In a strictly operational sense, U.S. forces have generally performed well.
But when it comes to achieving its publicly declared political goals, the
United States has floundered and has found itself grappling with unforeseen and
unwanted second-order results. Beginning with Operation Desert Storm -- where,
despite a seemingly crushing defeat, Saddam Hussein inexplicably survived --
the consequences flowing from even the most successful military operation have
tended to be less than fully satisfactory.
In part, this stems from the fact that those goals have at times been
unrealistic -- as, for example, when President Clinton promised that U.S.
troops would "restore" democracy to Haiti. But there is a further explanation
as well, one related directly to how the United States chooses to employ
What are the principal characteristics of the American way of war that emerged
between the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and the war over Kosovo in 1999? Four
come to mind -- all four amply displayed over the past year in Operation
First, a pronounced reliance on advanced technology -- especially air
power and precision-guided munitions, employed at ranges beyond reach of the
enemy's weapons. U.S. military doctrine once viewed closing directly with the
enemy as a precondition of victory. Buoyed by an almost mystical belief in air
power, present-day U.S. officials view close combat as something to be avoided
if at all possible. We'll fight, but preferably at arm's length.
Second, within the ranks of the political and military elite, a conspicuous
sensitivity to casualties, especially casualties suffered by our own
forces. As a result, whenever fighting on the ground becomes unavoidable, the
United States relies to the maximum extent possible on proxies. The general
rule is that if there is dying to be done, let others do it.
Third, because you don't find hired guns in the nicer neighborhoods, a
willingness to collaborate with highly suspect regimes or movements able to
lighten the burden of U.S. forces. The two instances of U.S. armed
intervention in the Balkans, for example, found the United States making common
cause first with Franjo Tudjman's Croatia and then with the Kosovo Liberation
Army -- neither likely to win prizes for respecting human rights. Given the
choice between cozying up to unsavory characters and going it alone, the United
States typically chooses the former -- even if doing so undermines the moral
legitimacy of U.S. actions and calls into question our claims to act on behalf
of larger ideals.
Fourth, carried home from the failed U. S intervention in Somalia of 1992-1993,
an acute allergy to anything even vaguely suggestive of
"nation-building." As a result, although policymakers justify U.S.
intervention with promises of long-term support for political democratization
and economic development, once the immediate military issue is resolved the
tendency is to minimize the level of American involvement and exposure.
The events of 9/11 provided the United States with a justification to claim an
even greater freedom of action in the use of force -- the Bush Doctrine of
But 9/11 did not appreciably change the way that the United States actually
uses force. Although in the attacks' immediate aftermath President George W.
Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared that the global war on
terror would be sui generis, Operation Enduring Freedom has replayed the themes
common to U.S. operations of the 1990s.
Between October and December 2001, American air power and so-called "freedom
fighters" drawn from the ranks of the Afghan internal opposition -- motivated
and coached by a few dozen U.S. special operations troops and CIA operatives --
combined to overthrow the Taliban and deprive Al Qaeda of its chief base of
operations. Conventional ground forces of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps
played a minimal role apart from the relative handful of soldiers assigned to
secure airfields and process prisoners. U.S. casualties were few in number --
certainly fewer than the number of Afghan civilians killed by errant American
In laying the basis for the Afghan campaign, the Bush administration could be
found courting a dizzying array of shady regional actors. These included not
only the warlords of the morally dubious Northern Alliance, but also the
dictators governing the surrounding Central Asian republics and Pakistani
strongman General Pervez Musharraf.
Although at the outset of Enduring Freedom the Bush administration had
proclaimed its abiding concern for the well-being of all Afghans -- and
especially Afghan women -- no sooner had the Taliban been toppled than the
United States began paring back expectations about what it might be willing to
do. When it comes to creating a modern Afghan nation, the Bush administration
looks to the "international community" to foot most of the bill.
. . . .
In Afghanistan, adhering to the four precepts governing the new American way of war has
produced very real accomplishments along with notable shortcomings and
On the plus side, the United States has dealt a major blow to Al Qaeda,
depleting its ranks and disrupting efforts to plan and coordinate further
attacks. The overthrow of the Taliban not only deprived Al Qaeda of its
preferred sanctuary but also provided a salutary lesson to other regimes that
might be tempted to harbor terrorist networks. These are notable achievements
for which the Bush administration can rightly claim credit.
Yet on several other counts, Operation Enduring Freedom falls considerably
short of qualifying as a complete success.
First, the senior leadership of the Taliban and of Al Qaeda -- above all, Osama
bin Laden -- is still unaccounted for. When the United States and its
coalition partners appeared to have bin Laden trapped at Tora Bora in December,
the reluctance to commit U.S. ground forces and the reliance on untrustworthy
proxies allowed him to escape, probably into Pakistan. For the moment at
least, bin Laden's trail has grown cold. And although the Bush administration
has of late tried to de-emphasize his capture or elimination as a major war
objective, victory by any definition requires that the chief architect of Sept.
11 be brought to book.
Second, as has been the case in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans, the United
States finds itself today being drawn inexorably toward what promises to be an
open-ended military presence in Afghanistan. General Tommy Franks, the
commander responsible for U.S. operations in Central Asia, has acknowledged
that American troops can expect to remain in Afghanistan for years, if not for
decades. Unwilling to make the major political and economic commitment implied
by genuine "nation-building," policymakers end up opting for a Pax Americana,
relying on U.S. troops to maintain a semblance of order. Thus does the
perimeter of the American imperium continue to expand, along with the
responsibilities of policing it.
Third, in Operation Enduring Freedom our haste to recruit local partners
without checking too closely to see if their hands are clean may well give
birth to an especially problematic legacy. U.S. officials from President Bush
on down have proclaimed General Musharraf to be a great statesman and friend of
the United States. Yet he seems more likely to become South Asia's version of
Saddam Hussein -- seizing power through a military coup, rewriting the
Pakistani constitution to suits his own purposes, recklessly threatening
nuclear war against India. Back in the 1980s, the United States found it
expedient to collaborate with Saddam against Iran -- and lived to rue the day.
Americans may yet rue the day when they befriended Musharraf.
home + on the ground + assessing the campaign + with us or against us? + fighting on two fronts: a chronology
epilogue + discussion + interviews + links & readings + introduction + video + reporter's notebook
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi
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