Last week, in the middle of the Battle of Gardez, theater commander Army General Tommy Franks expressed his condolences to the families of American soldiers who lost their lives “in our ongoing operations in Vietnam.” It was a strange slip. In truth, recent ground operations in Afghanistan have had exactly the opposite resonance: Never in the past 30 years has the specter of Vietnam been further from the minds of American military planners. The involvement of sizable numbers of conventional Army forces in sustained combat is a remarkable development in itself, one not seen since the Gulf war. More remarkable still was the sheer audacity of the effort—which involved helicopters operating at maximum altitudes; regular Army forces from the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne divisions battling Al Qaeda fighters at close range; and Army commanders improvising as they went along. The officers who planned the operation at Gardez weren’t reliving Vietnam. They were banishing it.
From its inception, Operation Anaconda was very much an Army product. The initial plan for rooting out Al Qaeda and Taliban forces that had regrouped in the caves of eastern Afghanistan was drafted by General Franklin Hagenbeck of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. From there it was passed up to Central Command’s land component commander, Army Lieutenant General Paul Mikolashek, before landing on Franks’s desk. The decision to rely heavily on regular Army forces has stirred considerable speculation. An article last week in The Washington Times provoked an uproar at the Pentagon by quoting an accusation (from what sounded like an Air Force officer) that an “Army mafia” was pressing for the use of conventional forces on parochial grounds. That is, having sat out every American combat action since Somalia (including most of the war in Afghanistan), the Army felt it couldn’t afford to sit out another.
That’s not quite right. In fact, the original request for the plan came from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, after intelligence indicated an Al Qaeda buildup back in January—only one month after Tora Bora, where America’s reliance on Afghan proxies allowed much of the enemy to escape. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force General Richard Myers flew all the way to Afghanistan to review the plan, and the president himself approved it. Still, the allegation contained a kernel of truth: Army leaders did want their troops in the fight. And, given the Army’s institutional trajectory over the past decade, that itself is news. Good news.
THE ARMY’S EAGERNESS to play a role in Afghanistan derives, in part, from the reality of a war being fought in self-defense. But it also reflects the accumulation of past experiences. First, of course, there was Vietnam. The “lessons of Vietnam” usually conjure up a reflexive opposition to military intervention on the part of civilian policymakers. But nowhere was the Vietnam syndrome felt more deeply than among the post-Vietnam officer corps, particularly in the Army, which bled the most in Southeast Asia. The understandable reluctance to repeat the experience yielded, among other things, the restrictive doctrine for the use of force popularized by Colin Powell, the most powerful Army general of the post-Vietnam era. Many would later invoke the Powell Doctrine’s strict “national interest” criteria to explain the Army’s reluctance to intervene in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. But it’s worth remembering that Powell argued that the defense of Kuwait didn’t meet the criteria either.
After the first President Bush launched the war nonetheless, he declared that the United States had finally “licked the Vietnam syndrome.” But, for senior Army officials, America’s liberation of Kuwait only reinforced it. Operation Desert Storm, which was designed to minimize the risk to U.S. ground troops, set a nearly impossible standard for an already cautious Army leadership. As a result, recalls author and retired Army Colonel Ralph Peters, “After Desert Storm, Army generals carried force protection [i.e., safeguarding one’s own troops] to extremes.” And when they failed to meet the Gulf war standard two years later in Somalia, where the loss of 18 American soldiers elicited a public outcry and prompted President Clinton to abandon the mission, the Army brass grew even more risk-averse. Indeed, Clinton’s preoccupation with casualties only encouraged an existing ethos that equated them with failure.
It surfaced again during the mid-1990s when Army generals argued against putting troops on the ground in Bosnia. When U.S. troops finally did set foot in the Balkans in 1995, the Army kept them on a short leash, openly declaring that their primary mission was force protection. Not surprisingly, a massive survey conduced by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies during Clinton’s second term (the results of which will be included in a forthcoming book by Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi) found that military officers were far more casualty-averse than their civilian counterparts; that senior officers were more casualty-averse than junior officers; and that senior Army officers were among the most casualty-averse of all.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Kosovo. When President Clinton declared: “I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war,” Army leaders proved eager to oblige—even after his resistance to the idea softened. The most memorable example came when Army Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer opposed General Wesley Clark’s request to employ Apache helicopter gunships against Serb forces. According to The Washington Post, Reimer “worried that the Army’s Apaches would be a step toward the use of ground forces, something the Army leadership did not favor.” And indeed, when Clinton ultimately authorized the dispatch of 24 Apaches to Albania, the Army dragged its feet—taking one month to deliver them, and then only in the company of more than 5,000 Army personnel, 15 tanks, a mechanized infantry company, an engineer company, and an air-defense battery. None were ever used. The saga embarrassed the United States and humiliated the Army. Of his service’s performance in Kosovo, then-Army Secretary Louis Caldera remarked, “We seem to be more willing to suffer casualties in training than in real operations.”
The Army’s marginal role in Kosovo proved to be, if not a turning point, at least an opening for institutional self-criticism. The problem in Kosovo was not a lack of capability but, as retired Colonel Richard Hart Sinnreich put it recently in Army magazine, “the mental processes of some of its senior leaders.” Adds former Army officer and Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich, “Among the more perceptive leaders of the officer corps, it was becoming evident as early as Bosnia that having an Army unwilling to take risks is pointless.” The Kosovo embarrassment brought these fights into the open, spurring a serious debate in the Pentagon about whether the Army was even relevant anymore.
With this debate came an opportunity to revisit Army doctrine. Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki (who replaced Reimer in 1999), along with his deputy, General John Keane, seized upon the Army’s failure in Kosovo to unveil a plan to transport Army forces to combat theaters within 96 hours and to begin the process of transforming heavy armor units into lighter brigades. “When ordered,” Shinseki says, “we intend to get to trouble spots faster than our adversaries can complicate the crisis.” Pointing to the vulnerability of these lighter brigades, critics within the Army have derided Shinseki’s vision as a recipe for significant casualties—an argument bolstered by recent Army war games. But while the plan’s particulars may be subject to debate, the rationale behind it is not. Army leaders, after all, are now talking openly about the imperative of getting to war zones rather than staying out of them. “Soldiers from rapid deployment units tend to be risk-takers and aggressive,” says Robert Killebrew, a former Army colonel and one of its most innovative thinkers. “And as the Army moves toward a lighter, more mobile structure, it will begin to look and think the same way.”
September 11, then, may have been what Peters calls an “accelerator” for a process that was already underway, with many Army leaders having openly acknowledged that putting troops on the ground only as a last resort and then subordinating their mission to force protection undercut the Army’s own mission. But Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and a career artillery officer, wasn’t one such leader. Consequently, the evolution of the Army’s involvement in Afghanistan over the past five months has closely mirrored the evolution of Army thinking over the past five years—from excessive caution, to embarrassment, to a more robust stance.
According to officers at Central Command and on the Army Staff—as well as civilian policymakers—Franks’s early stewardship of the war was characterized by tentativeness. Among other things, he initially proposed a days-long air campaign confined to the suppression of Taliban air defenses; declined for weeks to use the jstars surveillance aircraft (an essential tool in the U.S. arsenal that illuminates enemy activity over a wide area on radar); sought legal counsel before targeting Taliban leader Mullah Omar (who escaped in the meantime); and his team turned down a request for air support from imperiled opposition leader Abdul Haq (who was quickly captured and killed). During the first months of the war, instances of excessive caution like these regularly became the centerpiece of twice-daily telephone conversations between Rumsfeld, Myers, and Franks—during which Rumsfeld often had to prod Franks to be more aggressive. And when Franks chose to deploy Marines to landlocked Afghanistan ahead of the Army, senior members of his own service began to echo Rumsfeld’s concerns.
No operation provoked more second-guessing than the December assault on Tora Bora, where Franks relied on a combination of Afghan proxies and small numbers of Special Operations Forces. The mix wasn’t right. The Afghan troops, whose aims no longer coincided with our own, proved less eager to comb the caves of Tora Bora than they were to smuggle Al Qaeda members across the border. The operation embarrassed everyone involved: Central Command, which devised it; Rumsfeld’s team, which endorsed it; and the Army, which could have played a valuable role but, aside from fielding Special Forces teams, played none.
Nonetheless, the Bush team’s unflinching support for the war effort has emboldened ground forces. Hence, while the initiative for putting Army troops into Gardez came from Rumsfeld, Army sources say Franks adapted quickly to the new strategy as well as to the surprises and last-minute tactical imperatives of the battle itself. As the war in Afghanistan extends into its fifth month, the Army’s institutional reflexes are rapidly yielding to operational requirements. But the Army’s performance also reflects a gradual erosion of the old verities. “The idea that some element of risk-taking is a punishable offense has been losing stock for years,” says one mid-level officer. “The aggressiveness you see in [Gardez] is a symptom of that.” Indeed, critics may fault the Army for its tactics in Gardez, but they can hardly accuse it of avoiding risks. And in the end, that may prove more even significant than the outcome of the operation itself. “There probably never should have been a debate about putting forces on the ground [in Afghanistan],” says Mackubin Thomas Owens, a professor of strategy at the Naval War College, “but if there was, Gardez has put it to rest.” Hopefully forever.
This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.