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Hit the Ground

There is something exceedingly strange about America's war in Afghanistan. It appears to be a war that involves little in the way of real American combat. The reason is plain: combat implies casualties, and according to the reigning dogma, the American people are soft and sentimental, and cannot abide battlefield losses. Since Somalia, war without death seems to have become the American strategic ideal. This was nonsense then, and it is worse than nonsense now. After all, this war began with American deaths, with an obscene number of them, and all of them noncombatants. And yet the fiction endures among our soldiers and our statesmen.

"For the first time in our history," Vice President Cheney said on October 25, "we will probably suffer more casualties here at home in America than among our troops overseas." Look closely at that remark. It appears to be a statement of historical fact about September 11. But in truth it refers not to the past, but to the future. It is a coded promise that body bags will not be returned from the Hindu Kush, an assurance that few Americans will die abroad.

It is a completely spurious assurance, if our objective is victory. President Bush may not have explicitly ruled out the use of ground forces, as his predecessor stupidly did in Kosovo, but his conduct of the war has sent the same lulling message: the United States will not put large numbers of troops on the ground. And how does the president propose to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban without them? He is relying on three other military instruments: airpower, proxies, and Special Operations forces.

Two months since September 11, and one month since American bombing began, these three instruments have gotten us exactly nowhere. That is not surprising: they have seldom gotten us anywhere. Airpower certainly has a rather impressive record of failure, which the American military has regularly documented and regularly forgotten. From the Strategic Bombing Survey undertaken in the aftermath of the Second World War to the Gulf War Air Power Survey and similar analyses of the air war over Kosovo, the studies all tell the same story: bombing is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition, for battlefield victory. Every generation of American policymakers learns this lesson anew, but this generation's learning curve has proved steeper than most. The amazing technologies of stealth and precision guidance make the illusion almost irresistible.

Though it employed airpower with greater frequency than any other administration in recent memory, the proclaimed effectiveness of the Clinton administration's bombing campaigns in Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo was contrived and largely fanciful. In Iraq, eight years of intermittent bombing was merely a feckless cover for the benign neglect of Saddam Hussein's slow recovery from his defeat a decade ago. In Bosnia, it took a Croatian offensive to halt Serbia's depredations. In Kosovo, the ethnic cleansing did not end until Slobodan Milosevic was confronted with the threat of an imminent deployment of American ground forces.

If the innovation of the Clinton years was action in lieu of purpose, the result was to invite Americans--including the famously hard-boiled members of the Bush national security team--to wallow in the conceit that wars can be won bloodlessly and from a high altitude. The Clinton team prosecuted an entire war from 15,000 feet; and the Bush team is now fighting one from 16,000 feet. The Taliban, unfortunately, reside on the ground. And they show little sign of cracking under the fusillade from above. "I'm a bit surprised at how doggedly they are hanging on to power," a Pentagon spokesman conceded last week. Surprised? Like previous adversaries, the Taliban have adjusted cleverly and predictably to the air campaign, moving heavy weaponry into mosques and hunkering down in trenches and caves. Meanwhile footage of the regrettable, inevitable collateral damage that results from even the most precise of air campaigns is slowly overtaking the footage that really matters--the ruin of downtown Manhattan--and weakening the will of our already weak-willed allies. Having found refuge in places that America will not, or cannot, bomb, it appears the Taliban will rule Afghanistan through the winter, thereby handing the United States a humiliating and gratuitous defeat.

To be sure, the American war does have what our generals call a "ground component." The problem is that there is nothing American about it. The army carrying the burden of our self-defense so far consists of ill-equipped Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other local foes of the Taliban. Again, we are repeating imperfect history: the reliance on proxies, too, has a long and undistinguished history in American warfare. From the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam to the Kosovo Liberation Army to the Cuban exiles America dispatched to the Bay of Pigs, the United States has repeatedly turned to indigenous forces to fight wars it wanted fought, but not enough to fight them itself. Sometimes the effort has succeeded, but usually it has failed: in training, equipment, and professionalism, Third World clients cannot match the combat efficiency of the U.S. Army. The policy of proxies might be an acceptable strategy when it comes to sideshows--wars of secondary importance in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. But this war is not a sideshow. It is not a war launched on the periphery for secondary aims. It cannot be "outsourced."

