The United States vs . Terror: A New Kind of War

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The United States vs . Terror: A New Kind of War

The Conflict

The September 11 attacks on U.S. targets by al-Qaeda agents brought about the first war between a state and a transnational terrorist network. Al-Qaeda erased the difference between the battlefield and the home front by striking from the inside on a wide array of civilian targets and by hiding its battle detachments—the cells—among civilians. The war against terrorism thus poses an enormous challenge: how to go to war and overcome an enemy that has no territory, no army, and no government—and an enemy that has almost no recognizable political and military demands. Past attempts at waging large-scale conventional warfare on militants have fallen short of solving conflicts in a military sense. Recent initiatives are reshaping the U.S. military to be able to deal with unconventional threats of the twenty-first century.


• The war against terrorism is one of the few wars of modern times that is not constructed by Cold War policy; this is not the "limited" warfare of Korea and Vietnam, dictated by the balance of power and weapons.


• While al-Qaeda has hinted at some political goals, such as the removal of U.S. troops from the holy lands of Islam, its war is empowered by a radical brand of Islamic fundamentalism and fanatical hatred of Western—particularly American—ideals and institutions. Accordingly, it perceives the world apocalyptically, as an arena of the eternal and uncompromising struggle between "true believers" and "infidels" ending in the unavoidable ultimate destruction of the latter.

On January 29, 2002, U.S. president George W. Bush (2001-) gave his State of the Union address. In the globally televised speech he once again committed the United States to expanding its campaign against international terrorism. Referring to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the "axis of evil" that supports international terrorism, he let it be known that these countries could become the objects of military and political pressure in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. After the initial success of the war on terrorism—the routing of al-Qaeda and the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan—the president's lean toward expanding the war is not surprising, but it has raised controversy throughout much of the world. Whether the United States will or should expand its anti-terrorist campaign to other countries must be examined in a very different light than has been used in other recent conflicts. This is a new kind of war for the United States and the first war of its kind in history between a state and a transnational terrorist network.

The war against terrorism began with the unprecedented terrorist assault on the United States on September 11, 2001, when 19 trained and highly determined terrorists hijacked four California-bound U.S. civilian passenger planes in three East Coast airports (Boston, Massachusetts; Washington, DC; and Newark, New Jersey) in suicide attacks. Two of the hijacked airliners flew into the World Trade Center (WTC) towers in New York City, prompting their collapse, the death of thousands of people, and the destruction or severe damage of dozens of nearby buildings. Another plane hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, DC, destroying a part of the building's west side. The last plane crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, probably missing its target due to the passengers' resistance to the hijackers.

The nation rapidly took urgent contingency measures. The White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon, and other government buildings were evacuated. More than 4,000 commercial airliners scrambled to find places to land. Many flights coming from overseas were diverted to Canada. Security was dramatically increased throughout the country. The armed forces were put on high alert. The aircraft carriers USS John F. Kennedy and USS George Washington, accompanied by seven other warships, took up battle positions off of the East Coast.

On September 12, 2001, President Bush described the terrorist attacks as acts of war. The evidence gathered by the U.S. and British intelligence services revealed that the majority of the perpetrators of the attacks were closely connected with the transnational Islamic terrorist network called al-Qaeda, led by the high-profile Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. In his speech to Congress on September 20, 2001, President Bush laid out the aims of the United States in the new war: to rally worldwide support in a coalition against international terrorism, to destroy the global terrorist infrastructure, and to wage war against the regimes that harbor terrorists. The president also stressed the immediate focus of U.S. retaliation: the al-Qaeda network and the fundamentalist Islamic regime in Afghanistan, the Taliban, which provided the terrorists with safe haven.

For the first time since the 1990 Kuwait crisis and the Gulf War of 1991, the United States was set on war footing. Reservists were called up in the first major mobilization in ten years. The Pentagon moved hundreds of planes to bases in southwest Asia and assembled three aircraft carrier groups in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Congress passed a resolution allowing the president to use all necessary and appropriate force against any individual, organization, or country that played any role in the terrorist attacks on the United States. The context of this resolution echoed the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which was passed in 1964 after alleged enemy attacks on U.S. Navy ships off the coast of Vietnam and was the subject of great controversy. But there was little hesitation to pass such a measure in the days after the September 11 attacks. It was clear that domestic and particularly international circles held widespread sympathy for the United States and supported U.S. retaliation against the terrorists.

