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.
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.
Overwhelming strength will not guarantee success. U.S. forces must gain control of the mountains surrounding any new stronghold in order to prevent being fired upon. Historically that terrain was the undoing of British forces on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and Soviets bogged down around the capital.
U.S. forces must act quickly or be prepared for a long winter. Freezing temperatures and snow are expected within the month. And they must mobilize under tightened security procedures at all times; their attackers, after all, are terrorists who will unleash terrorist warfare as U.S. forces enter their territory.
Military incursions will test fragile political ties, as well. U.S. military planners worry about how far they can go on the ground in Afghanistan without precipitating a crisis-perhaps civil war-in Pakistan, the closest U.S. friend in the region.
Military ruler Pervez Musharraf mended fences with the United States in the wake of 9/11 attacks. He consented to share intelligence with the United States and to allow a multinational force to be based in Pakistan. The Bush administration, in return, ended sanctions levied against Pakistan as punishment for testing nuclear weapons in 1998. Domestic support for the agreement is mostly lacking.
Protests over Gen. Musharraf's accommodation are widespread. He took power in a 1999 coup; and while the government validated the turnover, it is not necessarily endorsed in the streets. Pakistan's powerful Interservice Intelligence (ISI) operates as an entity unto itself, and bin Laden experts believe ISI has been providing political and financial support to the al-Qaeda terrorist organization over the past seven years. ISI directly trained mujahideen guerrilla forces in camps in northwest Pakistan. More recently, ISI helped to organize labor strikes and anti-U.S. demonstrations across the country last week. At one rally small children held toy guns aimed at an effigy dressed in an American flag. Demonstrators in Peshawar, Islamabad, and Karachi burned replicas of Mr. Bush and set fire to American and Israeli flags.
Should simmering tensions escalate, U.S. forces know armed conflict could go nuclear. Pakistan's nuclear weapons program is more than 20 years old, and the government soured relations with the United States because of the nuclear weapons tests. Experts say the country has two or three dozen nuclear weapons based on highly enriched uranium. The testing proved that they work. What is not known is how carefully they are stored, and if the nuclear component-about the size of a melon and weighing nearly 70 pounds-can be easily attached to a launching missile. Should those components fall into the hands of radical Islamists, President Bush will confront the most difficult quotient in the military equation: Is limited nuclear war possible?
Those living in Pakistan are not unaware of endgame scenarios, as Pakistanis prepared to be on the receiving end of a U.S. offensive. Hospitals along the Afghan border last week placed emergency services staff on round-the-clock rotations and eliminated the weekly days off. Refugee camps shifted UN-provided medicine and equipment to hospitals. Pakistan temporarily reopened some parts of its border with Afghanistan to allow fleeing refugees in. UN and local Pakistani officials in the area made way for opening new camps to house them. On Aug. 20, 1998, the United States launched cruise missiles at targets on both sides of the border, in retaliation for the bombing of U.S. embassies.