lack of a credible, trained opposition bodes ill for an Afghanistan-style campaign without major American ground forces. Deep cuts in ground capability could thus be very risky in spite of our strengths in air power or special operations forces. More broadly, though, we should be wary of suggestions that precision weapons, with or without special operations forces to direct them, have so revolutionized warfare that traditional ground forces are now superceded. Where our allies are good enough, they may provide the ground troops for us, but what Afghanistan really shows is that the wars of tomorrow—like those of yesterday—will continue to require skilled, motivated forces on the ground, in strength, if we are to exploit our technology’s effects. Precision weapons are making that ground-air combination ever more capable, but against resolute opponents, neither air power nor conventional ground forces will be able to prevail without the other any time soon.

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