On October 7, 2001, the U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan began with air strikes accompanied by the cruise missiles launched from U.S. warships and one British submarine in the Arabian Sea. By October 9, 2001, U.S. air power had destroyed the weak air defense of the Taliban and achieved un-contested dominance in the skies over Afghanistan. Then the campaign moved to the next phase, in which the air war supplemented the ground operations, mounted by the U.S. Special Forces and anti-Taliban Northern Alliance troops.

In several weeks, using the combination of precision strikes on Taliban military targets and communication systems across Afghanistan and carpet-bombing the enemy front lines, the United States effectively broke the Taliban army. Additionally, since October 16, 2001, U.S. and British commandos systematically conducted "hit-andrun" raids to gather intelligence and destroy the enemy command and control facilities, particularly in the Kandahar area—the stronghold of the Taliban. The commando raids were also instrumental in securing areas within southern Afghanistan in which U.S. troops could land safely and carry out their "search and destroy" mission. The combination of precision air strikes with the guerrilla-style warfare, the concentration of massive firepower on decisive points of the front line, and the coordination of air strikes with the local allies by U.S. servicemen on the ground finally paralyzed the Taliban as a fighting force and created conditions for dramatic changes in the course of the war.

From November 9 to November 16, 2001, most major cities of Afghanistan were liberated from Taliban control, with the city of Kandahar liberated in December. Having achieved this, the U.S.-led forces went after the retreating remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, successfully eliminating them in the caves and underground tunnels of the eastern part of Afghanistan. By the end of December 2001 the immediate aims of the campaign had been accomplished: the hub of the al-Qaeda network was destroyed and Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban regime.

Historical Background

The terrorist attacks on the United States were in keeping with some trends that had developed well before September 11, 2001. Since the late 1960s there have been some 500 hijackings of planes by terrorists. Additionally, during World War II (1939-45), in one year alone Americans faced about 4,000 aerial kamikaze (suicide attack) strikes. Although the United States had never seen deliberate strikes on its cities and population comparable to what occurred on September 11, the country did have an experience with terrorism. At the local level, in New York in 1919, when the government was cracking down hard on Italian radicals, about 60 militants rose up in a campaign of terrorism in which they targeted politicians, judges, and other officials. Among other terrorist acts, they bombed the attorney general's home in 1919 and a Wall Street location in 1920. These and other acts, however, did not in and of themselves prompt a war.

On September 11, 2001, however, for the first time in history, the acts of terror became the leading acts of war itself, inflicting a severe blow on the only global superpower of the early twenty-first century.

A New Kind of War

The United States had repeatedly proved its military strength in the last decade. The Gulf War of 1991, the 1995 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in the Bosnian War, and the NATO-Yugoslav War of 1999 proved the military preponderance of the United States as well as the futility of challenging it in conventional ways. Thus, U.S. adversaries had to find a new way to fight. Instead of confronting the United States with like forces—that is symmetrically, with weapons, strategy, and tactics, such as the fighting that occurred during the world wars—they developed a new, asymmetric approach to fighting the United States. The essence of this approach was to avoid U.S. strengths and to focus on its weaknesses, and also to try to turn the very attributes that put the United States in the forefront of the world stage into its vulnerabilities. The openness and technological complexity of the modern Western—particularly American—society makes it a soft target for sudden, well-coordinated, and savage attacks. The September 11 attacks demonstrated that an adversary with radically different cultural priorities and values than the United States can obtain an advantage using the element of surprise and exploiting values such as the appreciation of human life and sensitivity to civilian casualties—that is, by hitting the United States asymmetrically.

One more tendency that contributed to the development of terrorism as a new kind of warfare was the evolution of terrorism itself. Terrorism, which is the use of systematic politically and/or ideologically motivated violence primarily against civilians, is well suited to be a main tool of asymmetric warfare. Traditionally, terrorist movements have had concrete demands and a distinct political agenda, which did not threaten the very existence of a society. Throughout the ages there have also been fanatical religious sects and cults that used violence in an attempt to achieve their goals, but their activity and impact were usually localized to particular countries or regions.

Since the 1970s, however, there has been a resurgence of militant Islam, which has a long history of anti-Western hostility. Militant Islam is the faith of the Islamic religion turned into ideology, with a political or government responsibility to society. It takes certain features of the religion to an extreme, resulting in something far different from what is practiced by faithful, peaceful believers. Thus, adherents to militant Islam are often referred to as "extremists." New power has been given these groups due to a number of factors: the paramount strategic importance of the Middle East; the growing and multifaceted instability in the region and around it, particularly after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union; and the increasing wealth of local elite, including those sympathetic to extremist ideas. The ideological, political, and financial conditions for the development of terrorist networks were in place—through extremism, unstable or repressive political regimes, and depressed economic conditions—and the networks branched out throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and among the world's growing Muslim diasporas.


When Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in 1979, Osama bin Laden, the son of a Saudi billionaire, joined the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan and became one of the battlefield commanders of the Afghan Islamic guerrillas, fighting the pro-Soviet regime and Soviet troops in the country. When the war ended with the Soviet defeat, bin Laden continued to use his inheritance to promote Islamic extremism throughout the world and recruited devoted Arab veterans of the Afghan war as well as young Muslim radicals to join him in campaigns aimed at the expulsion of Western influence from the Middle East. He organized a global network of terrorist groups known as al-Qaeda ("the base" in Arabic).

The major innovation of al-Qaeda was its decentralized structure. It consisted of self-contained and widely dispersed cells (usually composed of four to five people), which operate independently in 40 to 60 countries, frequently intermingling with local terrorists and maintaining contact between themselves through modern communication systems (such as cellular phones, satellite phones, and email). The main task of al-Qaeda is to provide cells with global support infrastructure such as weaponry, propaganda, communications, training, and financial resources, including money from Muslim charities and profits from the drug trade and other criminal activities. During the 1990s bin Laden and his devoted supporters aggressively expanded their activity, transcending borders between states and exploiting every hot spot of the Muslim world: Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, and Indonesia, to name a few.

The successful expansion of transnational terrorism was very much indebted to the important transformation of the Cold War geopolitical landscape: the emergence of so-called "failed states" like Afghanistan or Somalia, due to the combination of political and social disintegration, fierce civil strife, and lack of interest and support from the international community. The transnational terrorists can use the paramount anarchy in the "failed states" to obtain safe haven and to set up their training camps and communication centers, exploiting the remains of local infrastructure. Al-Qaeda's infrastructure in Afghanistan included some 40 training camps in which it trained, according to Western intelligence estimates, from 20,000 to 70,000 terrorists. Moreover, due to its profound organizational and financial resources, al-Qaeda managed to obtain a decisive control over the Taliban, an Islamic movement that installed a rigid, fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan. This led to a new phenomenon: a terrorism-sponsored state, instead of the state-sponsored terrorism widely known in modern history.

Throughout history, terrorists have constantly tried to acquire more lethal weapons. This is particularly true with respect to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It is believed that the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which committed the first use of WMD in a terrorist act during its 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, also planned to use biological weapons against U.S. troops in Japan. Using sanctuaries in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda planned to launch chemical or biological attacks on U.S. and European targets. Hiding in the "failed states," terrorists can also try to overcome the technological and political difficulties of building their own WMD.

The profound transformation, both in scale and complexity, of operations that terrorists could mount produced an absolutely different kind of warfare. Powerful, well-organized, and devoted groups and associations transcended states, having enough financial and logistical resources and obtaining global reach capability. These terrorists are able to endanger international security profoundly.

Over the years, al-Qaeda demonstrated adherence to asymmetric warfare, developing its mobility and flexibility based on the cellular and decentralized structure of the network. For example, al-Qaeda orchestrated a complex system for surprise attacks, secretly infiltrating a large number of its operatives into other countries, including the United States, and creating so-called "sleeper cells," which could be positioned within a country for some time and then suddenly become active and strike from the inside. The organization used psychological warfare techniques extensively to promote its extremist ideology. Al-Qaeda also persistently sought to maximize the lethality and destructiveness of its attacks, deliberately targeting civilians and high-profile symbolic targets.

The September 11 attacks brought about the first war between a state and a transnational terrorist network. They also signaled the re-emergence of total warfare on a global scale for the first time since World War II. The post-1945 wars and conflicts, with very few exceptions, were not about physical survival of antagonists and were limited by strategic, political, and humanitarian considerations. The terrorist war that al-Qaeda waged is different from those wars in some important respects.

Ideologically, al-Qaeda's war was empowered by a fanatical hatred of Western—particularly American—ideals and institutions. Accordingly, it perceived the world apocalyptically, as an arena of eternal and uncompromising struggle between "true believers" and "infidels," with the unavoidable ultimate destruction of the latter. Strategically, the aim of al-Qaeda is to expel the non-Muslim presence from the lands of Islam through terrorism and the destabilization of pro-Western regimes and to ensure the worldwide expansion and preponderance of militant Islam. By its emphasis on strikes from the inside on a wide array of civilian targets, as well as by hiding its battle detachments—the cells—among civilians, al-Qaeda erased the difference between the battlefield and the home front in its traditional meaning. Tactically, al-Qaeda tried to achieve greater lethality of its actions by employing suicide attacks, converting conventional tools such as civilian airliners, into extremely destructive weapons (so-called "weapons of mass effect") and persistently seeking access to WMD.

