Taken together, Afghanistan and Iraq thus suggest that a SOF-predominant Afghan Model can sometimes substitute for large-scale U.S. ground forces – but only if an important precondition is met. If indigenous allies are capable of providing troops whose skills and motivation are somewhere in the ballpark of their opponents’, then SOF-directed precision firepower can be decisive, turning stalemates or looming defeats into one-sided battlefield victories for America and its allies. If the enemy is unskilled or ill-motivated, then even unskilled or ill-motivated allies will be sufficient – as both the early stages of the Afghan campaign and the fighting on the Green Line in OIF show. But if the enemy is better trained or more willing to stand and fight, then inept or uncommitted allies may not be able to take advantage of the tremendous potential that SOF-directed standoff precision brings to the battlefield – as we have seen at Tora Bora, Arghestan Bridge, and the Tri-cities in ANACONDA.
But what about the longer term future? Will this finding change with newer technology by 2020? Probably not. The cover and concealment that enabled al Qaeda defenders to thwart SOF target acquisition and precision engagement in 2001-2 were provided by features of the earth’s physical and human geography that are likely to remain problematic for even 2020’s sensors and weapons. Figure 1 provides a concrete illustration of this problem in the form of a photograph of an al Qaeda fighting position from Takhur Ghar mountain near Objective Ginger on the ANACONDA battlefield. The arrow indicates the al Qaeda defenders’ location; without the arrow, there would be no visible sign of a combat position even from the nearly point blank range at which this photograph was taken. Overhanging rock in turn provides cover and concealment from overhead surveillance systems. In principle one might hope to observe resupply movement or al Qaeda patrols into or out of such positions, or to overhear radio communications from its occupants. Al Qaeda soldiers wearing the flowing robes of local herdsmen and traveling in small parties among the mountains, however, are nearly impossible to distinguish at a distance from the noncombatants who tend goats or travel through such areas as a matter of routine. And defenders able to operate under radio listening silence while communicating using runners, landlines or other non-broadcast means can reduce signals intercepts to a level that makes identification of specific fighting positions very problematic. Against such targets, it is far from clear that any surveillance technology coming any time soon will ensure reliable target acquisition from standoff distances.
Nor are positions such as this one rare anomalies or atypical of Afghan terrain more generally. Figures 2 and 3 show broader samples of the Shah-i-kot battlefield on which Anaconda was fought, including the features known as “The Whale” (after a similar rock formation at the US National Training Center at Ft. Irwin California) and Objective Ginger, respectively. Almost any of the dozens of shadows, crevices, or folds in the earth scattered across these landscapes could house positions like the one shown in Figure 1. And this is just a tiny subset of even the Anaconda battlefield, which is itself a tiny subset of Afghanistan as a whole. The natural complexity of such surfaces offers any adaptive opponent with the necessary training and skills a multitude of opportunities to thwart even developmental remote surveillance systems. Against such opponents, remote surveillance will still detect some targets, and remote sensors remain crucial assets, but the only sure means of target acquisition is direct ground contact: a ground force whose advance threatens objectives that the enemy cannot sacrifice and thus must defend compels them to give away their locations by firing on their attackers. Skilled attackers can eventually locate any defensive position by observing the source of the fire directed at them – and this, in fact, is how the majority of the al Qaeda positions at ANACONDA were found.
