August 12, 2011

Taliban Tactics and American Ambiguity

Last weekend's crash of a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter as the result of Taliban RPG hit in which 30 American troops were killed was a tactical victory for the Taliban. The television news bulletin with the headline "30 US Troops Die in Afghan Chopper Crash" is the goal of these operations. The Taliban know they are not going to defeat the American-led coalition on the battlefield. They are not seeking a military victory, they simply want the foreign forces to leave, giving them a political victory. The question is how to get them to leave?

Any student of history would draw the conclusions that Americans can be swayed by what political-military scholars call a "significant emotional event." These events do not have to be military or political losses, they may even be victories, but they must galvanize American public opinion against the current course of action. The headline in the photo just might be another significant emotional event.

Some examples of significant emotional events and the fallout:

- 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam. On January 31, 1968, the Vietnamese New Year (in Vietnamese, Tết Nguyên Đán, hence the name Tet), the Viet Cong launched coordinated strikes on military bases and command centers throughout South Vietnam, hoping to spark an uprising that would topple the American-backed government and force the American troops to leave.

The military campaign was a disaster for the Viet Cong. After achieving initial surprise, American forces counterattacked and in essence destroyed the Viet Cong as a fighting force. After Tet, the only effective military force opposing the Americans were the regulars of the North Vietnamese army.

Despite the offensive being a loss for the Viet Cong and a military victory for the United States, the perception in the United States was that the war was not winnable nor worth the expenditure of blood and treasure. Although American involvement (including mine) continued until 1973, the Tet offensive changed American public opinion toward the war. While American troops won the battles in Vietnam, the American public lost the war at home.

- 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. On 23, 1983 during the civil war in Lebanon, a truck bomb struck a building at Beirut International Airport used to house U.S. Marines. The Marines were in Lebanon as part of a UN-mandated force positioned there in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon aimed at the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The attack left 241 American troops dead; 58 French paratroopers were killed in a near-simultaneous separate attack. The attack was the event that led to the eventual withdrawal of American (and French) forces from Lebanon.

- 1993 "Blackhawk Down" in Mogadishu. On October 3 and 4, 1993, Task Force Ranger, consisting of diverse elements of the U.S. Special Operations community, conducted a raid into Mogadishu to arrest known collaborators of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. During the operation, two U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters were shot down by RPGs, stranding a group of survivors in the city overnight. In the overnight fighting, 19 American troops were killed and 73 wounded.

Although the task force in the end achieved its objectives in capturing the targets, the political fallout and objections to the mishandling of the military situation by President Clinton caused the eventual U.S. withdrawal from Somalia.

The effect of the downed Chinook in Afghanistan

The loss of 30 American troops, the largest single daily loss in the almost 10-year old Afghan war, may constitute a significant emotional event. The crash comes at a critical time for U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration, for whatever misguided reason, is wedded to a specific timeline for withdrawal of American troops from the country. This follows a surge of forces to take on the Taliban in their traditional strongholds.

It is a mixed message. The United States, because it is trying to do more with less troops, will necessarily have to change its counterinsurgency strategy to one of counterterrorism. That will likely mean more of the type of raids that led to these high casualties. This coincides with more and more American's becoming weary of a war that seems to have no defined mission.

Why are we fighting the Taliban? Why are we supporting the Karzai government? Wasn't the reason for the invasion in 2001 to remove and defeat al-Qa'idah? Aren't they gone? Why aren't we hunting and killing al-Qa'idah where they are instead of nation building in Afghanistan?

Good questions all. I am still waiting for the answers. Somehow I doubt they will be forthcoming from the President focused on his re-election campaign in Iowa or on vacation in Martha's Vineyard. Perhaps the loss of these fine Americans will be the significant emotional event that causes the American people to demand those answers.