BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- Soaring across the velvet black sky on a night mission over Afghanistan, F-15E fighter pilot Steve Kwast peered through his high-resolution, infrared targeting pod. He had spotted insurgents running across open ground toward a line of trees. As he swooped down for a closer look, Kwast watched one of the men slip behind a tree – and as his fighter roared past, he could see the man's hands on the tree as he inched around to stay behind it. "All I could see were his fingertips – I could see him moving around the tree as I flew by,'' Kwast, a brigadier general and wing commander here, told me later.
The insurgents, he concluded from this and other encounters, "are incredibly smart fighters. They know how to defeat us by understanding how our technology works. They are cunning and agile and good at adapting . . . at every turn. This enemy has shown how to get around our technology.''
In the sputtering debate about Afghanistan and what to do about the war, I haven't heard anyone advocate surrendering to the Taliban. What I have heard are lots of thoughts about how to make the war less painful, at least for us. Force the allies to do more. Train the Afghans to fight in our place. Cut back our own forces, just a bit. Find a cheaper way to fight, one that doesn't involve so darned many American troops. I particularly like this last one, because it feeds into the fantasy that superior American technology can overcome any adversary almost bloodlessly, especially the bearded primitives of Afghanistan.
I'm sorry, but there is no cheap way to win in Afghanistan. There is no way to turn this into a high-tech war. American technology can and does assist. But this war – like every other – requires the active presence on the ground of American men and women.
Every president since Harry Truman, says my friend Bob Scales, "has learned that, in irregular warfare, technology is a poor substitute for 'boots on the ground.' '' From recent conflicts, Americans should have learned that an adaptive enemy (Viet Cong, for example, or Somalis) can shift tactics and overcome U.S. technology faster than we can invent it (remember the "people sniffers" of the Vietnam War?). And technology "fixes'' can come at a lopsided cost. In this war, the Pentagon is spending billions to defeat IEDs made from a few cents worth of fertilizer, diesel oil, discarded batteries, and old wire.
Scales is a combat veteran, military historian, retired major general and former commandant of the Army War College. In a paper written for the Center for a New American Strategy, he goes on to make the case for more infantrymen. "The bottom line is that, in irregular wars fought for limited ends with limited means, numbers count.''
That was the lesson some learned from a horribly bloody conflict half a century ago. "[Y]ou may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life,'' T.R. Fehrenbach wrote in his classic history of the Korean War – "but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.''
Fehrenbach had it right about Korea. With American infantrymen, I've tramped up and down enough Korean mountainsides to know you could never defend the place with air power alone. There are too many places for bad guys to operate unseen, unless you're right there on the ground. Afghanistan is that kind of place too, only more so. It's not only that the enemy is cunning and can adapt to our war-fighting technology quicker than we can change it. It's that, plus the terrain.
From 12,000 feet, this country looks like a barren crumple of brown paper dusted with cocoa powder, horizon to horizon. Closer in, the landscape reveals itself as undulating waves of jagged rock peaks and deep valleys. Occasionally, runoff from autumn rains or melting snow coaxes a thread of green vegetation along a valley floor, attracting a cluster of adobe buildings. Only a few far-flung flatlands, such as Kabul and Kandahar, are able to support sizable human populations.
This cruel landscape has given the technology guys the fits. Five years ago, with the Iraq invasion turning into a bloody slugfest, they feverishly set about new ways to find and "fix'' the enemy so he could be destroyed. They designed all new look-down sensors, including high-resolution, real-time video, carried by manned and unmanned aircraft and satellites, and wired all of the intelligence "take'' into fusion centers where analysts, commandos and battalion commanders could puzzle out where the enemy was, what he was doing, and where he was vulnerable. That worked remarkably well, helping to roll up al Qaida and its IED networks in Iraq.
But Iraq is flat, and the technology was designed to work across the tabletop city streets where the Iraq war was fought. The stuff doesn't work very well in Afghanistan.
This is Kwast's immediate war-fighting problem. He commands a fleet of fighter-bombers, and also a vast array of intelligence "platforms,'' including drones and specialized aircraft like Navy EA6-B Prowlers and EC-130 "Compass Call'' planes that collect electronic intelligence. These are collectively called "Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance'' assets, or ISR for short.
"There are ways the enemy takes advantage of the fact that we have a constellation of ISR that was really built for flat ground, and where we are here requires a different solution set,'' Kwast told me. "You hear this mantra, we need more and more ISR – well, what we really need is different ISR. We need ISR that stares straight down, so that instead of seeing just one side of a mountain, you can see both sides.''
ISR guys are reluctant to talk much about their work, but here's one example they offered: in Iraq, they got good at eavesdropping on the enemy, one of the primary ways they penetrated al Qaida cells. Not so easy here, they've found. Eavesdropping requires a sensor to be placed in a direct "line of sight'' between the two people talking. Easy enough in flat areas. But in Afghanistan, insurgents can talk from opposite sides of a steep valley where it's difficult to get a sensor down to intercept the line of sight between them. "All our orbits and CAPs (combat air patrols) and listening devices – useless, if the enemy is smart enough to know that as long as they're not in a line of sight of an aircraft, no one can hear them,'' said Kwast. "And they're using that to their advantage.''
There are technical solutions to these problems, probably, but Kwast said they haven't yet been invented.
This is why commanders like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who directs all U.S. and allied combat operations in Afghanistan, are talking about needing more troops, additional "boots on the ground.'' Clearly they are not going to send infantrymen up every distant valley. But much of this war can only be fought on the ground, in direct close-quarter confrontation with the enemy.
That much seems true. Even if it takes an Air Force guy to point it out.
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