Nor is this problem unique to Afghanistan or its mountainous terrain. Militarily exploitable cover is commonplace in almost all likely future theaters of war. For targets who observe radio listening silence, as al Qaeda now does, foliage, for example, degrades all current remote sensor technologies; urban areas provide overhead cover, create background clutter, and pose difficult problems of distinguishing military targets from innocent civilians. Each is widely available. More than 26 percent of Somalia’s land area is wooded or urban, as is more than 20 percent of the Sudan’s, 34 percent of Georgia’s, or 46 percent of the Philippines’. This cover, moreover, is often distributed in small, widespread patches. On the GOODWOOD battlefield of 1944 in Normandy, for example, over 80 percent of all one-kilometer grid squares now contain at least some forest or urban cover (though only 26 percent of the total land area is covered). In most countries, the central geostrategic objectives are urban areas; even where the bulk of the national land area is open desert (as in Iraq), the cities are both the key terrain and an ample source of cover from overhead sensors (Baghdad alone covers more than 300 square kilometers). Among the most important themes in the history of modern tactics is the growth of methods for exploiting such cover to reduce vulnerability to modern firepower – the “empty battlefield” that has characterized the modern era is a product of skilled armies’ ability to find cover sufficient to thwart standoff target acquisition and to exploit this cover to perform meaningful military missions without excessive exposure.
And this in turn suggests that the preconditions for Afghan Model success observed in 2001-3 are likely to remain binding for the foreseeable future: against an opponent skilled and determined enough to exploit the complexity of the earth’s surface for cover and concealment, some ground force capable of taking advantage of such cover itself will remain necessary for standoff precision to be decisive. Fire and maneuver remain essential against skilled, resolute enemies; a model built on fire alone – even very precise fires – will thus remain a risky proposition for a long time to come.
Conclusions and Implications
The primary implication of this analysis is that the Afghan Model has important limitations as a template around which to restructure the American military. Sometimes a SOF-centered Afghan Model military would in fact be the ideal force: where America enjoys either an inept opponent or the right allies, a restructured force could well be superior to today’s – with both extreme lethality and increased agility. But if our enemies’ skills are closer to al Qaeda’s than to Iraqi conscripts’, then the Afghan Model cannot succeed without allies on the ground with at least broadly comparable skills and motivation. And in a world where we cannot know just where, with whom, or against whom we may be fighting in 2020, to assume we will always enjoy such allies could be a dangerous gamble. If, instead, we retain a balanced military in which America is itself capable of fielding a conventional ground force with the skills and motivation needed to close with the enemy and exploit properly the potential of standoff fires, we thus reduce uncertainty and gain important leverage.
Of course, this analysis is limited to the major combat operations around which the Afghan Model turns. Major combat is not the only mission required of future forces, and will probably not be the most often used. Many now see stealthy action against terrorists hiding in the shadows, for example, as the future of warfare, and argue that such wars call for a greatly enhanced role for SOF. If the key targets for the future are small groups of furtive individuals deep in the interior of potentially hostile countries, then SOF’s combination of strategic reach, independent direct-action capability, human intelligence collection, and small footprint are ideally suited, whereas heavy conventional capability is often inappropriate. And if so, some argue, then in a future of counter-terrorist warfare, special operations should become the main effort in U.S. military action, with greatly expanded size and resources, and with much of the remaining military tasked to support their efforts. Many in this school thus believe the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) should be transformed from a force provider into a combatant command with a major operational role – some say the lead role – in prosecuting the Global War on Terror.
A proper analysis of SOCOM’s role in the War on Terror is beyond the scope of this paper. But it is important to note that even if one posits a much larger role for SOF in future counter-terror warfare, this is still a long way from a sound case for a SOF-predominant military in 2020. However important direct action against terrorists may become, it will remain one among several important missions – and several of these will continue to require large conventional ground forces for their accomplishment. One of these missions – major combat – is addressed in detail above, and will surely remain an important element of U.S. strategy for the foreseeable future. In fact, the Bush Doctrine for waging the War on Terror rests heavily on major combat capability as a means of holding states accountable for the actions of terrorists within their borders and denying terrorists possible state havens for their activities. But major combat is hardly the only such mission. A major element of current U.S. strategy is the political reconstruction of Iraq, a long-term mission with heavy demands for conventional ground forces in a stabilization and support operations (SASO) role. More broadly, SASO capabilities have been in heavy demand ever since the Cold War ended, and will surely continue to be required, whether in Iraq or elsewhere, for the foreseeable future. If major combat could be reliably waged with a military consisting chiefly of SOF and standoff precision weapons, then one might reasonably prescribe a radically transformed military in which today’s heavy forces were restructured to provide the needed SASO capability at lower cost and greater effectiveness. But the analysis above suggests that an Afghan Model restructuring may be ill-advised for major combat. And either way, an emphasis on counter-terror war per se would not free America from the need to retain large-scale conventional ground forces of some sort – whatever the best organizational framework for commanding them in the Global War on Terror.
