- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2001

Nothing that America's enemies can say is as chilling as some of the comments from our own armchair generals. The scariest thing I've seen in the public prints is not some wild-eyed threat from the Taliban or their sympathizers in the Middle East, but an article in the good ol', red-white-and-blue Weekly Standard.
Its author is Frederick W. Kagan, who is hot for a long and costly ground war in Afghanistan a land that has buried one foreign army after another in its sandy history.
If there is anything more alarming than such advice, it's the realization that it comes from someone who teaches military history at West Point. It's a comfort to know he doesn't teach strategy.
Professor Kagan's plan for victory sounds more like a recipe for defeat, or at least for a long, drawn-out stalemate which is pretty much the same thing to Americans, for we like our wars short and decisive.
This plan for a long Afghan campaign should set off alarm bells, for it bears a striking resemblance to how we lost the war in Vietnam, and achieved only a long, bloody stand-off in Korea. To quote Mr. Kagan:
"The only prospect for success lies in getting troops rapidly on the ground, seizing and holding the major cities, and working to offer Afghans a positive reason to abandon the Taliban and cooperate with us." At least Mr. Kagan avoids the phrase, "hearts and minds."
"As we secure cities and sanctuaries," the writer continues, "we must work to feed the Afghan people and rebuild the infrastructure destroyed by decades of war." Nation-building, it was called in Bosnia and maybe Somalia, too.
"As the Soviets discovered, the seizure of Afghanistan's major cities is not difficult. The cities once seized and relief efforts put in train, it will probably be necessary to move into the countryside to control the guerrilla warfare that the Taliban will undoubtedly unleash in the face of our assault. This sort of warfare is extremely challenging, and rapid victory is not to be expected. Even here, however, there is considerable room for hope that we could improve over Soviet performance."
More likely, we would end up repeating the Soviets' ghastly and massive failure. They tried to hold cities against an unpredictable and ever-encroaching alliance of guerrilla bands fighting on native soil and carrying the war to a foreign army holed up in the cities. It was a war in which the CIA-supported guerrillas retained the initiative and element of surprise. They knew the terrain and were able to call on a fanatical hatred of the invader and infidel.
Sound familiar? It should. Such miscalculations go back long before the 1980s. We could wind up repeating not only the Russians' mistakes in the Middle East, but the Crusaders'.
Rather than conventional Army manuals, our war planners might do better to read a little Rudyard Kipling, who knew that part of the world better than he might have wanted to:
And the end of the fight
is a tombstone white
with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear:
A Fool Lies Here
Who Tried to Hustle the East.
Why fight a conventional war against an unconventional enemy? Why not let the Taliban be the ones surrounded and cut off by uprisings in the countryside? Already much of the Afghan population is disaffected, weary of civil war and the Taliban's dismal rule. Not to mention the Taliban's reliance on imported fanatics from the underside of the Arab world like Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban's is a regime asking to be toppled. Refugees were streaming out of the country even before now. By the millions. If this war against terrorism is to be won, as Frederick Kagan points out, it needs to be a war against the terrorists, not the Afghan people.
The challenge that now awaits is different from the war in Kosovo, or the war against Iraq over Kuwait. In Afghanistan, there is already a guerrilla army in the field harassing the enemy that shields bin Laden's terrorists. It is called the Northern Alliance, and while its legendary leader Ahmed Shah Massood has now been assassinated, his example and his doctrines are very much alive.
Massood's attacks were not confined to one part of the country; he had a way of leapfrogging the Taliban's defenses and showing up where least expected. Why not follow his tactics, and amplify their effect with the most modern, precise and destructive of long-range weaponry?
Already the Taliban are being isolated diplomatically, and a broad if uneasy alliance of anti-Taliban forces is being forged under the Afghans' old and for the moment exiled king. Air power, as in the Gulf war, can be decisive again even if a ground war is needed to administer the coup de grace.
But here we have as illustrious a galaxy of barroom Napoleons, think-tank warriors, military correspondents and distinguished second-guessers as ever replayed the battle of Gettysburg on a dining room table and not one has been heard to repeat the single phrase that in its condensed wisdom sums up what should have been learned in Vietnam:
No land war in Asia.
Have we spent all these years, not to mention resources, building the most devastating and far-reaching weapons of war to start sacrificing GIs again in a protracted conflict?
Yes, airborne troops may be needed as well as the guerrilla army already in action, but why settle for a conventional, defensive strategy that has failed elsewhere?
Happily, there are few if any signs that American commanders propose to be sucked into a Russian-style war of massive formations lumbering into Afghan valleys like so many sitting ducks.
Instead, indications are that the first American and British commandos are already in the field, scouting out the land for the precise strikes to follow, and the first arms shipments of many are being readied for the guerrilla army now battling the Taliban.
This country's strategic planners don't appear eager to rush into a land war in Asia. That's assuring; they would do well to leave that kind of thing to writers in little magazines.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2019 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