- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2001

Though a war on terrorism is fraught with peril for U.S. forces, the best plan appears to be combining small-scale, highly mobile special-operations forces with limited carrier-based air strikes. Such a strategy could be quite effective if the war aim is carefully defined.

The United States must first concentrate on toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, rendering the position of Osama bin Laden untenable in that country.

Afghanistan is critical to American war planning for two reasons.

First, it is the base of bin Laden and his extremist al Qaeda organization.

In responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, killing bin Laden and destroying his facilities in Afghanistan represents a war aim in its own right.

Second, the Taliban regime that governs Afghanistan has provided sanctuary for al Qaeda and possibly operational resources as well. Under the doctrine that any country that provided support for the Sept. 11 attackers shares responsibility, Afghanistan is a hostile power subject to attack.

The most elegant war plan would be to invade Afghanistan, engage and annihilate its armed forces and occupy the country. But for the United States, the most elegant solution and military reality do not coincide.

The geography, topography and geopolitics of Afghanistan and Central Asia make the concentration of sufficient force along Afghanistan's frontier extremely difficult to achieve.

Historically, outside powers have not been able to occupy and pacify Afghanistan.

It is always a sign of danger when military capabilities prohibit the pursuit of the most elegant war plan. Military planners sometimes overreach themselves.

This is especially likely when extreme political pressure is involved; at other times, planners shift from elegant to inelegant objectives.

Great discipline needed

To plan and fight a war under these circumstances requires extraordinary political, strategic and operational discipline.

Aims must be crisply defined, and plans must match forces to aims. Most important, the inherent danger of inelegant war aims mission creep must be avoided.

As the clearly defined mission is in the process of completion, the temptation of political leaders and military commanders is to redefine the mission more broadly.

American political leaders have committed the country to military action in Afghanistan.

Therefore, the United States must craft and execute inelegant military plans.

Calibrating war aims is, in this case, heavily dependent on geography. Afghanistan differs fundamentally from all other countries the United States has fought in that it is landlocked.

Any plan for invading Afghanistan on virtually any scale beyond small sorties staged from carriers operating more than 300 miles from Afghanistan's southern border and more than 700 miles from its capital, Kabul requires the political cooperation of one or more neighboring countries.

Afghanistan has five neighbors. Iran, to the west, is an enemy of the Taliban regime and recently has shown tendencies toward reconciliation with the United States. Though there is a small possibility that Tehran would permit the United States to stage very small and extremely secret operations from Iranian soil, it is inconceivable, given the history between the two countries, that it would permit a large American army to be deployed there.

Pakistan lies south and east of Afghanistan. The United States and its allies used it as a sanctuary for Afghan fighters and as the logistical support base for Afghan resistance during the country's war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. One of the consequences of this liaison was that the Islamic fundamentalism that drove much of the Afghan resistance reinforced Pakistani tendencies as well. Thus, there is substantial sympathy for the Taliban in Pakistan.

Dangers in Pakistan

For any large-scale deployment to occur, the Pakistani port of Karachi and smaller ports to the west, such as Ormara would have to be secured.

The highways from the port to the frontier would also have to be secured while men are moved forward and material built up. Finally, the forward bases would have to be secured.

Regardless of Islamabad's intent, it cannot guarantee the security of U.S. forces.

Given the disasters in Beirut and at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, it is clear that the United States would have to take operational control of its own security.

That would mean, in effect, the occupation and pacification of substantial portions of Pakistan before any operation against Afghanistan.

Resistance to the presence of a large U.S. force in Pakistan could easily involve elements of Pakistan's military and security forces as well as Taliban sympathizers. The United States does not have sufficient forces available to secure Pakistan and stage an invasion of Afghanistan, even against trivial forces.

A similar problem pertains to basing attack aircraft in Pakistan. Security of the air bases would require substantial numbers of American troops. Transport of petroleum, oil and lubricants necessary for air operations would be extremely vulnerable to interdiction by indigenous forces. The air bases could easily become hostage to attackers.