Though it may well make sense to expand incrementally the role and size of special operations forces, it thus does not appear that the Afghan Model, at least, offers a viable opportunity for radical restructuring by 2020. Change is surely needed, but so is continuity. And the actual experience of Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that the need for continuity may be greater than some now expect, the scale of the changes needed may be more evolutionary, and the prospects for revolutionary change may be more limited.
Of course, MCO is not the only mission of conventional ground forces, and it may no longer be the most demanding on conventional force structure: stability and support operations (SASO) have emerged as a central driver of force adequacy in the aftermath of Saddam’s ouster in Iraq. Most proposals for realigning major missions of the conventional military to SOF, however, have focused on MCO, and it is far from clear that SOF could ever field enough troops to shoulder the demands of SASO in a theater the size of Iraq while performing their other necessary duties elsewhere. It is also theoretically possible that SOF could become predominant via a radical diminishing of MCO or SASO’s importance relative to such traditionally SOF-centered missions as unconventional warfare or counter-terrorist direct action. This seems unlikely by 2020, however: as long as there are either rogue states or potential great power challengers, MCO seems unlikely to recede completely; and as long as there are failed states that could potentially require large-scale American intervention, SASO seems unlikely to disappear as a mission with a significant claim on conventional force structure. By contrast, a realignment of the MCO mission to SOF could produce a significant change in the size of conventional heavy ground forces in the U.S. military, and potentially a major change in the nature (if not the size) of conventional U.S. ground forces overall. Either would constitute a radical change in the structure of the American military. I thus focus below on MCO, though this is certainly not the only conventional mission in which SOF’s future role could increase to some degree.
These findings are based on an analysis of data collected through a combination of interviews with 222 American, British, and Iraqi participants in the two conflicts; direct, physical inspection of the ground at key battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan; and review of primary source written documentation from both campaigns. These interviews are documented in a series of audiotapes deposited in the U.S. Army Military History Institute’s archive at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, together with other primary source documentation obtained for this project. Collectively, they comprise, respectively, the Operation Enduring Freedom Strategic Studies Institute Research Collection, U.S. Army Military History Institute, cited hereafter as MHI/OEF, and the Operation Iraqi Freedom Strategic Studies Institute Research Collection, U.S. Army Military History Institute, cited hereafter as MHI/OIF. For reasons of security, SOF personnel are identified below by rank and first initial only. Full identification of interviewees is available in the cited archival material at appropriate levels of classification.
See, e.g., Michael Gordon, “’New’ U.S. War: Commandos, Airstrikes and Allies on the Ground,” New York Times, December 29, 2001, p. 1; Paul Watson and Richard Cooper, “Blended Tactics Paved Way for Sudden Collapse,” Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2001; Thom Shanker, “Conduct of War is Redefined by Success of Special Forces,” New York Times, January 21, 2002, p. 1; Vernon Loeb, “An Unlikely Super-Warrior Emerges in Afghan War,” Washington Post, May 19, 2002, p. 16; John Hendren, “Afghanistan Yields Lessons for Pentagon’s Next Targets,” Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2002, p. 1; Rajiv Chandrasekaran and John Pomfret, “Aided by U.S., Pashtun Militias Move Closer to Kandahar,” Washington Post, November 27, 2001, p. 6; Ann Scott Tyson, “U.S. is Prevailing With Its Most Finely Tuned War,” Christian Science Monitor, November 21, 2001, p. 1; Joseph Fitchett, “Swift Success for High-Tech Arms,” International Herald Tribune, December 7, 2001, p. 1; “Afghanistan: First Lessons,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, December 19, 2001.
