- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Referring to the array of rogue states, terrorist groups and emerging powers intent on challenging American interests around the world, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz recently told the Senate and House Armed Services committees, "They have learned from the Gulf war that challenging American forces head-on doesn't work, so they have turned increasingly to developing asymmetric capabilities."

Much of his testimony dealt with the U.S. response to the very asymmetrical attacks of September 11. Asymmetrical warfare, however, has been a buzz word in military thinking for a decade, and the concept is as old as war itself.

Terrorism and guerrilla warfare are asymmetrical strategies that the United States has faced before. They are used by those who are militarily weak, but politically ambitious. Mao Tse-tung was the great modern theorist of this approach. It was the first phrase in a long war that eventually would see the rise of a communist army strong enough to overthrow the Nationalist Chinese government, whose forces had been weakened and demoralized during the protracted struggle. Once the terrorist-guerrilla movement had built a secure base, it could strike at the will of the enemy. As the enemy faltered and allies became disillusioned, more support would flow to the banner of the insurgents until the balance of power shifted.

Osama bin Laden has mapped out a similar strategy. His aim is to drive the U.S. out of the Middle East and overthrow the moderate governments which he believes are propped up by American power. Afghanistan provided him with a base, but other states also provided support. If a decadent America could be shown to not to have the stomach to fight, then others who wanted the same future as Osama bin Laden would be emboldened to join al Qaeda and set the entire region ablaze.

There were reasons bin Laden thought such a strategy would work. In October 1993, a combined force of about 100 U.S. Rangers and Delta Force commandos fought a battle with several thousand Somali militia, including al Qaeda members. Eighteen Americans were killed, and TV cameras showed one of the bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

Media coverage, and the Clinton administration's shocked reaction, conveyed an image of defeat. That hundreds of Somali gunmen died in the fight, because they could not stand against American soldiers on anything like an equal footing, was lost from the story. It became commonplace to believe America could no longer tolerate casualties. If 18 deaths chased Washington out of Somalia, how far would the U.S. retreat if thousands of Americans died?

Terrorists weren't the only ones making this calculation. In their influential 1999 book "Unrestricted Warfare," Chinese Cols. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote, "Viewed from the performance of the U.S. military in Somalia, where they were at a loss when they encountered [Mohamed Farah] Aideed's forces, the most modern military force does not have the ability to control public clamor and cannot deal with an opponent who does things in an unconventional manner."

Yet, asymmetrical strategies cut both ways. They do not all involve cheaper weapons, or favor less sophisticated armies. It is still better to be strong than weak, and to be rich rather than poor, when waging war.

Airpower is Washington's favorite asymmetrical weapon. The Taliban's air defense system was quickly neutralized, giving American forces the ability to strike at will, conduct reconnaissance, and airlift troops and supplies.

Strategic thought is not, however, mainly about hardware. It is about problem-solving; how to gain and hold political power. On that basis, air campaigns are akin to guerrilla warfare. Neither are meant to take and hold ground. They are meant to weaken the will of the enemy to resist the decisive land campaign that determines the political outcome of the war.

It was thus disconcerting to hear Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld say over the weekend that the U.S. does not plan to deploy any substantial number of American combat troops in Afghanistan. Without a dominant presence on the ground, Washington becomes dependent on those who do have armies deployed.

Yet, the U.S. is leery of the numerically weak Northern Alliance, and is having difficulty mobilizing the southern Pashtuns.

Without American soldiers, there is no certainty that the goal Mr. Rumsfeld desires, "to get the al Qaeda and the Taliban the dickens out of Kabul and the rest of the country," can be achieved. The reluctance of Washington to commit troops does not build confidence among those tribes it seeks to recruit. Instead, it looks to the warrior people of Afghanistan like fear.

The United States has the world's best trained and equipped combat troops, Army and Marine, honed in the doctrine of decisive warfare. Washington needs to use this great asymmetrical advantage to consolidate control of Kabul and finish the war in the south. It is unclear whether local forces alone can hold Kabul, let alone mount a final campaign against the Taliban strongholds around Kandahar.

The Taliban withdrew from Kabul, escaping encirclement without suffering a decisive defeat. Their army is still in the field. It must be isolated from the kind of outside support the mujahideen received during the war against the Soviets. Meanwhile, Washington needs the banner of a victorious army to attract the necessary broad coalition of Afghan leaders who can rebuild the country. It should be an American banner.

The difference between winning and losing is the ability to impose the kind of political outcome that supports the nation's war aims. That can only be done at ground level, where the real authority is exercised.

William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for national security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Educational Foundation.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide