Reports that U.S. troops are now conducting ground operations in Afghanistan suggest that the second phase in the war on terrorism has begun.
Like the air-only phase that preceded it, ground operations will seek to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, destroy his al-Qaida network in Afghanistan and end the Taliban's rule. Unlike the bombing-only phase, though, the risks to American soldiers are considerable.
The Afghanistan ground campaign will be unlike any other U.S. military operation in recent memory. It will not be like the Persian Gulf war, when the United States deployed 500,000 troops and launched a massive ground assault with artillery and tanks. Nor will it be like the ground operation that the United States and its NATO allies contemplated but never launched in Kosovo, a country with terrain much like Afghanistan. That operation would have involved as many as 175,000 troops— most of them American.
At any one time, the United States will likely have no more than a few thousand troops, drawn from its special operations command, inside Afghanistan. These forces are trained to operate behind enemy lines and to destroy especially difficult targets. They operate in small groups, appear at times and in places where they are least expected and can call on massive air power for support. Most of their actions will remain beyond the range of television cameras— or a prying press.
Special forces operations are dangerous almost by definition. Sometimes they go horribly wrong. In April, 1980, a secret mission to rescue U.S. diplomats held hostage in Tehran ended in disaster when some helicopters malfunctioned and a refueling plane collided with another helicopter in the Iranian desert.
Thirteen years later, U.S. Delta forces supported by Army Rangers were ambushed in the streets of Mogadishu when they tried to snatch Somali warlord Mohammed Aideed. Eighteen Rangers died.
But there have also been successes. Special forces snatched Manuel Noriega from his hideout in Panama City in 1989. U.S., British and allied special forces have arrested a slew of indicted war criminals in Bosnia— though not yet the most notorious among them.
Ground operations in Afghanistan will likely see their share of Somalias and Desert Ones— accidents, setbacks and failures. U.S. troops are almost certain to die. We may once again see ugly pictures on our television screens as a media-savvy bin Laden seeks to turn the American public against the war.
Hanging over all this is the specter of Vietnam— the fear that, if bin Laden eludes capture, we will gradually escalate the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and ultimately find ourselves in another quagmire.
Such an outcome is unlikely. In contrast to Vietnam, America's objectives today are clear and limited and the enemy is despised throughout much of the country. Memories of Vietnam and of the disastrous Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s inform military planning at every step. And our allies in the region vigorously oppose a U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.
So, as ground operations begin, we must recognize the dangers that lie ahead. Our military is engaged in a fight that will be nasty and brutish, and possibly even long.
But we must not let our fear of what might go wrong deter us from what we must do. Whatever the costs of attacking terrorists who killed more than 5,000 unsuspecting people in a single morning in September, the costs of not waging the fight are infinitely greater.