Al-Qaeda developed an unrealistic and unachievable "grand design" for the world, based on re-making the history of the past 14 centuries. It sought to place Islam in a dominant role, and even to expand into a militant Islamic empire stretching across the planet. With these goals the al-Qaeda leaders had no interest in conventional politics. Despite the fact that the September 11 attacks hit important strategic objects (the Pentagon and a major business and communications hub at the World Trade Center), the terrorist actions pursued by the perpetrators were predominantly aimed at civilians and symbolic objects and served no practical military purpose in the traditional sense, except in their ability to create chaos and panic. The destruction of those objects and the killing of as many people as possible were the war aims in themselves.

Thus there was no room for peace negotiations and compromises, or for concessions and cease-fires in this "war against terror." There was also not much possibility of obtaining an organized, unconditional surrender from al-Qaeda terrorists due to their extremism and their dispersed structure. Conversely, for the United States and its allies there is no natural point of conclusion to the war other than total victory, which is the complete eradication of transnational terrorist networks and the toppling of the regimes that support them.

Certainly the concept and practice of total war is not something new for the United States. Many historical campaigns of the U.S. Army against Native Americans witnessed elements of extreme destruction on both sides. Basic elements of modern total war emerged during the American Civil War (1861-65), and in both world wars.

Yet the strategic realities of the war against terrorism posed an enormous challenge: how to go to war and overcome the enemy, which has no territory, no army, and no government, nor any recognizable and well-defined political and military demands. The challenge is also complicated by the fact that aside from the relatively recent exceptions of the Russian and Israeli armies, the major world militaries—American, British, French, German, Spanish, and Italian—that have had extensive experience in counterterrorism, usually defined the struggle against terrorism as a lower level of conflict than formal warfare.

Moreover, attempts to apply large-scale conventional warfare to Islamic militants, such as the Israeli campaign in southern Lebanon and the Russian campaign in Chechnya, have fallen short of solving the conflicts in either country even in a military sense. Similarly, on August 20, 1998, after the deadly bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa masterminded by al-Qaeda, the U.S. Navy launched Operation Infinitive Reach. Six warships and one attack submarine fired 76 cruise missiles on suspected terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. As the subsequent events demonstrated, the retaliation did nothing to deter terrorists from further strikes and achieved little beyond expressing revenge.

While having a global reach, the military operations in the war against terror need to be limited in scale. This war, unlike any other in American history, involves simultaneous and coordinated activities of many nations on many fronts: diplomatic, financial, law enforcement, economic, social, and cultural. Such a multifaceted approach is the major application of asymmetric warfare on terrorism: it turns the decentralized and loose transnational nature of the militant Islamic terrorism into its weakness and exploits it through well-coordinated strikes, both military and non-military.

The U.S. military is still mainly designed to confront a Cold War reality. Recent initiatives are reshaping it to deal with unconventional threats in the twenty-first century. The ongoing transformations include the strengthening of its mobility, enhancement of logistics, and the improvement of the range and precision of its firepower. Yet, as with the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, the September 11 attacks challenged the U.S. military to adapt and embrace a new kind of warfare while simultaneously fighting a new enemy on a new battlefield.

A Victory by Christmas: The Strategy and Tactics of the 2001 Afghan Campaign

Operation Enduring Freedom was the name given to the American campaign against the terrorist forces that struck on September 11, conducting air assault and cruise missile strikes on sites in Afghanistan. While it resembled the 1991 Gulf War and the NATO-Yugoslav War of 1999, the overall U.S. campaign demonstrated a new approach. As the former NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley K. Clark (Ret.) noted: "This isn't the war we trained to fight. It requires a fresh strategy, enhanced forces, new weapons and changed attitude."

From the very beginning the strategic conditions in the Afghan theater challenged the planners from U.S. Central Command, led by Gen. Tommy R. Franks, with a number of daunting peculiarities and complexities. The difficult mountainous terrain of the country and its miserable infrastructure, shattered by more than 20 years of war, would complicate the logistics and enormously limit the maneuverability of any modern military force. At the same time these very conditions enabled light and mobile Taliban forces to engage and exhaust the invaders in sudden ambushes and attacks. Afghans had a history of successfully repelling invaders, particularly the British Empire in the nineteenth century and more recently the Soviet Union. From 1979 to 1989 the Soviets, using massive forces, tried to fight the Afghans in a conventional war, but they became bogged down in a savage and finally unsuccessful guerilla war, frequently referred as "Soviet Union's Vietnam."

