How the War Against Terrorism Could Escalate

>Ever since hijacked aircraft smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, the White House and the Pentagon have been devising a menu of retaliatory strikes against those deemed responsible. Just 24 hours after the attacks, President Bush reported he and his national security team had made preliminary plans for a sustained military campaign against terrorism. “This battle will take time and resolve,” he noted, “but make no mistake about it: we will win.”

Since then, selected National Guard and Reserve units have been called up to supplement U.S. forces already on duty, and the Department of Defense has ordered warships and combat aircraft to the Persian Gulf region. In his September 20 address to Congress, the President went further, announcing the war against terrorists would not conclude “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and destroyed.”

However, Bush and his top advisers have made it very clear that the war against terrorism will be a long and complicated war, encompassing both visible events, such as air strikes, and hidden actions, such as night-time commando raids against suspected terrorist hideouts.

Administration officials also have been clear that the war will not entail a short burst of intense military activity followed by relative calm, but rather will be a drawn-out series of major and minor engagements. Thus the U.S. effort will not end with the capture of Osama bin Laden and his immediate associates. Rather, it will expand into a full-scale campaign against all significant terrorist organizations—those with a “global reach”—along with any government that continues to provide aid or support terrorist organizations.

But how, exactly, will this “broadly based, sustained effort” be fought?

On this critical point, the White House and the Department of Defense have been noticeably silent. This means any attempt to picture the war we are about to commence must rely on conjecture, hints from presidential statements, rumors, and the experience of past conflicts. What follows is one attempt to construct a likely scenario from publicly available information.

A Recap

To begin this process, we need to recapitulate what can be surmised of the administration’s potential battle plan.

First, this war will be a phased conflict, beginning with smaller-scale attacks against known terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, and leading over time to more robust strikes against states said to be harboring or aiding terrorists, including Iraq.

Second, it will include both conventional forces—Army and Marine ground units, Navy carriers and cruisers, and Air Force bombers—as well as unconventional, “special” forces—Army Rangers, Delta commandos, Navy SEALs and so on.

Third, it will begin with a focus on Afghanistan, but will quickly spread to other areas said to harbor terrorists linked to the Bin Laden network, such as Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union.

With all this in mind, it is possible to conceive of a three-phased effort, beginning with relatively small-scale measures in a week or two’s time, followed in succeeding months by increasingly complex and demanding operations. A likely progression would proceed as follows:

Phase I

Phase I would begin with focused attacks on suspected terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and on the Taliban’s political-military infrastructure. This would entail helicopter-borne commando raids on camps in Afghanistan that are believed to house associates of Osama bin Laden. The aim would be to apprehend members of Bin Laden’s inner circle and to destroy any fixed assets—communications gear, weapons caches, etc.—that are discovered. The commandos would seek to complete their assigned mission rapidly and then return to base camps, presumably in Pakistan or at Russian air bases in Tajikistan. If confronted by significant opposition, however, these units could be reinforced by quick-reaction teams equipped for more sustained, intensive operations.

Phase I also would include air and missile attacks on the remaining military assets of the Taliban regime. Likely targets would include the air bases in Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat, and Shindand, along with government buildings in these and other cities. Other targets could include dormitories used to house members of the Taliban’s military apparatus.

It is unlikely that Phase I will involve the permanent deployment of U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan, as such a move would entail enormous risks—as the Russians discovered to their dismay during the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s. However, it is entirely possible that the Department of Defense will austere base camps in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance to manage the distribution of arms to anti-Taliban forces, and to support helicopter assaults by American commandos.

Phase II

Phase II would commence with attacks on facilities used by paramilitary groups linked to Bin Laden in countries other than Afghanistan. This would entail some combination of commando raids and missile strikes against suspected terrorist camps and installation in such locations as Lebanon’s Bekka valley, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. As in Phase I, the bulk of the fighting would be performed by heli-borne commando forces operating from bases in friendly countries. This phase would also include attacks on any companies or charities controlled by or associated with the Bin Laden organization.

While many of these attacks would be conducted by American forces, Phase II would also entail involvement by the forces of friendly nations. For example, Israeli forces would no doubt participate in any raids on terrorist camps in southern Lebanon, while Russian, Uzbek, and Tajik forces would participate in raids on camps in the Central Asian republics. The U.S. might also join with Filipino forces in attacks on militant Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines.

Phase III

Phase III would focus on attacks on Iraq and other states that harbor or support terrorists. This phase of the conflict would more closely resemble earlier contests, notably the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. Unless Saddam Hussein voluntarily steps down as the Iraqi leader—a highly unlikely scenario—we can expect sustained air and missile attacks on Iraqi military facilities, Hussein’s residences and offices, and any facilities thought to be used in the manufacture of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. The aim would be to kill Hussein outright (by destroying the buildings he is known to inhabit) or to so weaken his governing apparatus that anti-Hussein forces (armed and assisted by the United States) would be able to sweep him from power.

Phase III might also include attacks on other governments that refuse to cooperate with the U.S. in eradicating suspected terrorist camps located in their territory. The most likely candidate for such action is the Muslim government of Sudan, which has been linked to Bin Laden’s organization in the past. The Sudanese government could escape such attack if it turned over any suspected terrorists sought by Washington and opened its territory to inspection by U.S. military observers.

What Would Victory Look Like?

At the end of all this, the White House would be able to claim “victory” in its war against terrorism, and most of the American forces involved would be returned to their bases in the United States. But the administration has been very vague about the conditions that would allow such a determination. When asked about this very issue, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said only that victory will come when “we can continue our way of life” in the face of multiple threats and challenges.

This lack of clarity of what constitutes “victory” is the product of several factors. First of all, it appears the administration is divided over whether to seek the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein through direct military means (such as an invasion of the country) or to confine U.S. involvement to air attacks while providing clandestine support for the anti-Saddam underground. According to a number of press reports, Secretary of State Colin Powell favors the latter approach, while Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz favors the former.

Second, it is apparent that U.S. war planners are unable to predict the outcome of the earlier phases of the conflict, and so cannot be sure how the larger war will unfold. If, for example, things go badly in Afghanistan, the Pentagon may be forced to deploy a much larger force to that area than is currently being contemplated. And once that happens, no one can be sure how, and when, the fighting will reach a conclusion.

It appears, then, that while some aspects of the coming conflict can be perceived ahead of time, much is sheathed in darkness. All that can be said with certainty is that this will be a major military undertaking, that it will encompass a large geographical area, and that it will last longer than any other conflict involving U.S. forces since the end of the cold war.