By Stan Crock A fanatical leader involved in the drug trade posed an increasing threat to the U.S., and President Bush wanted a neat decapitation of this enemy regime. So the Pentagon came up with a novel plan to coordinate air and land forces to hunt down the dictator.
The President wasn't George W. Bush, but his father, George H.W. Bush. And the operation wasn't Enduring Freedom but Just Cause, which led to the street-by-street and house-by-house capture of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega in 1989. As the U.S. military operation unfolds now in Afghanistan, it's a good bet that Enduring Freedom will look a lot more like Just Cause than the Persian Gulf War's Desert Storm. This will likely be a campaign of lightning air strikes, combined with deployment of targeted special-operations forces. The mission: Roust Taliban leaders and hunt down terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden (see BW Online, 10/8/01, "No Turning Back Now").
Of course, substantial differences mark the efforts in Panama and Afghanistan. For starters, the U.S. military had been in Panama for years and knew both the people and the terrain. American GIs are far less familiar with the more foreboding landscape of Afghanistan and will have to rely on intelligence from Britain, Pakistan, and Russia.
BOMBS AND RELIEF. But one critical similarity is that Washington has no intention of occupying Kabul, just as it didn't intend to occupy Panama. That will likely permit a speedier and less bloody operation than, say, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Enduring Freedom started on Oct. 7 after weeks of diplomatic and strategic spadework. In addition to building support from other countries in the region for the operation, those nations weren't used as bases for the combat missions -- an effort to minimize Muslim protests in the streets. Fifteen long-range bombers zoomed into the skies from the U.S. mainland, while 25 strike aircraft took off from aircraft carriers. British and U.S. ships also launched 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The targets were mostly military facilities, such as command centers and surface-to-air missile sites, as well as Taliban training camps.
Once the bombers cleared out, humanitarian relief flights started, and they'll continue. They're important to show the Islamic world that this is not a war with Islam -- a point Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted in his Oct. 7 news conference, when he pointed out that Washington has militarily helped Moslem communities in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Iraq, and Kuwait. As part of the effort, the U.S. will drop leaflets and will broadcast information via radio to alert the Afghani people about the food and medicine the U.S. is making available.
TENUOUS HOLD. The next phase is likely to be air drops of special-operations teams. They not only would want to find bin Laden but help overthrow the Taliban by aiding domestic insurgents such as the Northern Alliance. The Administration is betting that the Taliban's hold on power is far more tenuous than Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's and that it can be ousted as the ruling bloc in an already impoverished and war-torn country.
The goal appears to be something short of eradicating the Taliban, however. Rumsfeld said he merely hopes to "alter the military balance over time." This sounds as if forcing the Taliban to the hills and letting others take over Kabul would be victory.
The big question remains when and whether the Bush team will expand its targets to other nations that harbor terrorists, including Iraq and Iran. President Bush has suggested that's his intention by declaring that he'll consider any country that helps terrorists a hostile nation. It's likely Washington will wait to see how this first military act plays abroad before deciding whether an encore is wise.
The Bush Administration waited for weeks to start the bombing in the hope that the diplomatic, law-enforcement, intelligence, and financial fronts of the anti-terrorism campaign would pay off before Washington's military muscle worked to undermine the terrorist organization. The evidence suggests that the other four fronts have paid substantial dividends.
CRUCIAL SCRAPS. Rumsfeld, for one, believes in the end it won't be the military front that ends terrorism. "I really believe that before it's over, it's not going to be a cruise missile or a bomber that's going to be the determining factor," he said on his way to the Middle East Oct. 2. "It's going to be a scrap of information from some person in some country that is being oppressed by a dictatorial regime that's been sponsoring a terrorist organization. That's going to provide the kind of information that will enable [us] to pull this network out by its roots."
The Bush Administration believes that a bold display of military might will advance those goals. Given the potential of a backlash in the Arab world, it's a gamble. But with the military option now in play, it's a war Washington and the Bush Administration are clearly committed to seeing through. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BW Online