Less than six weeks after terrorists drove airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States has ground forces on the attack in Afghanistan, a forbidding 250,000 square miles of desert and caves that defeated invading forces of the British in the 19th Century and swallowed up the best the Soviet Army had to offer in the 1980s.
Driven by the pressure to be on the attack after the most devastating blow by a foreign enemy on the U.S. continent since the British burned Washington and by the weather limitations of the Afghanistan winter only a month away, President Bush ordered ground troops in last week.
The president eschewed the careful buildup that his father ordered 10 years ago in the Persian Gulf War. In that war, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, now the vice president, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, now secretary of state, were two of the architects of a six-month buildup of forces that put 500,000 troops into the field. The aerial bombardment in the Gulf began five weeks, not three weeks, before the ground war. In the end, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's Gulf victory was more like Ulysses Grant at Richmond than Star Wars.
Bush has said this is a "different kind of war," and he has chosen Afghanistan to test the most popular notion of the military avant-garde: that the U.S. has to be able to operate in countries where it is "denied access," like Afghanistan, and where it will not be able to field a traditional fighting force.
For the first time in a major conflict, U.S. special operations forces will be the center of the action, supported by "traditional" forces, instead of being on the fringe, supporting the main force. This is the day for the special operator.
The war plan now under way is to assist Afghan forces in overthrowing the Taliban, while utilizing special operations units to locate and capture Osama bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. They can also disrupt the command and control of the Taliban forces. Neither mission can be carried out solely by precision bombing. Both require U.S. forces going on the ground.
For the American reader, this Friday's raid is worth studying. It is likely how Osama bin Laden will be killed or captured. If the U.S. plan is successful, some form of intelligence, human or electronic, will disclose his location, perhaps for only a few hours, but time enough for such a raid to be laid on. The tip-off might be a radio broadcast or come from one of his own trusted lieutenants betraying him.
The special operations force that Bush is relying on is actually an orchestra of units from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, perhaps all told about 30,000 active duty personnel from an armed force over a million. (Total Special Operations Forces manpower including active, Guard and reserve and 2,800 civilians is 45,690.)
Hollywood defined U.S. special operations long before the units could catch up to the screen version. Hardly an eight-year-old hasn't heard of Delta Force even though the Army doesn't officially acknowledge it. Thirty years ago John Wayne made a film of incredible inaccuracy about the Green Berets, and now Demi Moore is SEAL-qualified, in the movies at least. Even some of the equipment -- like the small MH6 "Little Bird" helicopters with Special Forces snipers riding on benches mounted outside the bubble -- was picked up by Hollywood.
Afghanistan, of course, is real life. It is a place where each step of the operation must be letter-perfect, and the lives of the men engaged in it rely on their skill, training and equipment.
The men of these units are characteristically triple volunteers. They volunteer for the Army, the Airborne and the Rangers. The soldiers are between 18 and 40 years, young men who on a civilian evening would be going to a movie, attending college, playing with their kids. Instead last Friday, they were going into combat in a far off land many Americans had hardly ever heard of before.
"The average Ranger rifleman who carried out that raid," reports one retired U.S. Army airborne forces colonel, "makes about $1,400 a month in base pay."
The muscle of Friday's operations were elements of the 75th Ranger Regiment, which has units based at Fort Benning and Hunter Field, Ga., and Fort Lewis, Wash.
The Rangers draw their heritage from the men who scaled cliffs at Normandy Beach in 1944 to knock out German shore batteries, and in the modern Army, it is both a unit and a qualification. Men who complete Ranger School -- a grueling, nine-week course designed to find the best qualified -- may end up serving in the Rangers regiment or be circulated through the Army to bring that élan to other units.
The Pentagon said Friday night's attack was on two locations about 60 miles apart in southern Afghanistan. One location was the headquarters compound of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban's leader. The Defense Department said that the raid did not seize Omar or his lieutenants, but recovered documents, communications information, maps and other intelligence information from the sites.
The Rangers' role in this was to seize the location, form a perimeter and defend it until the mission was complete. In a sense, they are like a football line, which provides the power to take a ball carrier up the field to the goal.
What DOD didn't say was what other Special Forces, the ball carriers, may have been with the Rangers.
Most likely a Delta Force strike team was deployed -- "D-Boys" as they are nicknamed in the Army -- to seize prisoners if possible and intelligence materials if not. Since Afghanistan is an exotic country and led by a secretive political party, there were probably Afghan and Arab speakers or operatives from the CIA with a working knowledge of the Taliban, who knew what to look for.
The team attacking Omar's headquarters was delivered from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk by Chinook Helicopters of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the "Nightstalkers," based at Fort Campbell, Ky., an Army air unit that solely conducts special operations, or Air Force SpecOps MH-53 Pave Low Helicopters
With the advent of infrared technology, night has become the friend to the American fighting man. The aircraft and the men of this attack can operate in darkness as daylight, and though some Taliban may have Soviet or other night vision equipment, the U.S. advantage means a moonless night is the safest time to conduct the raid.
According to DOD, the forces carried out the attack without casualties.
The second attack Friday also was a Ranger classic, the seizure of an airfield, but carried out quite differently. Probably as much as a day before either attack, small teams of Rangers and special Air Force ground controllers parachuted in under the cover of darkness to scope out the targets and act as pathfinders for the main forces.