See, e.g., Thom Shanker, “After the War: Elite Fighters; Chief Details Huge Scope of Special Operations,” New York Times, July 28, 2003, p. A10; James Dao, “Aftereffects: Special Operations Forces; War Plan Drew U.S. Commandos From Shadows,” New York Times, April 28, 2003, p. A1; Thomas Ricks, “Rumsfeld Stands Tall after Iraq Victory,” Washington Post, April 20,2003, p. A1; Jack Kelley, “Covert Troops Fight Shadow War Off Camera,” USA Today, April 7, 2003, p. A2.
Rowan Scarborough, “Decisive Force Now Measured by Speed,” Washington Times, May 7, 2003; Usha Lee McFarling, “The Eyes and Ears of War,” Los Angeles Times, 24 April 2003; Terry McCarthy, “What ever Happened to the Republican Guard?” Time, 12 May 2003; also Max Boot, “The New American Way of War,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 4 (July/August 2003), pp. 41-58; Andrew Krepinevich, Operation Iraqi Freedom: A First-Blush Assessment (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2003), pp. 13-24, 28, 30-31.
See, e.g., Krepinevich, Operation Iraqi Freedom, pp. 13-24, 28, 30-31; Hunter Keeter, “Anti-Terror Campaign Could Speed Military Transformation,” Defense Daily, November 21, 2001, p. 4; Michael Vickers, The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, the FY 2003 Defense Budget Request and the Way Ahead for Transformation: Meeting the "Rumsfeld Test" (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, 19 June 2002); Moniz, “Afghanistan’s Lessons Shaping New Military;” Scarborough, “Army Officials Fear More Cuts;” “Misdirected Defense Dollars,” New York Times, January 16, 2002; Joseph Fitchett, “Campaign Proves the Length of U.S. Military Arm,” International Herald Tribune, November 19, 2001, p. 1.
America’s opponents in this campaign were not a unitary or monolithic military. Their three main components – the indigenous Afghan Taliban, foreign allies who fought for the Taliban regime, and the subset of these trained in al Qaeda’s infamous camps – had very different military properties and combat performance. Below, “Taliban” refers collectively to any hostile forces in Afghanistan. “Afghan Taliban” refers to the indigenous Afghan component. “Foreign Taliban” refers to all non-Afghan components, both al Qaeda and non-al Qaeda. “Al Qaeda” refers exclusively to the forces trained in bin Laden’s camps and associated with his organization. Of these, al Qaeda were the most capable; the Afghan Taliban the least. For a more detailed discussion, see Stephen Biddle, Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2002), pp. 13-21.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032602p, CPT M. int.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032602p, CPT M. int.
Kirk Spitzer, “Green Berets Outfought, Outthought the Taliban,” USA Today, January 7, 2002, pp. 1ff.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032802p, CPT D. int.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032702a, CPT T. et al. int. Some targets in this region were visible at ranges of up to 10 kilometers: ibid.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032802a, MAJ D. int.; Tape 041902p, COL Clarke int.; see also Karl Vick, “In a Desert Outpost, Afghan War Was Won,” Washington Post, December 31, 2001, pp. 1ff.; Peter Finn, “Wounded Army Captain Details Teamwork Against Taliban,” Washington Post, December 11, 2001, pp. 1ff; Jonathan Weisman, “A Soldier’s Story: U.S. Backbone Wins Battle,” USA Today, December 26, 2001, p. 5. Note that the Taliban military’s compartmentation and poor communications meant that learning often proceeded at different rates in different parts of the front. In the north, for example, Taliban defenders who had seen the effects of Allied bombing at Bishqab, Cobaki, and Oimetan had already begun to adopt careful camouflage and overhead cover by November 5 at Bai Beche, whereas Taliban defenders around Ac’capruk, which had not been extensively bombed before November 4, did not (MHI/OEF: Tape 032602p, CPT M. int.; Tape 032802p, CPT D. int.). Similarly, the Taliban experience in the north filtered down to units in the south more slowly than it did among units within the northern fighting – hence the early southern counterattack at Tarin Kowt was massed and exposed in the open, rather than covered and concealed as were their later efforts at Sayed Slim Kalay or along Highway 4. In each case, however, the affected units learned quickly from their own experience, and adaptation followed rapidly after the initial air strikes.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032602p, CPT M. int. This became widespread throughout the theater: see, e.g., Tape 032802a, MAJ D. int.; Tape 032602a, CPT H. et al. int.; Tape 032602p, MAJ M., MAJ K.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032602p, CPT M. int. On al Qaeda’s use of cover and concealment in southern Afghanistan, see Tape 032602a, CPT H. et al. int.; Tape 032802a, MAJ D. int.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032602a, CPT H. et al. int.; Tape 032802a, MAJ D. int.
