November 20, 2003

Siege, Mk. II

A Proposal for Coping with Terrorist and other Combatant Opponents in Urban Or Rural Terrain Containing Civilian Populations.

Note: This was written in October of 2001. I offer it as a proposal proven somewhat off the mark by recent events, but (I believe) still malleable into a workable policy.

The question of who was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 appears to be coming close to being answered, at least as far as the U.S. Government is concerned. The organizations and networks spawned by the actions and resources of Osama bin Laden, a Saudi dissident, seem to be receiving the bulk of the U.S. investigation’s time and attention.

The next natural question is to ask what, then, shall we do? I offer here a small proposal. For purposes of argument, I will presume that bin Laden and/or his network (if not necessarily the man himself) are responsible, and that at the time this is decided, he remains in Afghani territory under the (at least tacit) protection of the Taliban government.

The Objective

This alone will spark debate, at least as soon as it is seriously considered in the policy and public arenas. What, precisely, are we trying to do? The terms ‘bring to justice,’ ‘punish,’ ‘defend ourselves,’ ‘retaliate’ and simply ‘kill’ have all been floated on American television since the attack, when applied to bin Laden and company. Even in the perfect world of a supposed action, we cannot agree on the final disposition of these persons, even assuming they have been identified and apprehended, or at least located.

The base objective, it seems to me, is to destroy their ability to carry out, incite or even motivate terror attacks against the U.S. and its citizens and allies. The most effective means of doing so all presuppose that we manage to apprehend or kill those persons most directly responsible. However, there are many obstacles in our path. Some of the most significant appear to me to be the following:

  • Identifying our targets. Here, we’re actually fine – in reality, we appear to have a good idea about some of them and the willingness to wait some time for solid information.
  • Locating our targets. This is problem number one, and must be addressed first.
  • Isolating our targets. Not easy, but doable.
  • Reaching our targets. This is a bad one, given the location, characteristics and history of Afghanistan and the surrounding areas.
  • Capturing/Killing our targets. The final goal of this particular operation.
  • Avoiding Civilian casualties and creating further reason for hatred of the U.S. This one’s really going to be rough.

They’re not insolvable. Let’s start with locating the targets, since I have (I believe) effectively punted the first step in the list above. Locating is a proactive as well as reactive process. While we are indeed trying to discover their location(s), it behooves us to also work to limit their range of movement and freedom of action. Even if the area to which we are attempting to constrain them seems impossibly large and complex, the effort should be made. Here, it seems, the U.S. administration appears to be making progress, helped considerably by the horrific nature of the attacks themselves. Nations traditionally sympathetic to bin Laden and company are declaring themselves less so; Iran has closed its border with Afghanistan to avoid refugee flows and condemned bin Laden. An Iranian World Cup qualifying match observed a minute of silence in tribute to those fallen in New York and Washington – a small but extremely powerful gesture considering the nation offering it and its history with our own. Pakistan, the primary supporters of the Taliban government, are (publically, at any rate) dropping their supportive stance, and (as of Sunday the 16th of September) have gone so far as to declare that U.S. aircraft will be allowed to use their airspace in any operations in the region. This is an enormous concession; compare, for example, to strikes on Libya in which France refused the U.S. overflight clearances. To have a government whose nation contains large groups who sympathize with the Taliban to make this offer indicates the gravity with which they view this event.

So, containing them may not be that difficult. If they are ejected from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the indications are that the U.S. will be able to purse a diplomatic course towards chivvying them into a region with effective and sympathetic law enforcement – INTERPOL, for example, has issued a ‘Red Notice’ for bin Laden’s capture. So let us assume that they are not evicted from Afghanistan. What then?

Afghanistan is a terribly inhospitable region. Deserts and mountains make up most of the country, with few resources available to succor those who would hide in the wilderness. While it is indeed possible, as bin Laden himself proved during the Soviet invasion, it is difficult. Also (and this is the key point) during that invasion, civilian support was available, even if only in tacit form, as were direct avenues of resources, support and intelligence from the United States Government itself.

Yes, I am leading to a point. The key, then, is to separate the terrorists and their sympathizers from popular support both internationally as well as domestically. The Taliban, who shelter bin Laden, while controlling the majority of the country, do not enjoy popular support. Their hold on power rests more on the force of arms and the general exhaustion of a populace suffering from two decades of war. Ergo, there may be avenues to divide the population of Afghanistan from bin Laden’s support; even, if necessary, from support of the Taliban.

The United States should aggressively seek to carry out the following tasks.


  1. Establish a semipermanent presence adjacent to Afghanistan. Pakistan is the logical choice; direct coterminous borders may not be necessary (although they would help).
  2. Station combat troops, with an emphasis on special forces personnel, in these adjacent areas. We should not employ them in combat blindly, or with no other objective than to ‘get him or them.’ That’s too vague. They should be nearby, however.
  3. Divide the task of response into two sections; actions taken w/r/t the Taliban, and actions taken w/r/t bin Laden. They are different; the former claim the prerogatives of sovereign statehood; let them then also assume the risks. The latter and his associates, on the other hand, are wanted for crimes, dead or alive as the traditional saying goes; you cannot, however, employ the same means that can be applied to nation-states.
  4. The Taliban, if necessary (if they do not cooperate) should be subjected to a vigorous air campaign. It should not be undertaken, however, without carefully and clearly warning the population of Afghanistan that they are not our target, and that they should endeavor to avoid potential target areas (say, Kabul) because at some point after a specified date, we will begin operations.
  5. Finally, employ the carrot and the stick vis-à-vis both the Afghani population and bin Laden’s associates. This is the heart of my argument (I know, I only tok two pages to get here).

