American troops have a knack for unconventional campaigns

"This is a new kind of war," the President himself has said. Yet the cry of "Pearl Harbor" went up within minutes of the September 11 attacks. The grab for metaphor was as natural as it was dangerous.

Only World War II, it seemed, could convey the scale of the disaster, the moral stakes, the global scope of this new conflict. But that model also implies precisely the kind of open-field battles that a war on terror is unlikely to produce. And the last time the United States tried World War tactics of annihilation against an elusive foe, in Vietnam, the faulty strategy led to as many deaths among soldiers as did their malfunctioning M-16 rifles.

"The metaphor we carry into this with us is critical," said Robert Worley, an analyst at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies think tank. "The analogy you pick can lead you off in the wrong direction."

So where to look for guidance? History doesn't actually repeat itself. But events do echo one another. Just in the past 12 years, three military operations--two of them successful--offer at least some insights for the future. The uprooting of drug lord Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel in Colombia in the early 1990s, the struggle with tribal militias in Somalia in 1993, and the overnight overthrow of the Noriega regime in Panama in 1989 all have some relevance to potential operations against terrorist networks and the states that shelter them.

The elder George Bush's invasion of Panama, a longtime U.S. satellite in the Monroe Doctrine's orbit, might seem to be a strange analogy to use for his son's struggle with distant, alien Afghanistan. But well before September 11, 2001, many military thinkers were studying 1989's Operation Just Cause as a model of speed, shock, and finesse for future warfare.

The campaign's success was overshadowed by that of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq just over a year later. But the Persian Gulf War was a conventional conflict in the "ready, aim, fire" mold of World War II: It took six months to ship forces overseas; then came more than a month of heavy air bombardment, and finally a 100-hour ground attack spearheaded by heavy tanks, all to drive a relatively well-armed, well-organized, and well-entrenched opponent out of a specific piece of territory.

By contrast, Panama was a quick-draw war against a gang of thugs. Under cover of darkness, commandos, Army Rangers, and 82nd Airborne paratroops blanketed the tiny Central American country, seized 27 key sites while their defenders dozed, and called in selective air strikes against pockets of resistance. In the morning, would-be enemies faced a fait accompli, and many decided on the better part of valor.

True, the weakness and poor morale of the Panamanian military allowed Just Cause to skip many of the normal steps, and U.S. bases along the canal made the invasion far easier than it would have been without them.

But since 1989, the American military has focused on improving its capacity to deploy abroad, and since September 11, American diplomacy has secured at least limited access to bases in Pakistan and Central Asia. On the other side, after 20 years of war, many Afghan fighters seem more exhausted than fanatical, as shown by the Taliban's inability to drive the rival Northern Alliance from positions just north of the capital, Kabul, despite more than two years of trying.

Nor does the Taliban field a conventional arsenal, unlike Iraq in the Gulf War. Indeed, a massive, methodical assault in the Desert Storm mold would likely play to the Afghans' genius for guerrilla warfare, a mistake the Soviet invaders made in 1979-89. By contrast, a quick attack like Just Cause could cripple the Taliban, clear the Northern Alliance's road to Kabul, and allow U.S. troops to pull out before the population rose in fury.

That was the strategy Great Britain successfully followed in 1878-81, when its forces installed a friendly native ruler during a punitive campaign against the Afghans. British troops then withdrew.

Of course, with terrorist cells linked to bin Laden in at least 60 countries, no single operation, however bold, will win the war on terror with a single blow. "We're not going to take the entire terrorist network worldwide down at the same time" as we did with the Noriega regime, said retired Army Gen. William Hartzog, the chief planner of Just Cause. "But I think there are tactical chunks of it that can be taken down in that fashion."

What does such a takedown take? Most important, although the operation itself may unfold overnight, it comes only after laborious planning and preparation. "Commando raids are highly rehearsed operations-they're not just people running out of the barracks and into airplanes," said Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a retired 82nd Airborne officer. "The more daring the mission, the more the requirement exists for comprehensive training, intelligence analysis, and rehearsal."

Success also requires a different kind of force with a different kind of plan. "In my 35 years [in uniform], most operations were planned around relatively heavy combatant forces," said Hartzog. "Then you would put some specialized forces [in] to meet specialized needs on the fringe.... For Panama, we just reversed it: The specialized force was the centerpiece."

But unlike John Wayne in the Green Berets or Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo series, real-life commando units are remarkably fragile, relying on speed and skill to avoid massed adversaries. In open battle, they need backup from heavier forces. Indeed, one of the most controversial decisions in Panama was to use Navy SEALs not in their normal small teams, but en masse against the well-defended Punta Paitilla Airport, where four died tackling a target better suited for conventional troops. A more successful model was the engagement at Pacora River bridge, where Army Special Forces ambushed counterattacking Panamanians and called in air strikes.