See, e.g., MHI/OEF: AFZS-LF-B, Memo, FOB 3/3 SSE Support Intelligence Summary, 25-29 March 2002; Tape 041902p, LTC Briley int.; Tape 041902p, COL Clarke int.; Tape 041802a, COL Smith int.; Tape 100702p, LTC Townsend int.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032602p, CPT M. int.; Tape 032602p, MAJ M., MAJ K. int.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032602a, CPT H. et al. int.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032802a, MAJ D. int.
MHI/OEF: Memorandum for the Record, COL J. int., 2 July 2002.
See, e.g., Barton Gellman and Thomas Ricks, “U.S. Concludes Bin Laden Escaped at Tora Bora Fight; Failure to Send Troops in Pursuit Termed Major Error,” Washington Post, April 17, 2002, p. 1; William Arkin, “Dropping 15,000 Pounds of Frustration,” Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2001.
MHI/OEF: Tape 042002p, LTC Gray int.; Memorandum for the Record, COL J. int., 2 July 2002; Tape 041902p, LTC Briley int.; Tape 041802p, LTC Lundy int.; Tape 041802a, COL Smith int.; Tape 041802p, LTC Preysler int.; Tape 041902a, MAJ Busko int.; Tape 041902a, CPT Murphy int.; Tape 041902a, CPT Lecklenburg int.; Tape 100702p, LTC Townsend int.
MHI/OEF: Tape 032602a, CPT H. et al. int.; Memorandum for the Record, CPT H. int., 2 July 2002.
At least in the sense of driving the Taliban from power. Whether larger American war aims have been secured in Afghanistan is still to be determined.
On Kurdish skills and tactics in 2003, see, e.g., MHI/OIF Tape 062503p1sb MAJ P int. Note that this is not to suggest that even the Iraqi Republican Guard was especially skilled in military fundamentals: on their manifest limitations, see Stephen Biddle, “Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us About the Future of Conflict,” International Security, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Fall 1996), pp. 139-179 at 158-61; idem., “Iraq and the Future of Warfare,” Testimony Before the House Armed Services Committee in Operation Iraqi Freedom: An Outside Perspective, Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, One Hundred Eighth Congress, First Session, 21 October, 2003, pp. 4-7. But limited though the Guard’s skills were, they were nevertheless manifestly superior to the pesh merga’s. If SOF-directed precision strike were sufficient to drive the Guard from the field in support of a pesh merga advance, this would thus provide at least some significant support to a claim that Afghan Model capabilities can overturn otherwise very unfavorable local military balances without significant U.S. ground strength.
MHI/OIF: Tape 062503a1sb LTC B int (J2, CJSOTF-N)
MHI/OIF: Tape 062503p1sb MAJ P int.; Tape 062503a1sb LTC B int. Iraqi defenses at Mosul were similar: Tape 062403p1sb LTC K int.
Some SOF observers report hearing regular Iraqi-on-Iraqi gunfire issuing from behind the Iraqi front, which they attribute to enforcement action by paramilitaries and Republican Guards assigned to prevent conscripts from deserting: see, e.g., MHI/OIF Tape 062503p1sb MAJ P int.