Given the harsh conditions of the theater and the fanatical character of the enemy, some military observers and analysts foresaw a long and bloody campaign in Afghanistan. According to some estimates it would take some 100,000 U.S. troops to occupy and control the country. Such a large-scale operation would be put under additional risk by the approaching winter, which limited the time available for the operation. The Taliban, for its part, expected that the U.S. would follow the Soviet example of a massive ground invasion. It therefore prepared to outmaneuver the Americans, using its key tactical methods—highly mobile strike squads mounted on pickup trucks.

The general strategic scheme of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan was designed to avoid a Vietnam-style gradual escalation and involvement in a long and bloody war on the ground. Instead of committing a large number of U.S. ground troops, the Americans approached the operation with a combination of air strikes and special operations, closely coordinated with the U.S.-backed ground assault by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces. While air strikes in concert with the ground assault by local proxy forces resembled the Kosovo campaign of 1999, the American war in Afghanistan also had important new elements, which reflected distinct Afghan realities and the intention of the U.S. command to engage the enemy asymmetrically, exploiting its vulnerabilities and reverting and outmaneuvering its strengths. The dispersed nature of warfare in the Afghan deserts and mountains as well as the decentralized structure of the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces demanded special operations to take the fight to the enemy, keeping it off-balance as well as seizing and maintaining the initiative on the battlefield. In coordination with an intense bombing campaign and military pressure from the Northern Alliance, this swiftly re-shaped the situation on the ground.

The political dimension of the war was of much importance as well. The United States actively exploited the unpopularity of the Taliban inside and outside Afghanistan, due to its violent character and extreme interpretation of the Islamic laws. To isolate the Taliban further the United States publicly emphasized the just and defensive character of its war on terrorism and stressed the puppet role of the Taliban under al-Qaeda. U.S. representatives established contacts with the exiled Afghan king Zahir Shah, then living in Rome. Zahir had some influence in the country, particularly among the Pushtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Additionally, the military campaign was the first in history to be paralleled by a large-scale humanitarian effort, with U.S. cargo planes conducting massive food drops for the starving Afghans.

The United States also successfully managed the tremendous logistics problems of waging a war over such a long distance and in a landlocked country. The measures undertaken included gaining access to bases in Bahrain, Oman, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan and obtaining flight rights over these and some other countries. The air assault on Afghanistan was carried out by use of cruise missiles—50 missiles were launched during the first strike—as well as by B-1 and B-52 bombers, flying from the Island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and B-2 Stealth bombers, which half-circled the globe, flying from their base in Missouri. The tactical F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet aircraft flew from air carriers in the Arabian Sea. The electronic warfare aircraft EA-6B and the E-2C early warning radar planes provided reconnaissance support. KC-10 and KC-135 air tankers were used to refuel combat planes in midair.

The strikes, which hit air defense systems, weapons depots, and training camps of the enemy, were relatively modest in comparison with those of the Gulf War of 1991 and the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. In contrast there was no center of gravity on the enemy side in Afghanistan to knock out, nor were there many important military, political, and economic targets. In the first strike on Afghanistan 40 aircraft were involved. By the end of December 2001 the number was increased to 60-100 planes per day. In the Persian Gulf in 1991 some 2,500 coalition aircraft were used per day, while in the first strike against Yugoslavia some 300 allied planes participated, with NATO later increasing the number to 1,000 planes per day.

At the same time, U.S. air power, using precise guided munitions (PGM), succeeded in taking out the enemy air defense, communications, and control facilities, eliminating some top commanders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, isolating the battlefield, and demoralizing and paralyzing the enemy. As one top-ranking Taliban commander, quoted by Scott Peterson in a December 4, 2001 Christian Science Monitor article, admitted later, "All ways were blocked, so there was no way to carry food or ammunition to the front. All trenches of the Taliban were destroyed, and many people were killed."

