Thermobaric, thermoshmaric: The Battle of Shah-i-Kot Valley has established what should have been perfectly plain from the beginning of the American action in Central Asia, which is that victory—that is, the destruction of the forces of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the subsequent stabilization of Afghanistan—is not possible without the commitment of American ground troops.
The momentous mistake of Tora Bora, where the climax of Operation Enduring Freedom turned into its anti-climax, as we gave control of the porous border with Pakistan to a bunch of lethargic and corruptible Afghan irregulars—that mistake was corrected at Gardez. There we did our own work. There it was Black Hawk Up, you might say. The caves in Shah-i-Kot Valley were struck repeatedly from the air, but this time airpower was accompanied by twelve hundred American troops, two hundred allied troops, and one thousand Afghan troops, and they were what finally made the difference. Eight Americans died in combat, but their deaths do not seem to have shaken the American government or the American people, because it is clear to both the government and the people that these soldiers died in a good fight for a just cause. And the American people, who forget many things, have not yet forgotten that this war began with three thousand American casualties, all of them noncombatants.
The strategic lesson of Gardez—that finally the ground can be controlled only from the ground—deserves to be pondered at precisely this moment, when the implications of the Afghan war for American warfare are beginning to be discussed. This will be a fateful discussion for the future of American strategy. Indeed, futurism is precisely its subject. Even before September 11, the Rumsfeld Pentagon was a temple of strategic futurism, of the religion of technology, though the early fantasies had mainly to do with the militarization of space, which was always broached in a revolutionary spirit, as if the nature of war was about to be forever transformed. Now the revolutionary spirit, the technological utopianism, is being directed at the machinery of conventional warfare.
There is no doubt that the technological prowess of the American military is awesome, and that this prowess is to be admired not least for the American lives that it saves. A pilotless plane is a moral advance, at least for our side. The outcome in Afghanistan has been determined by a dizzying display of fancy hardware: JSTARS, thermobaric bombs, drones, and the extraordinary infrastructure of “information warfare,” which allows spotters on the battlefield and satellites in space to collaborate on the timing and the precision of air strikes. If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no Luddites in foxholes, either. Obviously American power owes its world-historical edge in large measure to American technology.
One of the immediate results of the success of our military hardware was a certain cockiness about the role of ground troops in warfare, which seemed to be growing increasingly anachronistic. Since there are no Luddites in foxholes, the excited reasoning went, perhaps there need be no foxholes. This strident belief in high-tech victory comported nicely with the Pentagon’s post-Somalia anxiety about putting American soldiers in harm’s way. Never mind that war is harm’s way. Those who called for the early introduction of American troops into Afghanistan (this magazine among them) were roundly derided as armchair so-and-sos, or worse.
But the din of the victory party drowned out the rumblings from Afghanistan. It turned out that the Taliban had been defeated but the war had not yet been won. None of our astounding contraptions managed to prevent the enemy from regrouping and fighting again, or to find Osama bin Laden (as a consequence of the limitations of satellite imaging it became very dangerous to be a tall man in Afghanistan) or Mullah Omar, or to keep Afghanistan from dissolving into new internecine conflicts among its exceedingly unattractive warlords. For the accomplishment of such objectives, military and political, there turned out to be no substitute for the grunts on the ground. And if the grunts leave the ground, and do not themselves take part in the searches through the caves and the policing of the jittery new peace, then many of our accomplishments will be quickly undone. So excuse us, but we—and everybody else who insisted on the strategic indispensability of the individual American soldier—were right.
This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.