Unprepared for Afghanistan

Posted: Nov 12, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Gen. Tommy Franks is an old field artillery officer, with the reputation of "a good soldier" who has fought and was bloodied in his nation's wars. The question is whether as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Army specialists in unconventional warfare think that he is. As evidence, these critics point to the failed Oct. 20 commando-style raid on Taliban leader Mullah Omar's complex outside Kandahar. The operation was conducted by Army Rangers, who are really elite paratroopers attacking with a bang and not stealthy special operations soldiers. "If you can't be like bin Laden," one Army critic told me, "you're in trouble." Another critic said the Rangers are a sledgehammer when a dagger is needed. Shortcomings in Afghanistan cannot be laid at the feet of one general. Hostility to special operations has deepened over 20 years. Expertise in unconventional warfare has not been the track to rapid promotion. The nation's senior general officers were unprepared on Sept. 11 to fight the Taliban, and there is no sign that they are ready today. The recently named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, is an old fighter pilot who has seen war from high in the heavens. His predecessor, Gen. Hugh Shelton, was hostile to the quiet nature of special operations. So was retired Gen. Wayne Downing, who headed special operations in the 1989 invasion of Panama and now is the National Security Council anti-terrorism chief. When asked privately whether his special ops troopers had language capability, Downing replied: "They know the language of the 5.65 (caliber weapon)." On Sept. 11, Gen. Charles Holland, an Air Force officer, had been commander-in-chief of Special Operations for less than a year. Though not ideal, he seemed the logical commander for Afghanistan if fighting the Taliban was viewed as an exercise in unconventional warfare. It was not. The Pentagon's regional thinking prevailed. Franks, as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), was put in charge. CENTCOM covers Afghanistan, though Franks' headquarters are at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., near Tampa. The first -- and apparently the only -- large operation under Franks was the Oct. 20 raid. Myers immediately labeled the "overall" mission as "successful." But writing in the New Yorker magazine, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported the Rangers met stiff resistance and left with 12 men wounded, three seriously. On ABC's "This Week" on Nov. 4, Franks refused to comment on the accuracy of Hersh's report but said "these young people" suffered "scratches and bumps" with "no one wounded by enemy fire." My own reporting made clear more than "scratches and bumps" were suffered. The Rangers sustained shrapnel wounds. One source says they resulted from explosions caused by the Americans. But other sources, in direct contact with the combatants, said the shrapnel came from Taliban grenade launchers and thus were real combat wounds. "It didn't go right," an Army source told me. "It was a goat-(expletive). We got run out. We didn't expect that much firepower." For Delta Force old-timers, the Oct. 20 operation violated a precept of unconventional warfare: keep quiet! What the military call the "noise signature" should be minimized in special operations. Instead, the Americans came in with a roar near Kandahar. Under such generals as Shelton and Downing, the commando raid became conventional U.S. doctrine for unconventional war. Critics plead for a concept of Delta Force troopers quietly slipping into the country, setting up shop and trying to dispose of Osama bin Laden with night-vision weaponry. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has reported U.S. troopers are on horseback inside Afghanistan, but they appear to be in support of Northern Alliance forces rather than mounting a stealthy operation of their own. Rumors have circulated through Pentagon corridors that Tommy Franks might be relieved at CENTCOM, but military sources say that drastic step -- once considered -- is now unlikely. The apparent decision not to repeat the Oct. 20 operation may mean the Pentagon sees that Afghanistan is no place for commando raids. It remains to be seen whether the high command can adjust to the demands of unconventional war.