Trouble at High Levels

Last fall I interviewed a number of current and
CIA officers who worked the Pakistan-Afghanistan border during the days of the
mujahideen's fight against the Soviets. I also spoke with current and former
military officers with combat experience in Vietnam, the Gulf War, or the
Balkans. The war in Afghanistan was in its earliest stages then, and most of the
people I interviewed asked me to keep their comments off the record for the time
being, "hoping against hope," as one put it, "that this will all work out." Yet
the general sense among them was one of reservation -- not because they thought
Taliban would hold on to power but out of concerns about the state of U.S.
military strategy and intelligence. Would the United States field the right
troops at the right times in the right places? Would the best people be sought
out and listened to in devising strategy and tactics? Were American forces really
prepared to fight in the rugged, high-altitude conditions of Afghanistan? Would
civilian leadership devise a sensible overall strategy, and would sound military
tactics follow?

In recent weeks, I spoke again with some of the same military personnel.
Naturally, all are in favor of eliminating the scourge of al-Qaeda, and all are
confident that the United States and its allies will eventually prevail. But
they're also concerned that some segments of the military chain of
command -- particularly the Army's -- are engaging in wishful thinking about
resources, capabilities, and political realities. They talk of an operational
myopia creating a situation that's quite the opposite of the post-Vietnam
"transformation" in military affairs that some have been proclaiming.

In this view, toppling the Taliban was the easy part. Echoing his comments
from a late September interview, Major Donald Vandergriff -- an Army officer who
the author and editor of several books on military strategy, tactics, and
personnel -- recounted: "The Taliban was fighting from fortified trench positions
that were equipped to deal with direct ground fire, but not air attack. You bring
in air power, with Special Forces guys designating targets and pushing the
Northern Alliance to really attack, [and] a collapse is a given." A CIA veteran
of the mujahideen days I interviewed on October 1 saw it the same way. "The
Taliban is not that strong of a force," he said, "and it's not going to take much
to kick them over."

But in the view of Vandergriff and others, a crucial U.S. mistake occurred
after the Taliban retreat. While the number of bombing sorties had increased, and
there were Special Forces teams advancing with the Northern Alliance, there
weren't any conventional ground forces to cut off the Taliban retreat. "There
should have been at least two air assault brigades on standby," Vandergriff said,
"units that could have swept in and assumed blocking positions at key points."
Others I talked to at the time took the same view, including the ex-CIA officer
who noted that, while sending in more U.S. troops is never easy, it would have
been better to maximize Taliban prisoners and casualties than to let large
numbers flee to higher ground.

Granted, such an operation wouldn't have been easy, given the lack of U.S.
bases in neighboring countries. But according to a number of Army officers, the
fact that there were no regular Army units ready to go -- coupled with the fact
that the first ground forces into Afghanistan were Marines -- highlights some
serious institutional problems the Army has yet to fix. It's not that the Army is
unaware of them; the force's top officer, General Eric Shinseki, has spoken at
length about making the Army into a lighter and more maneuverable force of
smaller units that could be quickly deployed. Alas, Shinseki's overhaul seems to
be moving about as quickly as an Abrams tank stuck in a bog. And while everyone
interviewed for this article viewed the Army's Special Forces favorably, some
also noted that the unit's strength is, as one put it, "Going in, really messing
stuff up, and getting out." He added: "You can't fight every battle that way.
Which is why you really have to look at how everyone else is staffed and trained
and equipped."

In short, "we have the world's fastest strategically immobile Army," as one
captain stated in late December. West Pointer Bob Krumm, a captain with the
Army's Training and Doctrine command, went so far as to post his personal views
on a military-reform Web site called Defense and the National Interest
( "My Army is
operating equipment designed to fight Soviets in the
Fulda Gap, and the stuff in the pipeline is just a more expensive version of the
same," he wrote. "My Army has a personnel system that was built to defeat the
Kaiser. My Army trains to fight fictional forces in make-believe lands instead of
focusing on real-world enemies and missions. My Army has one-half the number of
generals as we did at the height of World War II, even though the force is
one-tenth the size. The end result of all this is we get to watch the Marines
perform Army missions because they can do them better." Government
magazine recently noted a similar dismay among midlevel Army
officers, chagrined that a sister service whose specialty is amphibious
operations had been the first corps of regular troops into Afghanistan -- a
landlocked country.