The United States can expect two things from Pakistan: That it will permit the United States to use its air space, and that it will permit the United States and its allies to base small special-operations teams in remote areas of the country. Those teams obviously must provide their own security.

There are serious questions as to whether all elements of Pakistan's armed forces will honor Islamabad's commitments.

There is some possibility that elements of the military might use Pakistani surface-to-air missiles or interceptor aircraft against U.S. aircraft.

U.S. air-refueling tankers would be particularly vulnerable, along with command-and-control aircraft like AWACS.

This factor seriously constrains the use of air power.

Naval air power key

The Indian government has offered the use of several of its bases.

Ground security doubtless would be far superior, but U.S. aircraft would still have to fly through Pakistani air space, assuming that China does not grant overflight privileges.

In our opinion, the use of Indian basing would improve ground security and increase the number of sorties that aircraft could fly, but it would also dramatically increase the risk that elements of the Pakistani military might interdict flights.

Clearly, the U.S. Air Force could manage this risk but it would represent the type of diffusion of effort that is so dangerous in warfare of this kind.

This means, in our opinion, that naval forces would have to carry out most air operations in this region.

Since an aircraft carrier can, under optimal conditions, launch perhaps 40 strike aircraft plus fighter cover and tankers, a fleet of four to five carriers could sortie between 160 and 200 strike aircraft, at the most generous limits.

A more reasonable number of strike aircraft would be in the range of 100 to 125, adjusting for mission availability and force mix on the carrier.

Assuming two sorties in a 24-hour period, this would allow the United States to carry out strikes on key infrastructure and at bases specified by intelligence.

Such force is not sufficient even in its optimal form to paralyze a country like Afghanistan.

Strike aircraft flying out of Turkey or Persian Gulf bases could join these naval forces.

A mission from Turkey, however, would be nearly 2,000 miles long; one from the Gulf would travel about 1,500 miles.

The mission would be doable, but it would require several refuelings. Moreover, it would not permit the tempo of operations required for substantial, sustained damage to Afghanistan.

Therefore, the naval aviation would be supported primarily by long-range sorties by B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers some based in Diego Garcia and other near-theater bases, some operating directly from the United States.

This, plus Tomahawks, would constitute the bulk of the air campaign.

This means that any war conducted primarily from Pakistan would be severely handicapped from the start.

The Northern Option

Three republics of the former Soviet Union line the northern border of Afghanistan: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Now independent, these nations have complex relations with the Afghanis and the Russians.

Each has ethnic ties with elements on the other side of the Afghan border. Each was used as a staging area in the war with the Soviet Union. Each values its independence, yet remains within the Russian sphere of influence.

Russia continues to maintain a covert presence in Afghanistan. A small northeastern portion of Afghanistan remains under the control of a loose coalition called the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan.

Commonly known as the Northern Alliance, it is a confederation of mostly ethnically defined armies that share antipathy toward the Taliban but little else.

The various factions within the Northern Alliance are backed individually or collectively by Russia, Iran, India, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The military leader of the Northern Alliance was killed in what appeared to be a suicide bombing just days before the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

It has been speculated that bin Laden's agents killed Ahmad Shah Masood in anticipation of the Sept. 11 events.

According to this theory, bin Laden expecting an intense American response saw the area occupied by the Northern Alliance as particularly dangerous.

Though driven out from more than 90 percent of Afghan territory, opposition forces still hold positions only about 20 miles from Kabul. By killing Mr. Masood, bin Laden hoped to destabilize the Northern Alliance, preventing the United States from using its territory as a base.

It is not clear that the strategy succeeded, since Russia also supports the Northern Alliance with funds and weapons. Russia's support for the group has intensified in recent years.

A Taliban victory over the Northern Alliance could cement Tajikistan to the Taliban.

This was something the Russians could not tolerate either for their general position in Central Asia or in the context of their war with Muslim Chechens.

