The Role of the Military
The Role of the Military
In the first days after September 11, it was clear that the war on terror would be conventional in at least one way: U.S. military force would be involved. Stating that there would be no higher foreign policy priority for his administration, President George W. Bush introduced a new policy of preemptive military strikes on countries capable of and interested in harming the United States. This doctrine defined capability and intention to harm the United States as reason enough to justify a U.S. attack. Three of the goals of this doctrine are to destroy centers of terrorist operations, to capture the terrorists themselves, and to remove governments whose support of terrorism is considered a threat.
The first test of the doctrine was in 2001 in Afghanistan, where the United States brought together an international military coalition to seek out and destroy al-Qaeda training camps and capture its leaders. The military campaign also toppled Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime, which had provided the terrorists with a haven. A fuller application of the Bush doctrine came a year and a half later, in the spring of 2003, when approximately three hundred thousand American soldiers were deployed to Iraq to depose its dictator, Saddam Hussein. Like terrorists, Saddam Hussein himself was viewed as a threat that had to be hunted down and destroyed.
In both Afghanistan and Iraq, military victory was swift, but as yet goals have not been completely met. Although
governments have been toppled and terrorist centers of operation have been largely destroyed, terrorists remain on the loose, including the undisputed symbolic head of world terrorism, Osama bin Laden. Military strikes, the ongoing search for terrorists and their weapons, and continued American military occupation of targeted countries are clear indications of the importance of the U.S. armed forces in what is expected to be a prolonged and complex war on terrorism around the world.
Bombs and Troops
Though to date only two countries have been the targets of the new Bush doctrine in the war on terror, a pattern has emerged as to how the military will be used. The first stage is a bombing campaign. In Afghanistan, bombs began to fall on October 7, 2001, focusing on al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds. These assaults involved bombs dropped by aircraft including fighters, bombers, and even helicopters; guided missiles; and artillery shells. Soon soldiers and other military personnel from the United States and other coalition members such as Turkey, Germany, Canada, and Great Britain arrived to hunt terrorists hiding deep in the remote mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Ground troops quelled active resistance by shelling positions, cutting off supply routes, and apprehending those in the area thought to be assisting terrorists. Once an area was captured, troops combed the site for useful evidence and arrested anyone still there.
By the end of 2001, the Taliban had been uprooted, and a new interim government friendlier to the United States was in place. Al-Qaeda had retreated to what seemed to be its last base in Afghanistan, on the Pakistan border, near Jalalabad, an area journalist Johanna McGeary calls "the famously impregnable eastern Afghanistan cave complex called Tora Bora."5 Because the area is so remote and the terrain is so rough, the Tora Bora caves are difficult to reach even on foot. For this reason, U.S. military planners decided that intensive bombing raids of the region would be the most effective way to go after the terrorists. "Our specialized approach is to put 500-lb. bombs in the entrances"6 of the caves, marine general Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the early stages of the campaign. At first bombings were effective in flushing out or killing terrorists, but eventually it became clear that enemy fighters within reach of the bombs had either been killed or evacuated, and the focus shifted to methodical cave-by-cave searches.
Searching the caves was a cooperative effort between Afghan and coalition troops, but the use of American soldiers was actually quite limited. The U.S. military leadership, under the field command of General Tommy Franks, decided not to risk American lives in the initial stages of the search. Instead, while the possibility remained strong that armed combatants might still be in the caves or waiting to ambush the searchers, the
sweeps were conducted by Afghans, who knew the area—and presumably the likely tactics of the terrorists—better. After this step, American soldiers and Special Forces operatives took inventories of what was in the caves and ensured no terrorists remained there.
This strategy, though it is likely to have saved some American lives, was later felt to be a mistake by some military leaders on the scene, because the Afghans hired by the United States to clear the caves of potential combatants had no particular loyalty to the United States and its objectives. Many terrorists, possibly including bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, escaped with the direct assistance, or at least under the less than watchful eye, of the Afghan search parties. "All of this …got us nothing. No weapons, no ammo, no nothing,"7 General Tommy Franks, the disgruntled military commander later said. By early 2002 it seemed clear that few if any Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders remained in Afghanistan.
The military effort was generally seen as a qualified success. A number of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders had been killed or captured, including key lieutenants of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. Many lower-ranking terrorists were rounded up and put in prison camps first in Afghanistan and later at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. However, both bin Laden and Mullah Omar eluded death or capture during the bombardment and search, possibly by crossing the border into Pakistan. Eventually the military effort in Afghanistan became centered not so much on making headline-grabbing arrests of major al-Qaeda leaders but on routine military patrols, primarily along the mountainous border with Pakistan, as well as covert activities by small units of Special Forces officers.
New Focus, Old Strategy
By 2002 the focus of the war on terror had shifted away from Afghanistan onto Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein. Citing what it claimed was concrete and indisputable evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was linked to the events of September 11, the United States went to war, along with its ally Great Britain to overthrow the Iraqi regime and find and destroy these weapons.
Operation Iraqi Freedom, as this new military offensive was called, followed the same strategy that had been used in Afghanistan. Heavy bombing pounded the country, particularly its capital, Baghdad. Soon after, U.S. and British forces crossed the border and began advancing on the capital. As in Afghanistan, the Iraqi government fell quickly, but also as in Afghanistan, Iraq's top leaders, including Saddam and his two sons, were not killed or captured. They simply disappeared, leaving it unclear whether they were dead or alive. This took away a sense of completeness from the victory and once again led to the uneasy conclusion that the war on terror was going to have few clear and complete victories.