The Carrot and the Stick

The United States, we are told and shown, is hated because it is rich, selfish, thoughtless, and is/has been involved in many areas of the world where its involvement has directly or indirectly destroyed or worsened the lives of the local population. The Intifadah arose among the orphaned dispossessed Palestinians who suffered in camps from Israeli oppression (backed with American money and weapons). Any bombing or combat action that harms civilians, especially miserable ones (as the Taliban remind us) will likely simply create a new generation of haters, and cement bin Laden’s Jihad.

In addition, governments have little motivation to assist the U.S. in such actions since they must answer to their own people, especially after the U.S. leaves. In general, it’s a bad idea to simply attack people, places or things in response. What, then, to do?

I propose offering both sides of America. If we find it necessary to bomb Afghanistan, as we may, we should work to ensure the safety and goodwill of the common population, who (we are fond of believing) will eventually have a say in the leadership of that nation. I hear you arguing but what should be do precisely?

Simple.

I propose we give America to those who would otherwise be left homeless, hungry, wounded and tired. I propose we offer the civilian, noncombatant people of the region a choice. Try hard to find and apprehend our targets with special forces ‘flying squads,’ but don’t expect it to work. Try very hard to close the noose around them. Even if we do not have ‘permission’ to operate in Afghanistan, paralyze the Taliban with airpower and use airborne forces and air power to ‘herd’ bin Laden’s people. However, once we have them isolated in a relatively small area (and the operative term is relative; if we can only track them to a million square kilometers but that area contains relatively little in the way of resources, fine. If they try to hide in a city, as they might (the U.S. has been public recently about its extreme wariness about undertaking urban combat), then this will work even better.

Find a relatively safe area near the objective zone. Build a city. At least, build a small town. Build a hospital, and dining facilities, and sanitation. Bring in electrical generators. Spend lavishly to create an area of relative comfort in the region. If possible, take and convert an existing town, but build if we must. Staff the hospital with American doctors and medication. Offer fast food (if it isn’t offensive to the locals) or at least decent meal kitchens. Have social workers. Have entertainers. Have carpenters, tradesmen, etc. Then invite the local population to move in.

Note: this does not need to be a permanent settlement! The purpose is not to upgrade the permanent living conditions of the local inhabitants! Nope, the purpose is to give them an attractive reason to remain uninvolved, to cooperate, and most important, to get our of harm’s way. Allow anyone who wishes to avail themselves of the facilities, with only one rule: No weapons allowed. We don’t care who you are; as long as you’re not on our ‘watch list’ then you’re welcome. House them. Feed them. Teach them. Entertain them. Live with them! Staff this facility with American volunteers on a rotating basis.

But here’s the important part.

Somewhere nearby, begin the buildup of forces that you will need to actually go into the city, or the region, and find then kill or apprehend your objectives. Let the civilians see you building up. Tell them plainly, as well as everyone else in the region:

”We are here to deal with terrorists and look to our own safety. We have no quarrel with you. We realize that we may have to do things to this countryside and/or city that are horrific. We cannot avoid that unless the terrorists are handed over to us or apprehended. In the event that we are forced to act, however, we will do our best to ensure that you, the people of this region, have received America’s best efforts to ensure your safety, comfort and well-being while this unfortunate task is being handled.”

Then do it. Bomb the nearest city flat. Send the 1st Armored in after them, with the understanding that sending them into a city means taking the city down flat. Do whatever it takes, knowing that you have done your level best to remove civilians from the line of fire. If you come across them, do what you are able for them and direct them to the rear. But damn it, lay waste once you do have to go in!

If this works, the following will be true:


  • We might repair the image of our nation somewhat
  • Those innocents that would normally suffer during this type of action and thus continue to spread anti-U.S. sentiment and gospel would have a reason to at least attempt to understand our position. If we are able to do so, they may even end up grateful for what help we can give them. To ensure this, we must give unstintingly inside those enclave walls.
  • The perpetrators are robbed of local support. Even if the locals don’t like us, they can walk to the enclave and avoid supporting the terrorists.
  • The lesson of what America can do when it (as a polity) is pissed is not lost; however, neither is the lesson that America can and does provide for people as well; provide food, water, electricity, care, laughter, medicines, what-have-you.

The point is that the civilians then have a vested interest in actually improving the situation before we are done fighting; they can see our better qualities as well. They may see that we are, in fact, helping their babies or their parents. The question is, then what do we do? What if they don’t come out?

So what?

If you’ve done this correctly, eventually they will either be isolated enough that we can go into cities or areas after them without significant interference, or they will be found and arrested or killed. People will see what it means to have a cranked-up, pissed off American military on the move, but won’t be sitting in the line of fire. Furthermore, alliances can be tightened; agreements bolstered.

Posted by jbz at November 20, 2003 12:00 AM
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