Dependency on Russia

Thus, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia continues to maintain a substantial presence in Central Asia.

The region also contains military facilities, particularly air bases, dating back to the war with Afghanistan.

This is a region in which the United States could build up both air and ground forces with greater security than in Pakistan.

As important, this is an area from which it could actually move forces directly into Afghanistan, particularly in the area held by the Northern Alliance.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan provide the most promising axes of attack. Each has its own reason for welcoming U.S. troops, but there is a common denominator. Each is concerned that Russia is eroding its independence. Each would view a U.S. presence as a potential guarantee against Russia.

Therefore, they already appear to have welcomed some American troops.

The problem with their analysis is that they underestimate the dependency that the United States would have on Russia in such a scenario.

First, the United States would be operating within the Russian sphere of influence, and the Kremlin would force the United States to formally acknowledge that.

Second, it would be using Russian assets within the Northern Alliance.

Finally, the distances involved would require substantial Russian logistical support.

There would be no way for the United States to build up major forces and ship bulk materials into these countries without Russian assistance.

Conventional war impossible

Using Uzbekistan and Tajikistan would create a de facto Russo-American alliance.

Russia's price for its services would be high. It would include substantial financial help, recognition of its sphere of influence within the former Soviet Union, a free hand in Chechnya and the Caucasus and no NATO expansion.

In return, the United States would have a geographical base from which to launch operations within Afghanistan.

But even in this region, a conventional war would be impossible. The time required to build up any force capable of moving directly against the Taliban would be measured in years rather than months.

Just as important, the political complexity involved in large-scale basing in this region is mind-boggling.

The United States would be rapidly drawn not only into controversies between the host country and the Russians, but also into extraordinarily complex political arrangements within the host country.

Rather than concentrating on the Afghan campaign, the United States would become a vulnerable and isolated player in a geopolitical region in which its only substantial interest is waging a war against a third party.

In short, basing in this region would be a massive diffusion of effort coupled with extraordinary dangers of mission creep.

At the same time, the opportunities for covert operations and the deployment and support of special forces out of this region are important and if maintained on a relatively small scale can provide another axis of attack into Afghanistan.

The American Strategy

It appears to STRATFOR that the primary mechanisms available to the United States are relatively small-scale, special-operations forces that are highly mobile and have access to the nation's most comprehensive intelligence capabilities.

This force can be coupled with some larger airborne and air-mobile assets, but these must be limited in size for political and logistical reasons.

The available air capability must be carrier-based, with some strategic support from long-range bombers and possibly, in special circumstances, from air forces in Turkey and the Persian Gulf.

This force appears insufficient at first glance. In fact, it might be quite effective if the war aim is carefully defined.

The United States has two goals: One, to topple the Taliban; the other, to destroy al Qaeda and kill bin Laden.

If these goals are treated in sequence rather than in parallel, interesting possibilities emerge.

To be more precise, if the focus was on disrupting and defeating the Taliban, bin Laden's position in Afghanistan would become untenable.

Apart from his personal fate, the ability to base training and other facilities in Afghanistan would decline or disappear.

Therefore, the heart of the matter is to defeat the Taliban. The resources available are special forces and other light but effective units.

There is a unique match between the means needed to defeat the Taliban and the forces that can be made available.

In one sense, this is a low-risk, low-cost operation. Failure will not be disastrous; success could be enormous.

In another sense, there are two substantial risks.

The first is the price the Russians and Pakistanis might exact for their services.

The second is Americans' expectation of rapid action against Afghanistan. Time is the key.

The virtue of this strategy is that it is the only one that could possibly bring down the Taliban and destroy bin Laden. We believe this is the option defense planners have selected.

There will be no massive deployment of aircraft or divisions to the region.

This will be a guerrilla war, with the United States orchestrating the guerrillas.

George Friedman is the founder and chairman of Stratfor, a provider of global intelligence in Austin, Texas, to private companies and subscribers. Its Web site is Stratfor.com.



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