In Somalia in 1993, the raids against clan leaders showed the complexity of the coordination required, and how it can break down. As detailed in Mark Bowden's definitive book Black Hawk Down, a small snatch team from the secretive Delta Force went after the actual targets. But watching its back was a larger force of Army Rangers, who, when things went badly, called in the regular infantry of the 10th Mountain Division. Many experts argue that these foot troops should, in turn, have had heavy tanks on call. (Clinton Administration officials had concluded that dispatching armored units would be too provocative.) Also, unlike in Panama, the Somalia operation took place in broad daylight, negating the American advantage in night-fighting sensors and tactics.

Somalia also shows that the prerequisites for success go far beyond the strictly military to include local politics: The raid resulted in 18 U.S. deaths, largely because armed mobs rallied with the targeted militia against the outsiders "for reasons we could have avoided," said one retired Marine, who worked on the Corps's "cultural intelligence" program set up after the Somalia battle. America must not alienate anyone unnecessarily, he said: "You can do a heck of a lot of damage to yourself ... if you don't understand the culture."

By contrast, in Panama, friendly locals provided essential intelligence to round up Noriega's paramilitaries, the thuggish "Dignity Battalions." "Not much was known about them at all," said one veteran of the operation. "They caused a lot of trouble because they lived in and among the people; the people feared them; they were all armed; and they could cause all kinds of mischief. [But ordinary Panamanians] trusted what we were doing and began to come forth with intelligence on where they were located and who belonged."

Such informants might materialize in faction-ridden Afghanistan, where the extremist Taliban and its outside Arab allies such as bin Laden are much hated in some quarters--but only if a culturally sensitive United States avoids making itself even more despised. And even with local help, "it's difficult to chase someone in his own backyard," said Hartzog, noting that it took days to flush out Noriega. "We knew generally where he was going, but the difficulty was getting there ahead of time."

Indeed, hunting down an individual leader depends on first ripping apart his network of supporters. "You can't just cut the head off [and] expect the entire network to wither," Hartzog said. "Take out both the head and the immediate subordinates [as was the plan in Panama]. That's extraordinarily hard, but it's the only way to damage the leadership apparatus sufficiently to preclude it rapidly healing itself."

Uprooting such a network requires good intelligence and local help. As detailed in Bowden's Killing Pablo, the U.S.-Colombian hunt for Escobar bears a revealing, if disturbing, resemblance to potential hunts for terrorist leaders in reluctantly allied Muslim countries.

In Colombia, U.S. involvement had to be kept secret to prevent an anti-American uproar among citizens, many of whom saw the Yanquis as imperialists and Escobar as a Robin Hood hero. Even so, Bowden writes, U.S. Special Forces "advisers" bent the rules so they could accompany Colombian police on raids as scouts and as operators of high-tech equipment.

Nevertheless, it was the Colombians who bore the bloody brunt of the chase. The Medellin police lost 65 officers within six months, many not killed in the field, but ambushed at home by hit men. The very brutality of Escobar's retaliation, including car bombs that killed dozens of civilians, helped spawn a paramilitary group called Los Pepes (a Spanish acronym for "People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar"), whose members assassinated not just Escobar's gangsters but his attorneys, his bankers, and his family members--a campaign of more than 200 killings that Bowden strongly implies was guided by leaks, direct or indirect, from the police and U.S. intelligence.

The vigilantes hacked apart Escobar's network as no legal operation could. The pressure on his family in particular kept Escobar on edge and on the run-and when his wife, grown son, and 7-year-old daughter tried to flee abroad, the U.S. Embassy used all its influence to keep them in Colombia and in danger. (His family survived; Escobar was gunned down by police on December 2, 1993.) It is revealing in this context that several sources, including one foreign policy official, have suggested to National Journal that the best way to get at terrorists may be through their families.

It is certainly best for governments to root out terrorists on their own soil themselves, with U.S. help. But Americans should have no illusions about the methods these allies may use on our behalf. And in some cases, as in Panama in 1989 and, probably, Afghanistan in 2001, a recalcitrant local government may just have to go. Said retired Army Col. Richard Hart Sinnreich: "If they are able and willing, we should watch them do it. If they are willing but unable, we should help them to do it. And if they are unwilling, we should compel them to do it."

That is where the military comes in, in force--but not to stay. The idea is not so much to conquer a country and rebuild it to your liking, as the United States did with Germany and Japan after World War II, but to violently reset its internal politics in your favor.

"The [best] parallel is actually Black Jack Pershing's punitive expedition into Mexico [in 1916], when we sent the U.S. Army to chase Pancho Villa," said Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer. And the cheering news, he added, is that "much of our history has been 'expeditionary' warfare. We were very, very good at it."

From the Indian wars of the 19th century to the Latin American interventions of the early 20th, the United States did as well as any empire in such brushfire fights.

"It's natural to focus on the Second World War," said Peters, "[but] right now, we are going back to the real American tradition."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook