For all the media naysaying, you’d think the onset of the Afghan winter marks the beginning of our defeat in the war against terrorism. Winter poses both difficulties and dangers, but the weather will be more of a burden for our adversaries than for us.
In a month of primarily air operations, we have destroyed the Taliban’s command, control and communications structure. Reports indicate that the Taliban army is now communicating by runners messengers afoot or on small vehicles rather than by radio or telephone. And you have to remember that when they say “small vehicles” in Afghanistan, they include horses. The latest information tells us that Osama bin Laden is not communicating electronically any longer. Obviously, someone using a satellite phone in Afghanistan is going to be pinpointed pretty quickly. In winter, our communications may be inconvenienced, but not slowed to any major extent. Information is the lifeblood of command, and the ability to communicate quickly with and between forces in the field often makes the difference between victory and defeat.
Logistics is possibly the single most important element in any war that lasts longer than the food and ammunition in a soldier’s pack. Our logistics, on which both we and the Northern Alliance rely, will be slowed by winter weather. But the burden of the weather will be overcome by our huge capability to take advantage in breaks in the weather. The Taliban will have little ability to do that. When they drive a truck or spur a horse in good weather, they will be seen and bombed or shot. When our intelligence gains information on enemy forces, it will be turned into targeting information almost as quickly as in better weather.
What we do with that targeting information will be different than it would be in the summer. Air operations will be limited, and the movement of ground forces, including special forces operators, will be slower and sometimes stopped entirely. Helicopters are hard enough to fly in good weather, and severe winds and snow will ground them for days at a time. But they will move, and our other aircraft will operate in all but the most severe weather.
We should hope the Taliban have a good supply of cigarettes and firewood. If they haven’t learned already, they will soon find that the glow of a cigarette can be seen in a sniper’s infrared scope from a considerable distance. And our snipers can hit the nose above the cigarette from hundreds of yards away. Lung cancer will be the least of their worries. Fires, for heat or warmth, will also not comfort the Taliban soldiers. Helicopters and some larger aircraft carry sensors that will spot those fires, and what we can see, we can kill.
We have a lot of people who are well-trained for winter operations. Many pundits seem to overlook the fact that many of our troops special forces among them specialize in winter war. The Army’s 10th Mountain Division is as good at it as anyone. The Army and Navy special forces routinely train in cold weather. Though the ground war is primarily an Army mission, the special operations community has a great many units that will take part in one way or another. Navy SEALs do cold weather training in Alaska, and their capabilities aren’t limited by lack of water to swim in.
I have heard some of the comments those folks made privately in response to the pundits’ negativism. Unusually, some of the comments are printable. One former SEAL said, “Hey, we have Eddie Bauer on our side. Who do they have?” The short answer is that the Taliban have what they, and their allies in Pakistan and other places, can smuggle into Afghanistan. Some will get through, but not enough to make much of a difference.
Critics will push us to rely on the Northern Alliance to conduct the ground campaign with our air support, rather than putting major U.S. ground forces into play. They will claim we have to let Muslims fight on Muslim soil to prevent losing our Arab world allies, such as they are. Shall we call it “Afghanization?” The Northern Alliance must be made to understand that, to some degree, our success will inevitably be measured by theirs. But their level of success, and commitment, cannot be determinative of ours.
We cannot let the advocates of Afghanization control our decision on committing more ground troops to the battle. In Vietnam, we chose to “Vietnamize” the ground war, which meant trying to train, supply and motivate the South Vietnamese to fight for their own freedom, substituting them for our troops who had been carrying the burden of the fight. It also meant the end of America’s commitment to victory. Vietnamization failed because the South Vietnamese weren’t as committed to their cause as the North Vietnamese were to theirs. It also failed because the world knew we lost the stomach for the fight.
Afghanistan is not Vietnam. This is as much our fight as it is the Northern Alliance’s, maybe more so. Whether the Northern Alliance governs Afghanistan after the Taliban is of some concern, but it’s not why we’re there. We’re there to end terrorism with or without the Northern Alliance. Let the Taliban worry about the winter. We have Eddie Bauer on our side.
Jed Babbin is the former deputy undersecretary of defense in the prior Bush administration.