MHI/OIF: Tape 062503p1sb MAJ P int.; Tape 062503a1sb LTC B int.; Tape 062403p1sb LTC K int.
Photo taken from MHI/OEF: AFZS-LF-B, Memo, FOB 3/3 SSE Support Intelligence Summary, 25-29 March 2002.
The author observed many such individuals and small parties among the high ridge lines and mountain valleys of Paktia Province during helicopter travel between Bagram AFB and the Shah-i-kot valley in April 2002.
Photographs taken by the author, April 20, 2002.
See, e.g., Alan Vick, et al., Enhancing Air Power’s Contribution Against Light Infantry Targets (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1996), pp. 13-30; Peter Brooks and Edward Smith, “Evaluation of Airborne Surveillance Systems,” IDA Research Summaries, Vol. 3, No. 1, (Winter/Spring 1996), pp. 4-5; Dominick Giglio, “Overview of Foliage/Ground Penetration and Interferometric SAR Experiments,” SPIE Proceedings, Vol. 2230, 1994, pp. 209-17; Tony Capaccio, “An Army Bosnia Review Rates JSTARS a ‘White Elephant,’” Defense Week, November 25, 1996, pp.1ff; idem, “NATO Strikes Must Pierce the Fog of War,” Defense Week, Vol. 15, No. 7 (Feb. 14, 1994), pp.1ff; Captain Kristin M. Baker, untitled, Military Intelligence, October-December 1996, pp. 27-29; Lt. Col. Collin A. Agee, untitled, Military Intelligence, October-December 1996, pp. 6-12. For a more detailed discussion, see Stephen Biddle, “The Past as Prologue: Assessing Theories of Future Warfare,” Security Studies Vol. 8, No. 1 (Autumn 1998), pp. 1-74 at 24-6.
Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, 2001, available at http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/
Institut Geographique National Carte Serie M761, Feuilles XVI-12 (Caen) and XVI-13 (Mezidon).
Modern fire-and-movement, combined arms tactics turn on exploitation of natural cover: Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); also Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham, Firepower: British Army Weapons and Theories of War, 1904-1945 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1985); Jonathan House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001); John English, On Infantry (New York: Praeger, 1984); Stephen Biddle, “Land Warfare: Theory and Practice,” in John Baylis, James Wirtz, Eliot Cohen and Colin Gray, eds., Strategy in the Contemporary World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 91-112.
This is not to suggest that current or developmental sensors are useless or that anyone anywhere can fight effectively from cover opaque to standoff observation. To find and exploit cover while taking or holding ground requires a very demanding set of tactical skills. Historically, armies have varied widely in their ability to do this, and in fact the Afghan campaign itself displays substantial variation in the Taliban’s ability to do so: the Afghan Taliban early in the fighting were systematically unable to do so; only the foreign Taliban and al Qaeda encountered later in the campaign proved able to contest territory from covered, concealed positions. The less skilled the opponent, the more exposed they will be to remote target acquisition. And no army can disappear utterly: diligent reconnaissance will always uncover part of an enemy’s dispositions; the better the sensors, the more they will find, and today’s sensors can find enough to be a crucial contributor to success in theaters like Afghanistan. But this is not to say that they can find enough – on their own – to break a skilled, resolute opponent by standoff fires alone. Even today’s best sensors are still far from an ability to acquire most or all of a hostile force that has learned to exploit the natural complexity of the earth’s surface for cover and concealment – as our experience against al Qaeda in 2001-2 demonstrates.
See, e.g., Susan Schmidt and Thomas Ricks, “Pentagon Plans Shift in War on Terror; Special Operations Command’s Role to Grow with Covert Approach,” Washington Post, September 18, 2002, p. A1; Ricks, “Rumsfeld Stands Tall After Iraq Victory;” Gregory Vistica, “Military Split on How to Use Special Forces in Terror War,” Washington Post, January 5, 2004, p. A1.