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October 2, 2001, Dear Classmates (from West Point):
Many of you are probably not aware that I was one of the last American citizens to have spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan. I was first there in 1993 providing relief and assistance to refugees along the Tajik border and in this capacity have traveled all along the border region between the two countries. In 1998 and 1999 I was the Deputy Program Manager for the UN's mine action program in Afghanistan. This program is the largest civilian employer in the country with over 5,000 persons clearing mines and UXO. In this later capacity, I was somewhat ironically engaged in a "Holy War" as decreed by the Taliban, against the evil of land mines, and by a special proclamation of Mullah Omar, all those who might have died in this effort were considered to "martyrs" even an "infidel" like myself. The mine action program is the most respected relief effort in the country and because of this I had the opportunity to travel extensively, without too much interference or restriction. I still have extensive contacts in the area and among the Afghan community and read a great deal on the subject.
I had wanted to write earlier and share some of my perspectives, but quite frankly I have been a bit too popular in DC this past week and have not had time. Dr. Tony Kern's comments were excellent and I would like to use them as a basis for sharing some observations. First, he is absolutely correct. This war is about will, resolve and character. I want to touch on that later, but first I want to share some comments about our "enemy." Our enemy is not the people of Afghanistan. The country is devastated beyond what most of us can imagine. The vast majority of the people live day-to-day, hand to mouth in abject conditions of poverty, misery and deprivation. Less than 30% of the men are literate, the women even less. The country is exhausted, and desperately wants something like peace. They know very little of the world at large, and have no access to information or knowledge that would counter what they are being told by the Taliban. They have nothing left, nothing that is except for their pride.
Who is our enemy? Well, our enemy is a group of non-Afghans, often referred to by the Afghans as "Arabs" and a fanatical group of religious leaders and their military cohort, the Taliban. The non-Afghan contingent came from all over the Islamic world to fight in the war against the Russians. Many came using a covert network created with assistance by our own government. OBL (as Osama bin Laden was referred to by us in the country at the time) restored this network to bring in more fighters, this time to support the Taliban in their civil war against the former Mujehdeen. Over time this military support along with financial support has allowed OBL and his "Arabs" to co-opt significant government activities and leaders. OBL is the "inspector general" of Taliban armed forces, his bodyguards protect senior Talib leaders and he has built a system of deep bunkers for the Taliban, which were designed to withstand cruise missile strikes (uhm, where did he learn to do that?). His forces basically rule the southern city of Kandahar. This high-profile presence of OBL and his "Arabs" has, in the last 2 years or so, started to generate a great deal of resentment on the part of the local Afghans. At the same time the legitimacy of the Taliban regime has started to decrease as it has failed to end the war, as local humanitarian conditions have worsened and as "cultural" restrictions have become even harsher. It is my assessment that most Afghans no longer support the Taliban. Indeed the Taliban have recently had a very difficult time getting recruits for their forces and have had to rely more and more on non-Afghans, either from Pushtun tribes in Pakistan or from OBL. OBL and the Taliban, absent any US action were probably on their way to sharing the same fate that all other outsiders and outside doctrines have experienced in Afghanistan-defeat and dismemberment.
During the Afghan war with the Soviets much attention was paid to the martial prowess of the Afghans. We were all at West Point at the time and most of us had high-minded idealistic thoughts about how we would all want to go help the brave "freedom fighters" in their struggle against the Soviets. Those concepts were naive to the extreme. The Afghans, while never conquered as a nation, are not invincible in battle. A "good" Afghan battle is one that makes a lot of noise and light. Basic military skills are rudimentary and clouded by cultural constraints that no matter what, a warrior should never lose his honor. Indeed, firing from the prone is considered distasteful (but still done). Traditionally, the Afghan order of battle is very feudal in nature, with fighters owing allegiance to a "commander" and this person owing allegiance upwards and so on and so on. Often such allegiance is secured by payment. And while the Taliban forces have changed this somewhat, many of the units in the Taliban army are there because they are being paid to be there. All such groups have very strong loyalties along ethnic and tribal lines. Again, the concept of having a place of "honor" and "respect" is of paramount importance and blood feuds between families and tribes can last for generations over a perceived or actual slight.
That is one reason why there were 7 groups of Mujehdeen fighting the Russians. It is a very difficult task to form and keep united a large bunch of Afghans into a military formation. The "real" stories that have come out of the war against the Soviets are very enlightening and a lot different from our fantastic visions as cadets. When the first batch of Stingers came in and were given to one Mujehdeen group, another group-supposedly on the same side, attacked the first group and stole the Stingers, not so much because they wanted to use them, but because having them was a matter of prestige. Many larger coordinated attacks that advisers tried to conduct failed when all the various Afghan fighting groups would give up their assigned tasks (such as blocking or overwatch) and instead would join the assault group in order to seek glory. In comparison to Vietnam, the intensity of combat and the rate of fatalities were lower for all involved.
