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Answering jihad

National | With enemy warriors on the move, can the United States win a war against a foe with no capital city?

Issue: "War in the shadows," Oct. 6, 2001

Was it too good to be true?

A century of wars-two worldwide and hot, one 46 years long and cold-ended not in nuclear Armageddon or totalitarian triumph, but in peace, broadly speaking.

Barely a decimal point into the new century, an attack on U.S. soil plunged the nation into what President Bush calls "a conflict without battlefields or beachheads." When the North first went to battle against the South, women set up picnics in the glades along Bull Run. With U.S. forces mobilizing across the world in Week 3, the signs of readying for war look conventional, but the battle plans are decidedly otherwise. A war on terrorism is a war on a methodology, not a place. A war on terrorists is a war on people with no address and fake passports, not a war on sworn enemies. The fervor at home is retro, but the war abroad is suited for the new century; a war for the cyber age; a war you cannot tour.

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In his speech to Congress, Mr. Bush said the war on this terrorism would not look like the Persian Gulf War "with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion"; nor would it look like Kosovo, an air war with "not a single American lost in combat." With the exception of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime that plays his host, Mr. Bush left some blanks about where the battle would be joined and what modes of actual warfare would be required. Four days later, when he stepped into the Rose Garden on Sept. 24 to announce a freeze on terror-related financial assets, and U.S. aviation officials declared a ban on

crop-dusters, Americans began to sense the peculiar war they are embarked on.

For many of America's enlisted men and reservists, the sense of the peculiar also settled in by Week 3. With a call-up of 50,000 reservists already approved, many National Guard men and women wondered when they would have to take leave of their day jobs and head overseas. The Pentagon quickly ordered 14,000 reserve troops to active duty, with plans to mobilize more. Some will remain stateside for homeland defense; others will serve overseas in every capacity from intelligence to aerial refueling. Reservists prescheduled for routine training exercises couldn't be sure if they had been activated or not. For some of them, the orders remained vague but their paychecks did not. Stipends arrived from an active-duty account normally kept for combat duty.

Active-duty military is also on the move. Army bases across the country saw soldiers poised for departure, their duffel bags bar-coded for long journeys. Over 2,000 Marines set sail for the Mediterranean. Military convoys made their way by air and sea to the island of Diego Garcia, a staging base for both the Air Force and Navy in the center of the Indian Ocean. U.S. warplanes landed in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that shares a jagged 100-mile border with Afghanistan. U.S. attack helicopters are already on the ground just outside Tashkent, the capital, following a joint NATO exercise with Uzbek forces prior to the 9/11 attacks.

The irony of U.S. troops quartering on old Soviet bases was not lost on the locals. It also will not be lost on Osama bin Laden or Afghanistan's Taliban regime. "Bin Laden and the Taliban believe they are about to draw the U.S. into the trap that devoured the Soviet Union, and if we lash out without a political and strategic plan for the region, they could be right," Barnett Rubin, an Afghan expert at New York University, told the Far Eastern Economic Review. The Soviet Union fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan that foreshadowed its collapse upon withdrawal in 1989.

To avoid the trap, military analysts believe the Bush response team must plan for sustained military strikes involving many soldiers in small groups in a lot of places over a long period of time. They cautioned against immediate air strikes meant more to curb a public appetite for revenge than to eliminate the threat. Those parameters translate into highly trained commando units dedicated to seizing limited objectives. With adequate air cover and intelligence, they can maintain mobility enough to take out terrorist targets.

In Afghanistan, that scenario is unlikely to succeed without first eliminating the ruling Taliban forces. Analysts look for U.S. airstrikes to take out Taliban artillery along its front line north of the capital, Kabul. Quieting the artillery, mostly dated rocket launchers known as "Stalin's organs," should allow airborne troops to secure the country's only all-weather airfield at Bagram. It could become a forward base of operations for special forces in search of Mr. bin Laden and other terrorist leaders. Candidates for that job are the four-man teams of Delta Force or platoons of Navy Seals. Secured, the base also could be a launching pad for other air and ground operations from the heart of Afghanistan.

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