Incident at Muc Wa

The Opening Battle

by Daniel Ford (Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2003

With the U.S. military out looking for Saddam Hussein, the earlier battle -- against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan -- seems long ago and far away. In Terrorism, Afghanistan, and America's New Way of War (Naval Institute Press), Norman Friedman, a prolific writer on military affairs, has done us the service of putting that campaign into its historical setting: as a necessary response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and as a logical prelude to our adventure in Iraq.

Though surrounded by countries with little reason to welcome an American attack, Afghanistan had managed to infuriate its neighbors by meddling in their affairs. Even in Pakistan -- the only nation in the world that might have been called its ally -- Afghanistan's rulers fomented opposition to Gen. Pervez Musharraf, which no doubt eased his decision to support us. (It is to Mr. Friedman's credit that he says "us," as opposed to the custom of television anchors, who prefer "the Bush administration.") Within Afghanistan, bin Laden's Arabs operated much like Saddam's Republican Guard -- an elite force with special privileges. Moreover, they were foreigners, and many Afghans cheerfully turned against them once they were losing.

The complexities of the campaign are dizzying, as when Mr. Friedman notes that "in Uzbekistan, separated from Tajikistan by weak Kyrgyzstan, President Islam Karimov was well aware of the threat of fundamentalism." Dizzying too are his acronyms, such as the "OODA Loop" as a guide to decision-making. It helps me only a little to know that OODA means observation, orientation, decision and action. A glossary would have been nice, though much of the difficulty is built in. I've read other books about "network-centric warfare," and Mr. Friedman's is one of the more lucid, if only because he is describing a familiar campaign.

Afghanistan, and America's New Way of War] "Network-centric" is the buzzword for a style of warfare that the U.S. military has been developing since it first relied on precision-guided bombs in Vietnam. Afghanistan saw those in plenty -- "smart" munitions accounted for 56% of the bombs dropped there -- not to mention unmanned spy planes, remote sensors, commandos on horseback with lasers and laptop computers, and all-but-instantaneous cooperation between air and ground forces. Thus an unmanned Predator drone beams a video of fleeing SUVs to a commander offshore, who uploads that image, a map and the geographical coordinates to an orbiting pilot, who then attacks what the drone "saw" five minutes earlier. In Afghanistan, four out of five pilots flew against targets not known to them when they catapulted off the aircraft carrier.

And the carriers! One of the astonishing features of the Afghan campaign is that it was so much a maritime war, though 400 miles -- and Pakistan -- separated it from the U.S. Navy. A majority of the aircraft over Afghanistan were Navy planes, and it was the Navy's footsoldiers who were the first substantial U.S. combat force in the country. Maintaining 1,000 Marines at Camp Rhino, in southern Afghanistan, was the equivalent, in World War II terms, of planting a battalion at the outskirts of Berlin and maintaining it from the English Channel.

Which is not to say that Afghanistan was a cakewalk or even a vindication of network-centric warfare. Mr. Friedman devotes considerable space to Operation Anaconda, in which Americans, Afghans and a smorgasbord of supporters (Australian, British, Canadian, Danish, French, German and Norwegian) attacked bin Laden forces in the mountains. The operation was plagued by high altitude, rough terrain, flawed tactics, stiff resistance and equipment failures (the Army's Apache attack helicopters had to be withdrawn, a hint of the difficulties they would encounter in Iraq). In war, bad stuff happens. This is as true of network-centric warfare as the more traditional kind of an earlier day.

Mr. Friedman had to chronicle the opening battle of our war on terror while the second was already under way. He does a good job of predicting the course of the Iraq campaign, a feat that makes his conclusions all the more persuasive. I would guess, for example, that he isn't dismayed that no weapons of mass destruction have yet turned up: WMD, he suggests, came into the equation because they might have persuaded the United Nations Security Council to back the invasion. I think he would argue that our interest in Iraq had little to do with WMD: We took down Saddam Hussein because, after decades of impotent responses to terror, we had to show Muslim extremists that there is a cost to killing Americans and that they'd be better off not doing it.

Are we succeeding? Well, we may never actually win the war on terror, any more than we've won our longstanding wars against crime and drugs. But the goal in such cases isn't victory, Mr. Friedman argues, but "reducing the threat to the sort of moderate and incoherent one which we faced in the past." And that much, he believes, "we are very likely to attain."

Mr. Ford is the editor of The Lady and the Tigers: Remembering the Flying Tigers of World War II.

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