The launch of ground operations in Afghanistan was also unconventional by U.S. standards. Small groups of U.S. Special Forces flew into Afghanistan on helicopters and MC-130 transport planes, supported by Apache combat helicopters, F-16 fighters, and A-130 gunships from bases in Oman. The commandos raided Taliban and al-Qaeda facilities, disrupted communications, and engaged enemy forces. The U.S. Special Forces demonstrated a great deal of tactical flexibility and adaptability to the conditions and terrain. Following traditions of warfare in Central Asia, U.S. soldiers sometimes rode on horseback. As strategic areas near Kandahar and Kabul were secured, U.S. Marines and light infantry detachments were deployed to complete the destruction of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.

While the terrorists' success in the September 11 attacks obviously signaled a major failure of U.S. intelligence, intelligence operations were an important factor in the success of American war efforts in Afghanistan. The covert operations of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had played a decisive role in supporting the anti-Soviet resistance of the Afghans in 1979—1989. It was the largest paramilitary program in CIA history, with total estimated costs at US$3 billion. During the 2001 campaign in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence operations encouraged divisions between the Taliban and its ethnic base—the numerous Pushtun tribes—by restoring old and establishing new contacts with influential warlords.

Despite profound U.S. successes in the air and ground operations in Afghanistan, no tactical element was decisive alone. Only a combination of tactics and close coordination among U.S. services and local proxy forces led to the victory. Moreover, while the main elements of the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan were more or less familiar, they were frequently combined in nontraditional and innovative ways, strengthening the U.S. ability to challenge the new enemy asymmetrically.

The U.S. Navy contributed significantly to the U.S. air assault by firing cruise missiles and by launching a huge share of air strikes (some 70 percent) from aircraft carriers. It also provided its own commandos for special operations and an aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, as a floating base for Special Forces. The mobile units of the Marines were of great importance in occupying and controlling military bases and objects deep inside Afghanistan as the campaign proceeded. The U.S. Air Force supported the ground operations decisively, providing air mobility and cover for commando raids as well as using extremely effective 5000-pound bunker-buster bombs and 15,000-pound gravity bombs to assist the subterranean warfare in the caves and underground tunnels in the eastern part of Afghanistan. The carpet-bombing of the well-entrenched Taliban forces on the northern front helped the Northern Alliance's thrust into Kabul, avoiding a World War I-style bloody stand off of armed enemies facing each other's firepower.

Intelligence-gathering was a key asymmetric advantage of U.S. forces and an important asset in combined operations in Afghanistan. New technologies helped to get a real-time view of the battlefield from remote and safe locations. Of particular help were drones (also known as radio-controlled unmanned air vehicles or UAVs) which were able to fly deep into hostile territory and take continuous video footage of the ground. As a result, the time lag between the detection of a ground target and its attack from the air was dramatically reduced, almost completely eliminating confusion and uncertainty (the so-called "fog of war").

While UAVs had been used earlier for real-time reconnaissance by the Israelis in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip as well as by U.S. forces in the Balkans, in Afghanistan the drones debuted in direct combat missions, launching Hellfire guided missiles on the enemy. This foreshad-owed a new era of the automated battlefield. At the same time, U.S. Special Forces, acting as scouts on the ground, doing intelligence-gathering, and marking targets with lasers, dramatically increased the effectiveness of the use of PGM in Afghanistan. According to some estimates, it took only 2 bombs to hit a target in Afghanistan, compared to approximately 10 bombs in the Gulf War.

Innovative strategic reconnaissance on the ground was of particular importance in the final phase of the campaign due to the relatively limited use of satellites (unlike in the Gulf War) to find the enemy, who were by then hiding in caves and tunnels. Also, the revolutionary combination of air and ground operations, called "synergistic warfare" by some experts, was enormously effective in the destruction of moving targets in Afghanistan. Thus, the combination of familiar strategic and tactical approaches, including the use of overwhelming air power, stealthy commando raids, and support of proxy ground forces, allowed the United States to avoid committing a large number of its own troops in combat, while creating necessary conditions for the swift and decisive destruction of terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

Recent History and the Future

Defending the Homeland

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, called the military operations in Afghanistan "only the beginning of a global campaign and perhaps the most visible component" in the long war against terrorism (as quoted by Eric Schmitt in the New York Times, November 18, 2001). By its very nature, a war in which U.S. civilian losses will very likely outnumber combat losses emphasizes homeland security as the vital front of the struggle.

