In a sense, Afghanistan has been a "classic" colonial war. The United
States has been sparing of its own troops, instead taking sides and
choosing local allies as its proxies, while using its own incontestable
technological superiority to help them quickly win. The resemblance to
the way the British took India in the 18th and 19th centuries -- one
patch or princely state at a time -- ends there. The Americans have no
long term plans to rule the place, and are happy to let anyone else send
This is what the Europeans and Canadians turn out to be good for, this
time around. We have the equipment, the manpower, and the budgets, to
do sentry duties. (As a retired Canadian officer told me after the federal
budget was tabled Monday, "It's all very well for the Americans to
spend a fortune on defense, they have to defend the free world from
terrorism. We only have to defend our own smugness.")
Except for the most elite British Special Forces -- a small handful of
men -- help would just get in the Yankees' way. Moreover, the two per
cent or less of the West's Afghan campaign that was offloaded on the
British (and a few French special forces, too), was essentially unnecessary.
The help was accepted as a political favor, in answer to British and
This was probably made clear when the British defense secretary, the
aptly-named Geoff Hoon, told BBC breakfast television on Sunday that if
Osama bin Laden fell into British hands, he would not be turned over to
the U.S. for trial -- unless the U.K. first received assurances that Osama
would not face the death penalty. I would have liked to be a fly on the
line when George Bush called Tony Blair about that one. I doubt we'll be
hearing anything so unctuous from Mr. Hoon again.
Offers of British and other NATO aircraft were politely declined. They
have inferior equipment and pilots, and as the U.S. learned over Serbia,
you can't really fight a war while waiting for 19 different defense
ministers to sign off on each target.
What has changed, in the last decade, and especially in the last two years (the technological developments since the Balkan campaign in 1999 were
greater than those between that and Desert Storm in 1991), is the status of
the United States as a military power. At the beginning of the 1990s, after the
fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. emerged as the world's only superpower.
Now it has become what the French call a "hyperpower". It is not only at the
top of the international "top ten" in military spending. It outspends the other nine,
combined, and can afford to, given the present scale of the U.S. economy. Not the
British, at the height of their empire, nor even the Romans, contesting with distant
Medes and Parthians, enjoyed such military predominance.
And yet, this quantitative comparison actually understates the U.S.advantage.
For there is a real qualitative difference, not only in American equipment, but in
the skills of its troops. The Pentagon made use of the contractions in general
manpower through the 1990s, and applied the "peace dividend" to hone a much
more skilled and variously specialized fighting force. The U.S. does not employ
"grunts" any more, only soldiers who call themselves "grunts" with a certain
At the officer level, Europeans visiting the American military academies have
been tremendously impressed by what they have seen, over the last decade. And
one may see this for oneself by visiting the various institutions on the Internet.
Unlike his European or Canadian opposite number, the contemporary West Point
or Naval War College graduate is familiar with Thucydides, Machiavelli,
Clausewitz, Fuller, Liddell Hart and with Sun Tzu and Mao-tse Tung for that
matter. Nor is it just a showy "book-learning", for the courses are designed to
make the students apply what they study, consistently and imaginatively, to the
circumstances the U.S. might face today. I have myself been tremendously
impressed to read theses posted here and there on the net, by young cadets who
could obviously skate rings around your average "politically correct"
On the ground level, in Afghanistan, it has become increasingly evident that the
U.S. was able to parachute troops who could speak Pashto, Persian, Arabic, Urdu.
They needed these both for making contacts with potential allies, and for
interrogating prisoners who fell into their hands. They could also use translators effectively (this is actually a skill), as well as ride fast horses and put pack mules
to work carrying high-tech gear.
A remarkable interview which the Washington Post obtained with Capt .Jason
Amerine, an injured member of the U.S. Army's 5th Special Forces Group on
his sickbed in Landstuhl, Germany -- gives some hint of the ground capabilities.
This was the unit that went into the mountains of Oruzgan to rendezvous with
Hamid Karzai, now Afghanistan's prime minister-designate.
(They didn't need Pashto because he speaks fluent English.)
In five short weeks, this little vanguard of less than a dozen men, mostly in their
mid-twenties, were able to recruit and organize and (through air drops) equip an
Afghan fighting force that liberated the provincial capital, then marched on
Kandahar. They also ordered and set up distribution for emergency food and
medical supplies for the civilian population, while calling down air strikes on a
Taliban convoy and other positions, almost in their spare time.
"We could go in there naked with flip-flops, and as long as we have good radios
we could do our job," Capt. Amerine said of their survival training. His unit
made up for unfamiliarity with the local physical and cultural landscape with
a crash course in Pashtun anthropology in the days before going in.
Hunks, yes, but these are nothing like Europe's idea of "G.I."s. Indeed the U.S.
Marine general force now camping in the Rigestan desert are probably up to
the special forces caliber of a generation ago.
Technology plays no small part. Some 91 per cent of munitions the U.S.
has dropped in Afghanistan have been pinpoint targeted -- compared with six
per cent on Iraq. Even gravity bombs dropped from B-52s can now be placed
within a few meters of the crosshair, thanks to advances in computer
calculation. And yet the "garage workshop" spirit is kept alive with the
invention of weapons like the "Daisy Cutter" -- hand-made with old-fashioned
welding tools, and perhaps the most awkward-looking 15,000-pound explosive
we shall ever see (it resembles the water-tanks on the roofs of old New York
City apartment buildings).
The U.S. armed forces are thus not only strong, but extremely adaptable. Yet
even this is to understate the U.S. advantage, for it is likely to grow in the
coming years. Prior to Sept. 11, the U.S. defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld,
was fighting a nearly impossible uphill battle against Congress to transform
the whole organizational structure of the U.S. military. His goals are to
eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy, replace surviving conventional with
many more special forces, and vastly increase the capacity of the military to
respond to unexpected threats, or recover quickly from unexpected hits.
The terrorist strikes on New York and Washington, and his performance
since, has vindicated his position, and the overhaul is now proceeding.
The French may have to invent a word for what comes after a "hyper