Of all the proxies the United States has enlisted over the past half-century, the Northern Alliance may be the least prepared to attain America's battlefield objectives. This week, after opposing the Northern Alliance's advance at the behest of the State Department for close to a month, the Bush administration is reportedly pressing for aggressive action. But the Northern Alliance remains far weaker than its adversary, it boasts far fewer troops, and lacks the determination of its foe. Winter is already arriving in northern Afghanistan, and with it the shuttering of the Alliance's supply routes. Its forces lack fuel and ammunition, remain pathetically divided, and seem in no rush to march to an American timetable. "Most of the fighting we're doing," concedes Haron Amin, the Northern Alliance's Washington representative, "is basically on horseback with light weapons."

To rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, and the world of Osama bin Laden, ground forces will likely need to march not only on Kabul, but also through the Pashtun-dominated South of this derangingly rugged country, where hostility to the overwhelming non-Pashtun Northern Alliance and sympathy for the Taliban is pervasive. The Bush team fears that this would provoke a Pashtun uprising, and so it has sought to encourage an indigenous anti-Taliban insurgency in the South. But the effort has thus far gone exactly nowhere. Having defined the threat as world-historical and irredeemably malignant, the Bush team now finds itself relying on the equivocal action of a feeble and despised army. This it does for one reason and one reason alone: the fear of putting American soldiers in harm's way.

True, the United States has dispatched a small number of Special Forces teams to assist the Northern Alliance and coordinate U.S. air strikes. The media has somewhat comically treated their presence as a powerful symbol of political resolve, reporting in detail their comings and their goings and the movement--by quantity and by type--of their support aircraft. The administration has responded in kind, revealing during a neatly choreographed raid everything except the hour of attack and the actual target plan. Special Forces certainly make good television, as Hollywood has known for decades. But Special Forces do not win wars. As liaisons and commandos, and in reconnaissance missions, they are useful; and they are certainly capable of derring-do. In more ambitious roles, however, their record is mixed. The problem is not one of competence, but of capability. From the ill-fated Desert One mission inside Khomeini's Iran to the fruitless Scud-hunting forays during the Gulf war to the catastrophe in Mogadishu, the failures of elite forces have largely derived from their misuse. Trained to achieve precise and narrow aims, Special Forces are routinely employed by policymakers as a substitute for conventional forces rather than as a corollary to them. American planners seem to have forgotten that sooner or later the cavalry must arrive.

The Bush administration has weirdly banished the word "conventional" from the lexicon of its war on terror. General Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, says that the war is not about "occupying major strategic terrain" and, hence, offers "the easiest exit strategy we've had in years." That is why the Pentagon publicly touts Special Forces, whose mission is neither to seize territory nor to hold it, as its weapon of choice in Afghanistan. But is the war against the Taliban really so unconventional? Destroying Al Qaeda's mountain hideouts in southern Afghanistan may require an unconventional approach. Special Forces are fine for strikes against caves. But rooting out Taliban troops from their World War One-like trench lines (and many of those troops, remember, work for Al Qaeda) demands something more overwhelming.

It is also a task that America's comparative advantage in firepower suits perfectly. But so far the amount of firepower brought to bear against the Taliban front line represents only a puny fraction of the American arsenal. Special Forces, by contrast, suffer from the same constraints that hamper the Northern Alliance: cold weather, light arms, and small numbers. As a result, relying on them to achieve America's aims inside Afghanistan yields the same dilemma as depending on airpower and the Northern Alliance. It needlessly drags out the war, with all the political mishaps that such prevarication entails.

If this war is as decisive as the administration says it is, then the means by which it is waged should be just as decisive. Are we afraid? Have we succumbed to the legend of Afghanistan? What has become of our fury? Liberty Plaza is still smoldering.