Although a new federal agency—the Office of Homeland Security, headed by former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge—was created on September 20, 2001, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the problem of homeland defense is not new in U.S. history. Acts expanding the security prerogatives of the Federal Executive as well as restricting the rights of suspected aliens and alleged domestic saboteurs were passed by Congress during the hostilities with France in 1798, in the Civil War and its aftermath, during World War I, following the anarchist bombing campaign in New York of 1919-20, and during World War II. In 1916, after Mexican revolutionary and bandit Pancho Villa raided U.S. territory, National Guard troops were mobilized to secure the border with Mexico. Homeland security measures were effective in defeating German sabotage campaigns during both world wars. At the same time, the defense preparations for possible Japanese invasion in 1942 led to security measures that were responsible for the deportation of more than 100,000 West Coast Japanese-Americans who were loyal to the United States.

In the war on terrorism, domestic security emerges as a pivotal component of U.S. anti-terrorist strategy. Yet the United States, by virtue of being the largest open society in the world, is extremely vulnerable to transnational terrorism. In 2000 more than 350 million non-U.S. citizens entered the country. The ability of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to monitor the process and investigate possible violation of immigration laws was and is rather limited; it has only 2,000 agents. U.S. Customs processed per day in 2000 an average of 1.3 million people, 348,000 private vehicles, 38,000 trucks and railcars, 16,000 containers on 600 ships, and 2,600 aircraft. In total, more than 2 billion tons of cargo ran in and out of U.S. ports in 1999. Also, about 7.5 million passengers got on and off cruise ships in American and Canadian ports in 2001.

Inside the United States there are 86 stadiums with more than 60,000 seats each, 10 motor speed-ways with more than 100,000 seats each, and some 50 percent of the world's tallest buildings, any one of which could be targeted by terrorists. Additionally, the intensity of modern communications complicates the anti-terrorist measures on the home front. In 1999 Americans made 5.2 billion phone calls overseas. Before the 2001 anthrax scare, the U.S. Postal Service processed 680 million pieces of mail per day, while FedEx and UPS handled about 5 million and 13.6 million packages respectively. Given all the difficulties and complexities of fighting terrorism domestically in an open and dynamic society, there is no alternative to a coordinated effort by various federal agencies and services.

After September 11, the United States increased security on U.S. strategic objects—including nuclear power plants, transport facilities, and other elements of infrastructure in cities and public places—and stockpiled vaccines against possible biological attacks. The protection of the 95,000-mile U.S. shoreline is being strengthened, and border control is being improved. (Historically American enemies have viewed Mexico and Canada as potentially safe bases for hostile activities against U.S. territory.) There are also proposals to radically change the role and functions of the U.S. military in homeland defense.

With the new war being simultaneously waged both internationally and domestically, and often mainly on the home front, the traditional distinction between the military and the National Guard is becoming vague. New developments may include the creation of a single U.S. military command in charge of defending the nation's territory, instead of relying on separate services such as North American Airspace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs, the Coast Guard, the Pentagon's Joint Command in Norfolk, and the National Guard. The possibility of anti-terrorist operations by U.S. military on U.S. soil calls for close coordination of actions with law enforcement agencies and may entail reconsideration of legal norms that bar military personnel from police work. (Those limitations—The Posse Comitatus Act—were introduced after President Ulysses S. Grant used troops as federal marshals in the South during the controversial 1876 presidential elections.)

Despite the enormous complexity of the problems that homeland defense efforts need to address, the war that began at home must be won at home.


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Clark, General Wesley K. (Ret.) "How to Fight the New War," Time, September 24, 2001, p. 47.

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Peterson, Scott. "A View Behind the Lines of the U.S. Air War," Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 2001.

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Peter Rainow


July 17, 1973 A military coup overthrows Afghani kingMohammad Zahir Shah and sets up a republican government.

April 28, 1978 A military coup leads to the establishment of a pro-Soviet regime and the beginning of a civil war in Afghanistan.

December 25, 1979 Soviet troops invade Afghanistan under the pretext of the Soviet-Afghan Friendship and Cooperation Treaty following a split within the leftist government and increasing civil strife in the country.

February 3, 1989 Soviet troops withdraw fromAfghanistan.

April 16, 1992 Opposition forces take Kabul and form a new government, which soon collapses due to factional fighting.

September 26, 1995 The Taliban, a militant Islamic movement formed in 1994, captures Kabul after bitter fighting and declares Afghanistan an Islamic emirate. The Taliban harbors international Islamic terrorists. The remaining government and its forces retreat to the north, form an alliance with local war-lords (the Northern Alliance), and continue their struggle against the Taliban.

September 11, 2001 Two hijacked airplanes crash into the World Trade Center in New York City, while a third plane hits the Pentagon in Washington, DC. A fourth plane crashes into a field in Pennsylvania.