As you can tell from above, it is my assessment that these guys are not THAT good in a purely military sense and the "Arabs" probably even less so than the Afghans. So why is it that they have never been conquered? It goes back to Dr. Kern's point about will. During their history the only events that have managed to form any semblance of unity among the Afghans, is the desire to fight foreign invaders. And in doing this the Afghans have been fanatical. The Afghans' greatest military strength is the ability to endure hardships that would, in all probability, kill most Americans and enervate the resolve of all but the most elite military units. The physical difficulties of fighting in Afghanistan, the terrain, the weather and the harshness are all weapons that our enemies will use to their advantage and use well. (NOTE: For you military planner types and armchair generals--around November 1st most road movement is impossible, in part because all the roads used by the Russians have been destroyed and air movement will be problematic at best.) Also, those fighting us are not afraid to fight. OBL and others do not think the US has the will or the stomach for a fight. Indeed after the absolutely inane missile strikes of 1998, the overwhelming consensus was that we were cowards, who would not risk one life in face to face combat. Rather than demonstrating our might and acting as a deterrent, that action and others of the not so recent past, have reinforced the perception that the US does not have any "will" and that were are morally and spiritually corrupt.
Our challenge is to play to the weaknesses of our enemy, notably their propensity for internal struggles, the distrust between the extremists/Arabs and the majority of Afghans, their limited ability to fight coordinated battles and their lack of external support. More importantly though is that we have to take steps not to play to their strengths, which would be to unite the entire population against us by increasing their suffering or killing innocents, to get bogged down trying to hold terrain, or to get into a battle of attrition chasing up and down mountain valleys.
I have been asked how I would fight the war. This is a big question and well beyond my pay grade or expertise. And while I do not want to second guess current plans or start an academic debate I would share the following from what I know about Afghanistan and the Afghans. First, I would give the Northern Alliance a big wad of cash so that they can buy off a chunk of the Taliban army before winter. Second, also with this cash I would pay some guys to kill some of the Taliban leadership making it look like an inside job to spread distrust and build on existing discord. Third I would support the Northern alliance with military assets, but not take it over or adopt so high a profile as to undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of most Afghans. Fourth would be to give massive amounts of humanitarian aid and assistance to the Afghans in Pakistan in order to demonstrate our goodwill and to give these guys a reason to live rather than the choice between dying of starvation or dying fighting the "infidel." Fifth, start a series of public works projects in areas of the country not under Taliban control (these are much more than the press reports) again to demonstrate goodwill and that improvements come with peace. Sixth, I would consider vary carefully putting any female service members into Afghanistan proper-sorry to the females of our class but within that culture a man who allows a women to fight for him has zero respect, and we will need respect to gain the cooperation of Afghan allies. No Afghan will work with a man who fights with women.
I would hold off from doing anything too dramatic in the near term, keeping a low level of covert action and pressure up over the winter, allowing this pressure to force open the fissions around the Taliban that were already developing. Expect that they will quickly turn on themselves and on OBL. We can pick up the pieces next summer, or the summer after. When we do "pickup" the pieces I would make sure that we do so on the ground, "man to man."
While I would never want to advocate American causalities, it is essential that we communicate to OBL and all others watching that we can and will "engage and destroy the enemy in close combat." As mentioned above, we should not try to gain or hold terrain, but Infantry operations against the enemy are essential. There can be no excuses after the defeat or lingering doubts in the minds of our enemies regarding American resolve and nothing, nothing will communicate this except for ground combat. And once this is all over, unlike in 1989 the US must provide continued long-term economic assistance to rebuild the country.
While I have written too much already, I think it is also important to share a few things on the subject of brutality. Our opponents will not abide by the Geneva conventions. There will be no prisoners unless there is a chance that they can be ransomed or made part of a local prisoner exchange.
During the war with the Soviets, videotapes were made of communist prisoners having their throats slit. Indeed, there did exist a "trade" in prisoners so that souvenir videos could be made by outsiders to take home with them. This practice has spread to the Philippines, Bosnia and Chechnya were similar videos are being made today and can be found on the web for those so inclined. We can expect our soldiers to be treated the same way. Sometime during this war I expect that we will see videos of US prisoners having their heads cut off. Our enemies will do this not only to demonstrate their "strength" to their followers, but also to cause us to overreact, to seek wholesale revenge against civilian populations and to turn this into the world wide religious war that they desperately want. This will be a test of our will and of our character. (For further collaboration of this type of activity please read Kipling.)
This will not be a pretty war; it will be a war of wills, of resolve and somewhat conversely of compassion and of a character. Towards our enemies, we must show a level of ruthlessness that has not been part of our military character for a long time. But to those who are not our enemies we must show a level of compassion probably unheard of during war. We should do this not for humanitarian reasons, even though there are many, but for shrewd military logic.
For anyone who is still reading, thanks for your patience. I will try to answer any questions that may arise in a more concise manner.
Thanks, Richard Kidd