A decisive -- and risky -- action to snare the leaders of Al Qaeda
Wednesday's Chigago Tribune (subscription required) broke a big story
about a new offensive planned for the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, wherein the U.S. will introduce large numbers of ground forces to hunt down and apprehend/kill the top leadership of Al Qaeda. The story was subsequently picked up
by a number of other media, and its authenticity has been confirmed by Pentagon officials who say that they have a pretty good idea of where Osama is hiding. The basic idea is that we have been playing a cat & mouse game with Al Qaeda's top leaders for some time -- and the way we plan to win this game is to introduce a big tiger into the game, in the form of large American infantry formations.
U.S. Central Command is assembling a team of military intelligence officers that would be posted in Pakistan ahead of the operation, according to sources familiar with details of the plan and internal military communications. The sources spoke on the condition they not be identified.Analysis
As now envisioned, the offensive would involve Special Operations forces, Army Rangers and Army ground troops, sources said. A Navy aircraft carrier would be deployed in the Arabian Sea.
Referred to in internal Pentagon messages as the "spring offensive," the operation would be driven by certain undisclosed events in Pakistan and across the region, sources said. A source familiar with details of the plan said this is "not like a contingency plan for North Korea, something that sits on a shelf. This planning is like planning for Iraq. They want this plan to be executable, now."
* * *
The U.S. military plan is characterized within the Pentagon as "a big effort" in the next year. Military analysts had previously judged that a bold move against Islamic extremists and Osama bin Laden, in particular, was more likely to happen in spring 2005.
A series of planning orders-referred to in military jargon as warning orders-for the offensive were issued in recent weeks. The deadline for key planning factors to be detailed by the U.S. military was Jan. 21.
* * *
Thousands of U.S. forces would be involved, as well as Pakistani troops, planners said. Some of the 10,600 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan would be shifted to the border region as part of regular troop movements; some would be deployed within Pakistan.
"Before we were constrained by the border. Musharraf did not want that. Now we are told we're going into Pakistan with Musharraf's help," said a well-placed military source.
: A Pentagon spokesman essentially confirmed this story after the Tribune broke it, saying "We have a variety of intelligence and we're sure we're going to catch Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar this year." That's a big promise to make. I hope we have the goods to back this up, because I'd sure like to catch these guys too.
A couple of notes on this planned offensive. First, it incurs substantial amounts of operational risk, which will transform into political risk for the Bush Administration. Any offensive operation carries risk -- you are taking the fight to the enemy, and they will have an advantage on the defensive. Furthermore, we are planning this operation in extremely rough terrain where that defensive advantage will be enhanced, and we are planning to throw large amounts of ground forces into the mix. Anytime you send large numbers of troops into combat, you run the risk of large numbers of casualties. This too is compounded by the mountainous terrain and conditions, because it will make it tougher to evacuate wounded soldiers, as we found out in Operation Anaconda. Those operational risks will transform themselves into political risks for the President, because of the American public's traditional reaction to casualties. Of course, the public will likely accept these more readily than casualties in Iraq, because of the nature of our prey. If you asked the average American whether it's worth it to go after Osama, they will likely say yes. Nonetheless, a steady stream of casualties from Afghanistan in the absence of hard results (i.e. the capture/killing of Al Qaeda's top leaders) will not be good politically for the Bush Administration.
Second, one has to consider where the forces will come from for this operation. Every single infantry battalion in the active-duty Army has been deployed to Iraq or is on its way to Iraq, save those committed to Korea. Presumably, the forces for this Afghanistan offensive will come from the ranks of those already inside Afghanistan, as well as those soldiers who came back in 2003 and early 2004 from Iraq. That's going to have an effect on these soldiers, and depending on the amount of time they have for rest/retraining, it may have an effect on the mission too. On the other side of the ledger, these soldiers are combat-experienced veterans who probably won't need much retraining to fight in Afghanistan. But the administration is taking a risk by stretching these units so far, to the point where they may not be ready for the next threat -- whatever that may be.
My sense is that this mission is worth that risk -- the destruction of Al Qaeda is our raison d'etre
in the war on terrorism. But in an election year, I think the American public will judge this mission its results. We'll see.