September 20, 2001 In a speech to Congress, PresidentBush condemns the Taliban regime and blames them for allowing terrorists to train in their country. Bush also demands that the Taliban turn over all members of al-Qaeda.

October 7, 2001 The U.S.-led military campaign (Operation Enduring Freedom) begins.

October 19, 2001 U.S. ground forces battle in Afghanistan after nearly two weeks of air strikes. The ground battles open a new phase in the war.

November 9, 2001 Anti-Taliban forces capture the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

November 13, 2001 Kabul is liberated from the Taliban.

December 6, 2001 Taliban forces surrender the southern city of Kandahar, marking the final collapse of the regime.

December 17, 2001 After days of bombing, air strikes over the Tora Bora mountains come to a close.

January 4, 2002 Sgt. Nathan Ross Chapman, a GreenBeret, is the first American soldier killed by enemy gunfire.

March 4, 2002 One American helicopter is shot down in the Operation Anaconda assaults. Another helicopter is attacked while on the ground. Seven American troops are killed and at least 10 are injured in the two events.

Major Terrorist Attacks Against Western Interests by Islamic Extremists

November 4, 1979 Islamic radicals capture the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, and hold 52 hostages for 444 days.

April 18 and October 23, 1983 Suicide bombers blow up the U.S. embassy and Marines Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 258 Americans.

September 20, 1983 The bombing of U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait leaves 5 dead and 86 wounded.

September 20, 1984 A bomb explodes at the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, killing 16 people and wounding a U.S. ambassador.

June 14, 1985 and 2 April 1986 Two TWA airliners are hijacked; five Americans are killed during the incidents.

September 5, 1986 The hijacking of a Pan Am plane out of Pakistan results in 20 people killed when security forces storm the plane.

1992—2001 Over the course of these nine years several terrorist plots were uncovered. They include: plots to assassinate President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II, attempts to kill U.S. military personnel in Yemen and Bosnia and American tourists in Jordan, a plot to blow up the Eiffel Tower and 11 American passenger planes over the Pacific, and plots to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, the cathedral and market in Strasbourg, NATO headquarters in Brussels, the British embassy in Bosnia, U.S. and Israeli embassies in Paraguay and the Philippines, and U.S. embassies in Uruguay, Bosnia, and France. Most of these thwarted incidents were linked to al-Qaeda.

February 26, 1993 The first bombing of the WorldTrade Center occurs in New York City. Six people are killed and more than 1,000 are injured.

October 3, 1993 An ambush and attack on U.S. troops in Somalia results in the deaths of 18 Americans. This attack is linked to al-Qaeda.

November 13, 1995 A U.S.-run military training facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is bombed, with 7 people killed, including 5 Americans.

June 25, 1996 A housing complex in Dhahran, SaudiArabia, is bombed, resulting in the deaths of 19 U.S. Air Force personnel and injuries to more than 500 Americans and Saudis.

August 7, 1998 The U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, are bombed; 301 people are killed, including 12 Americans. Some 5,000 are wounded. The attack is linked to al-Qaeda.

October 12, 2000 An attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, kills 17 sailors and injures more than 30. An investigation by U.S. officials connects the attack to al-Qaeda.

September 11, 2001 Attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, DC, result in the deaths of more than 3,000 people. The acts are attributed to al-Qaeda.

Afghanistan, 2001: Order of the Battle

U.S. forces:

  • Three aircraft carrier battle groups with cruisers, destroyers, attack submarines, frigates and support ships
  • More than 400 aircraft
  • Some 50,000 sailors, airmen, marines, and soldiers, including Special Forces (about 4,000 U.S. troops were deployed inside Afghanistan by the beginning of 2002)

U.K. forces:

  • 3 Royal Navy attack submarines, 1 support aircraft carrier and a naval task group
  • 4,200 military personnel, including sailors, marines and Special Forces

Northern Alliance (anti-Taliban)

  • 12,000-15,000 troops
  • 60-70 tanks and armored vehicles
  • 3 cargo planes and 8 transport helicopters
  • Some 25 surface-to-surface and short-range ballistic missiles

Taliban forces:

  • 25,000-45,000 troops (plus 400-600 al-Qaeda militants)
  • 650 tanks and armored vehicles
  • 15 combat planes, 40 cargo planes, 10 transport helicopters
  • Some 20 missiles (old Soviet SA-7 and American-made Stingers)

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The United States vs . Terror: A New Kind of War

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The United States vs . Terror: A New Kind of War