The airfield mission began in darkness at Oman on the Persian Gulf, 840 miles from the drop zone in Afghanistan. In this case, the Rangers were "inserted" by parachute drop and DOD published murky green-tinted night vision video of the Rangers boarding the MC-130s, the "Combat Talons," from which they would parachute into Afghanistan.
The retired colonel, who asked not to be mentioned by name, says the men on this kind of raid likely jumped with over 80 pounds of equipment, not including the weight of their parachute system, and some who had the machine guns or mortars might be carrying as much as 100 pounds. The video footage from the DOD showed men almost staggering under this weight as they boarded.
"The paratroopers are crammed into the plane," he reports. "They are seated sideways, shoulder to shoulder. Seating is so cramped the Jumpmasters walk up and down the aisle on the rucksacks that are supported by the soldiers' legs during the flight.
"The ride is not pleasant," he said. "They ride like this three to four hours in the belly of a transport as it traverses terrain at tree-top level. The inside is lit only by a dim red light and the feeling is like riding in the trunk of a car over a two-lane mountain road, with turns, bumps, accelerations, decelerations. Nausea is common."
About six minutes out, the colonel said, "The crew opens the doors. The noise of the four turbo-prop engines and the rush of cold night air overtake the senses. The adrenaline is pumping."
The raid was to secure an airfield in the event the attack on Omar's headquarters went awry and major reinforcements were needed. It allowed the troops to assess whether this field can be captured and held as a base for humanitarian missions to bring food to thousands of starving Afghanis in the south, and could later be used to supply anti-Taliban forces in that region.
The planes they jumped from refueled in the air and extracted the Rangers on Friday's mission. Again the Rangers were not the sole special operators on this mission. The Air Force supplied the Combat Talons from the 16th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field Florida.
In addition to the Talons, the operation was covered by fighter aircraft and perhaps another versions of the MC 130 that functions as a flying 105mm howitzer, 40mm cannon and 25mm Gatling gun platform to provide immediate fire support for the attacking forces. AWACS aircraft and satellites feed visual pictures of the battle to the screens at the Pentagon and the Kitty Hawk.
In addition to the men on the mission, there were Marines standing by in nearby Pakistan if either attacking party had run into heavy trouble.
The difficulties of carrying out a delicate rescue or seizing a leader like Osama bin Laden in a sea of people who may favor him are extraordinary.
Indeed the new coordinated special operations forces that Bush ordered into action grew out of difficulties and frustrations of earlier missions.
When President Jimmy Carter ordered the rescue of the U.S. hostages held in Tehran by Iranian extremists, the rescue attempt died on the sands of the Iranian desert, disclosing that the services could not coordinate their special operations.
Out of this grew the Joint Special Operations Command, which for the first time coordinate the special operations of the different services. The formation of Delta Force and special air operations also grew out the debacle of Desert One.
Eight years ago, in Mogadishu, Somalia, the U.S. Rangers went on a daylight mission not dissimilar to Friday's raid. The mission was to seize Mohammed Farrah Aidid and other leaders of his clan of fighters who had been accused of killing 23 Pakistani U.N. peacekeepers.
He was reported to be in a hotel in downtown Mogadishu, in an area called the "Black Sea," because it was where most of the ragged followers of Aidid clan lived and thousands of poor, near starving Somalis.
The raiders came in by helicopter and were planning to seize their "targets" and quickly extract. Aidid eluded capture. Eighteen U.S. soldiers died in one of the longest firefights for U.S. forces since Vietnam, costing the lives of 300 Somalis including women and children.
"This is a kind of war," said the retired colonel "where the enemy hugs civilians," knowing that if they are killed, their deaths will be blamed on the United States and undermine U.S support.
Congressional investigations disclosed several problems that might have caused the failure of the mission. But one problem faced the U.S. raiding party bears remembering today.
Aidid and his clan were taught how to shoot downs helicopters by mujahadin who had learned to down Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden had moved to Sudan as part of his campaign to attack U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, according to evidence developed by U.S. authorities in the embassy bombing case, and helped Somali warlords.
The second part of Bush's plan for the destruction of terrorism in Afghanistan utilizes the traditional Green Berets, the U.S. Army's Special Forces in a way that was the unit's genesis when it was formed in 1952.
Green Berets are already on the ground in Northern Afghanistan working as trainers with the Northern Alliance, a group of anti-Taliban forces, which the United States has agreed to supply with arms and ammunition. It is crucial to Bush's plan that these indigenous forces carry out the burden of destroying the Taliban. The Green Berets who work with them will bring enormous expertise in tactics, weapons and communications.
The Green Beret trainers will be the link between these forces and the vast U.S. intelligence resources. The Green Berets will be able to give the anti-Taliban forces information on enemy movements from satellites and aircraft reconnaissance, intercepts on their communications from the National Security Agency, and assist them in carrying out a battle with air support.
At the same time, the Green Berets will be able to monitor the Northern Alliance, measuring for Washington how its attack is faring and keeping a weather eye for human rights abuses. Some in the Northern Alliance have been accused of human rights violations in the past and the Bush administration is anxious about this new ally.