Searching for Terrorists While Keeping the Peace
Conventionally, when the purpose of a war has been in part to overthrow the government of a foreign country, the victorious armies withdraw after conflict, leaving behind a small occupation force to ensure law and order temporarily while a new government takes shape. In Iraq and Afghanistan that process is complicated by the continuing presence of fighting units that have stayed behind to search for any terrorists that may be on the run. Both of these large countries offer countless hiding places for terrorists, including not only remote mountains and small desert villages, but also big-city shelter, among sympathizers with their cause.
The postwar occupation of Afghanistan is also complicated because not long after the election of Hamid Karzai as president, it became clear that law and order would not come easily to this country. One source of the problem is the cultivation of opium, from which heroin is processed, and its export around the world. Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, and many powerful people in Afghanistan have become enormously wealthy by exploiting this crop. Because drug production and distribution is not only illegal but also very disruptive to the smooth and peaceful functioning of a country, within Afghanistan another bloody conflict has ensued between the Karzai government and those involved with the opium trade. This includes not only terrorist groups using drug money to fund activities around the world, but also corrupt tribal leaders within Afghanistan itself.
Throughout Afghanistan's history, the region has been controlled by tribal warlords who have maintained immense power and control even when a central government has been in place. In the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban, warlords quickly began looking for opportunities to increase their individual authority. In this climate, warlords are more likely to make deals with each other against the Karzai government and also cooperate with terrorists, especially when doing so might increase their wealth as well as their power.
Such shifting alliances among warlords and terrorists further complicate U.S. efforts to stablilize the country. The ability of warlords to disrupt Afghan-American attempts to rid the country of terrorists has already been illustrated. For example, in December 2001 a convoy of local tribal leaders
on its way to Karzai's inauguration was demolished by an American bomber, killing sixty-five people. At first U.S. military officials claimed that the bombing was in response to a surface-to-air missile fired from the convoy, but the attack was probably based on bad intelligence. "One competitor may be trying to use our capability for his own benefit,"8 Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem admitted later, when it was pointed out that the likely culprit was a local warlord who
had used the military to wipe out most of his rivals. Karzai himself has narrowly escaped several assassination attempts, and many observers question whether he indeed has any real control of the country outside of the heavily militarized capital of Kabul.
In this climate, it has become increasingly apparent that the United States cannot easily withdraw from Afghanistan without bringing on a collapse of the Karzai government and a return to the conditions that produced the Taliban and its support of terrorism in the first place. This situation reinforces the common belief that an unavoidable component of the war on terror will be long military occupations, at great expense to the American economy and at great risk of American lives. This produces a serious dilemma: If the United States leaves Afghanistan, what was gained by going to war in the first place is likely to be lost. However, the longer the United States stays, the greater the potential is for cultivating a new generation of terrorists, motivated by resentment of the occupation.
Hunting Down Terrorists in Postwar Iraq
A similar situation is evolving in Iraq. Despite Saddam Hussein's brutality, his regime did enforce law and order in Iraq. Since the fall of the Saddam regime, American troops are engaged in the difficult effort to keep order while Iraq forms a new government and people adjust to life without Saddam. In part because of Saddam's refusal to surrender, the damage done to the country by bombs and destruction of essential services was extensive. Especially in the capital, Baghdad, the rubble left behind in the wake of bombings, the breakdown of the ability of the police to maintain order, and the continuing lack of basic services such as electricity and water, has led to a dangerous and chaotic situation.
Many ordinary Iraqi citizens resented the invading Americans, and angry demonstrations and demands that the United States leave the country made it also difficult for American troops to regain control. Efforts to maintain law and order in a very volatile country are likely to create much more stressful and potentially violent interactions between Iraqis and the occupying American and British forces. Such a situation only serves to underscore the complexities of using military force in the war on terror. Because its resources are so vast, and its capabilities are so great, the military is the source of some of the most noted successes in the war on terror. It also has the greatest potential for backfire and backlash. Despite the risks, the military is likely to stay in Iraq for some time to come, precisely because continued chaos would make it easy for terrorist groups to return. Thus, the United States will continue to keep watch in Iraq that al-Qaeda and other groups do not strengthen themselves there.
The "Axis of Evil" and Beyond
The war on terror has already taken the U.S. military to Afghanistan and Iraq, and other places thought to be connected with terror networks are likely future targets. Before the war in Iraq, President Bush spoke of an "axis of evil,"9 three countries he identified as the prime obstacles to world peace and the end of terrorism. The three countries were Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Among other purposes, the war in Iraq served to show the world that Bush intended to keep his promise to go after countries that were deemed hostile. Now that the regime of Saddam Hussein has fallen, Bush and his chief advisers have made repeated references to Iran, Syria, and other nations considered part of the global threat of terrorism. After new al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco in May 2003, the Bush administration announced that it believed Iran had supported those involved in the attacks and indicated it would make efforts short of war to bring down the Iranian government.
What form those efforts will take is unknown, but the tone of the Bush administration toward these other countries in the immediate aftermath of the victory in Iraq has left many with the impression that it is prepared to use U.S. military force
again. The timing of such operations would likely depend on a number of factors, including world opinion and military readiness to mount another offensive. Even short wars cost billions of dollars and require extraordinary planning and management. This factor, combined with economic problems at home, makes it unlikely that any new military offensives will occur any time soon. However, the military's role has been clearly established as central to the president's vision of the war on terror, not just as battle forces but as policers of a fragile and uneasy peace.