By march, however, elements of the regular Army's 101st Airborne
and 10th Mountain Division were seeing action in Operation Anaconda. Early media
analysis saw Anaconda as a good thing, in that it showed the Army had learned the
lessons of Tora Bora, where U.S. forces failed to capture scores of Taliban and
al-Qaeda soldiers. In Anaconda, 1,000 American troops were deployed, as well as
1,000 Afghan troops. The Pentagon line was that high-tech satellites and unmanned
reconnaissance planes had been tracking the quiet return of an al-Qaeda cadre to
the area around Gardez and Shahkot for more than a month. Anaconda would position
troops in a circle around the enemy, closing in like a snake and crushing them.

According to a Washington Post analysis written in the home office on
March 5, Anaconda was a "message of U.S. resolve," where the choices for the
enemy were, in the words of a retired Marine Corps general, "stark." It was also
a "classic military maneuver routinely practiced by light infantry units," a
"'movement to contact' that pushes the enemy against a pre-positioned blocking
force" that would be made even more deadly by the use of direct fire, mortars,
and coordinated airpower.

But as early as March 4, some skeptics I spoke with were raising questions
about this maneuver and the rationale behind it. While the military was
saying -- and the media reporting -- that the operation had been mounted to
an enemy quietly creeping back, there was another possibility. The foreign
legions of al-Qaeda may have been untroubled by observations of their movements
because they were looking for a fight in which they could (a) kill Americans and
make themselves martyrs, and (b) use that martyrdom to fire up public opinion in
Arab and Islamic strongholds.

Such is not a reason to avoid engaging the enemy. However, the theory that a
total of 2,000 troops -- including some Afghanis whose trustworthiness is
questionable -- would be able to quickly and effectively encircle an enemy over a
70-square-mile swath of land on top of enemy tunnel complexes, over brutal
terrain at high altitudes, struck many as improbable. While it might have seemed
impressive to the average newspaper reader that the Americans and Afghanis could
rush reinforcements in as the battle unfolded, close observers took this as a
sign that Anaconda's planners had seriously underestimated the strength of the

Even for troops like the Army's 10th Mountain Division, which specializes in
such operations, these are still far from ideal conditions. One need only consult
the work of retired Lieutenant Colonel Lester Grau, the Army's leading scholar on
Afghanistan and an author of books and articles on Soviet-Afghan tactics and
battle history, for a better understanding of the challenge. When I called Grau
in early March, he told me he was under orders not to discuss with the media any
of his work in the context of Operation Anaconda. Another officer, however, drew
my attention to a recent article coauthored by Grau for the Military Review, published by the Army Command and General Staff College. Titled "Ground
Combat at High Altitude," the article states that "the U.S. Army has no
experience fighting in truly high mountains," and that its mountain training has
been conducted at lower altitudes.

It is also worth noting a September 2000 report written by a U.S. Senate
staffer titled "10th Mountain Division, Ready or Not?" While noting a "favorable
overall readiness rating and an understandable expression of confidence by
various commanders," the report also found that "the 10th Mountain is today
experiencing multiple, serious shortages of people and material resources,
training deficiencies, and other impediments to readiness, a large number of
them resulting from policies imposed by Washington." And last year another
congressional staffer -- who writes under the nom de plume Spartacus -- revealed
that Pentagon funds earmarked for things like training and maintenance (or
"readiness") have been siphoned off to fund other defense programs, and that the
Bush administration was keen to continue drawing off money for new weapons
systems. "With defense spending increasing and with readiness spending declining,
the current defense budget has achieved a condition of declining readiness at
increasing cost," the report marveled.

While Army troops fought bravely and, eventually, successfully in Anaconda,
both CIA and military veterans are troubled at the number of avoidable errors in
planning and execution that accompanied the operation. As well, veterans of the
CIA's covert operations in Afghanistan are growing increasingly concerned that
the United States could get enmeshed in the seething tribal conflicts that have
always been characteristic of Afghanistan, where alliances are constantly
shifting and bribery and deception are the coin of the realm. There's a vague
consensus among such observers that getting U.S. forces out of Afghanistan sooner
is better -- that the U.S. Army may not be the right Army for the job. Of
particular concern, March 10 saw ethnic Tajik troops from the Northern Alliance
move into the region of combat in support of U.S. soldiers. "If we're not
careful," said one former intelligence officer intimately familiar with the
region, "it's going to start looking like that barroom scene in Star Wars,
with us caught in the middle. [Operation Anaconda] wasn't a disaster. But if
[the military] keeps repeating this, it's going to start looking a bit like the
Soviet model."