The US military is a power projection force which relies on ships to move 95% of its logistics because massive air transport is far, far more expensive. It also relies on the US Navy/Marine team to provide the bulk of its rapid deployment force since combat ships can conduct sustained operations far from home. The US Air Force and US Army require established bases for major sustained operations. The Army often uses 1989 Panama invasion as an example of rapidly deploying soldiers into combat from the USA, ignoring the fact that "invading" airborne troops landed within a mile of permanent US military bases from where they obtained all logistical support.
As a result, conducting military operations into land-locked Afghanistan is a nightmare. Its remote southern boundary is 300 miles from the Arabian Sea, and then another 400 miles to reach the capital of Kabul. In order to strike targets in the rugged Northeastern section, troops and supplies must come 900 miles from the ocean over an primitive transportation network filled with unfriendly natives. In addition, land based aircraft would have to fly hundreds of miles from America's Gulf airbases (marked in blue above) just to reach Afghanistan, especially since Iran has prohibited use of its airspace. In contrast, the difficult war in Vietnam provided a long coastline to support operations ashore, and supporting "deep" ground combat missions 100 miles from friendly bases was considered difficult.
The Russians have a defense pact with its former "Stan" republics to the north of Afghanistan and may oppose use of Russian/Stan airspace or bases by the USA in diplomatic retaliation for "NATO expansion" efforts. They also have Russian troops based in the Stan republics and worry that supporting the USA will agitate the local Muslims. Osama bin Laden is certainly aware of these difficulties, and may welcome the arrival of American troops in order to spark an Islamic revolution. Among the facilities the United States is asking to use is the large Pakistani airbase at Quetta, which is located in a secure area close to the border with Afghanistan. The base was used by American B-52 bombers during the Cold War. Although the Russians and Pakistanis are no friend of bin Laden's group, they will have to provide security at any airbases which Americans are allowed to use.
The Taliban military has several targets which can be attacked with airpower, but President Bush must decide if the Taliban military are targets too. The Taliban government has taken a position that evidence must be presented and an extradition-type hearing held before bin Laden is expelled. While the USA sees this as a stall, it is certainly reasonable to the international community, which a recent Gallup poll (left) reveals is not supportive of military action.
Joining with the weak "Northern Alliance" to fight the Taliban seems attractive, but would ignite a bloody civil war in which most Afghans would join the fight against the foreign supported forces, who are mostly minority Tajiks. In addition, Pakistan has announced that it will not support an overthrow of their Taliban allies. Eventually, most Americans expect President Bush to "do something". Here are the five options, with a loose estimate of additional costs in dollars and American dead.
#1 Cruise missile attacks ($4 billion - 0 dead)
Cruise missiles can be fired from Navy ships to deliver 1000lbs of explosives each within 20 meters of any target. This is a simple, no-risk option, but will have a very limited effect due to a lack of targets and probably no chance of harming the Osama bin Laden's group. This was tried during the Clinton years, and months of random attacks are likely to incite the Afghans to more violence.
#2 Carpet Bombing strikes ($6 billion - 4 dead)
Drop thousands of basic high-explosive bombs in tight patterns to destroy terrorist camps, which are mostly abandoned by now. B-52s flying from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean can carry out most missions, with some B-2 and B-1 strikes for good training. This is a low-risk option in which perhaps one bomber may be lost in an accident each year The rapid impact of bombs causes a fearful thunder and earthquake for miles around and will totally destroy any terrorist camp. Open areas near major cities can be bombed to demonstrate what firepower the USA can employ if needed. Again, probably no chance of harming the Osama bin Laden group, but the firepower demonstration may encourage the Taliban to expel terrorists.
#3 Ranger Raids ($2 billion - 50 dead)
Work with the Pakistani military to allow a few dozen "Special Operations" helicopters, Green Beret 12-man teams, and a ranger battalion to quietly operate from a Pakistani military bases. The USA and Pakistan can claim that these 1000 soldiers operate from Navy ships offshore and just land to refuel. This is not really practical because of the distance, so they will hide out in aircraft hangers. Another option is to call the rangers "UN police" and have them wear blue berets on Pakistani bases. A 150-man company of rangers will land (ideally after B-52 strikes) to "show the flag", e.g. that US troops can show up anywhere. These rangers will avoid heavy combat and urban areas as they perform local reconnaissance and attempt to snatch prisoners for interrogation and possible recruitment.
Rangers will not remain on the ground for more than a few hours as Afghanistan is known for its armed militia in which local farmers quickly converge to destroy foreign invaders. Rangers should NEVER be assigned the task of capturing Osama bin Laden. He will be setting traps and feeding "reliable" intelligence to the USA in hopes of trapping and destroying a ranger force. Unlike the rangers who were trapped and bloodied in Somalia, these rangers will not have an armored rescue force one mile away. However, rangers could set up road checkpoints for a few hours at random locations to gather intelligence and hope that someone valuable shows up.
Some people who have seen Hollywood commando movies or read too many Tom Clancy fairytales believe small ranger teams can search for bin Laden on foot. This is almost impossible in Afghanistan. The mountainous and mined landscape restricts movement to roads and trails. A lack of foliage makes hiding difficult, and fewer than a dozen soldiers in the entire US Army speak the local languages. They can only carry three days of food, and local food is scarce. The nights have begun to freeze, and cold weather gear is heavy. A great book about British SAS commandos in Iraq "Bravo Two Zero" describes these problems, and notes that sneaking up to houses is impossible with barking dogs around. If SAS commandos couldn't find SCUD missiles in Iraq, how can rangers find terrorists, especially when they look like every farmer with an rifle?
Capturing bin Laden must be done covertly by Arabs hired and trained by Green Beret teams. Once again, bin Laden and his group are sophisticated, clever, and operating from their home turf. Any information about bin Laden's exact location is probably a trap. The USA has only three small ranger battalions, so operations longer than a year will require regular army units to rotate in.
#4 Send in helicopter brigades ($20 billion - 1000 dead)
Helicopters are the only practical method of operating in Afghanistan, although they lose lift at higher altitudes. The 101st Air Assault Division with three brigades are specially organized to conduct major helicopter operations supported by attack helicopters. Helicopter bases would have to be set up in secure regions of Pakistan or Stan republics. Logistical support by air is possible if water and fuel can be obtained locally. This would require at least one brigade, ideally two, with no more than 10,000 troops in-country at a time.
The difficult duty will require brigades to rotate out every 6-8 months. The Marines could rotate in with similar helicopter brigades since they use helicopters extensively. Helicopter brigades could operate for years at a reasonable cost to keep militiamen ducking and dying. If bin Laden's group is identified, these brigades would have the firepower to get them with less concern about traps. Hopefully, officers will read a previous G2mil article Update Helicopter Assault Tactics before charging in.
#5 Land several divisions and overrun Afghanistan ($100 billion - 6000 dead)
There are Generals who would love a huge expedition to Afghanistan. This would require a force of around 200,000 troops and at least a year of build-up near ports in Pakistan. Assuming Pakistan would allow this and not be overthrown, thousands (maybe millions) of Islamic militants may gather to fight this invading Army in Pakistan. The poor roads and harsh climate would require another year to move this army into Afghanistan, where it would operate indefinitely like the Soviet Union once tried.
Army Generals were proud of the huge logistical effort to move combat divisions from Saudi ports and into Iraq and Kuwait, but getting into Afghanistan is twice that distance. In addition, 70% of the army's logistics is water and fuel, which the Saudis supplied for free. In this case, the US Army would have to buy and import these "bulk liquids" by tanker and build huge storage facilities in Pakistan. Finally, American aircraft had access to numerous modern airfields in the Gulf, while Pakistan may offer few airfields. Overall, a DESERT STORM type expedition into Afghanistan would require THREE TIMES the money and logistical resources as the 1991 war. (look at the map above and compare the size of Kuwait to Afghanistan) This army could force the bin Laden group out of Afghanistan, but they could simply hide out in neighboring countries.
Assuming that Pakistan would allow large numbers of American troops, the United States can conquer Afghanistan, but President Bush would have to convince the nation to raise taxes and accept a four year campaign and 6000 dead. Afterward the victory, the President would have to decide what to do with his prize, which would cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives to keep pacified each year. Eventually, he would do what the Soviets did, declare victory and go home, leaving the problem to gradually regenerate.
#6 Partition Afghanistan ($10 billion - 10 dead)
Afghanistan has no real history as a nation, its just a creation of the old British empire. It has become a radical terrorist hotbed because it is a dysfunctional country torn by decades of civil war with no logical ethnic or geographic boundaries. The ruling Taliban sect has irritated neighboring countries by slaughtering minorities and spreading violent ideology. The USA could work with the United Nations and partition Afghanistan among neighboring countries based upon ethnic and geographic lines. These larger nations with powerful militaries could invade and occupy their expanded boundaries. Wealthier UN nations could offer economic and development assistance while the USA provides military intelligence and airpower to support this campaign.
These neighboring countries would assume a role of permanent peacekeepers in the "former" Afghanistan with an incentive to develop and control their regions in order to resettle the millions of Afghan refugees they now care for. This is the only permanent solution to the Taliban problem as they would face the impossible task of fighting all their Muslim neighbors. Most importantly, this would provide greater peace and prosperity for the millions of innocent Afghan civilians.
Hopefully, the Pentagon will reject ideas from paratrooper nuts for an airborne assault in Afghanistan to seize an airfield and form an "airhead" so that helicopters and other equipment can be flown in for regional operations. This would work nicely for a few weeks, until artillery fire begins to hit the base and a million Muslims mass in a replay of the 1954 French military disaster at remote Dien Bien Phu. Attempting to supply a large force by air on the other side of the world and 1000 miles from the nearest major American military base is foolish. Even with access to bases in neighboring countries, those Muslim nations may suddenly change their minds and deny use. A major Afghan leader was killed by a suicide bomber last month; that's the type of operation the USA must consider for Osama bin Laden. As for the problem of Afghanistan, just partition it and the problem is solved with little loss of life.
Carlton Meyer editorG2mil@Gmail.com