Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy

  • November 01, 2002
  • Dr Stephen D Biddle

America's novel use of special forces, precision weapons, and indigenous allies has attracted widespread attention since its debut in Northern Afghanistan last fall. It has proven both influential and controversial. Many think it caused the Taliban's sudden collapse. For them, this "Afghan Model" represents warfare's future, and should become the new template for US defense planning. Critics, however, see Afghanistan as an anomaly - a non-repeatable product of local conditions. This briefing examines the Afghan Model's actual role in the fall of the Taliban using evidence collected from a combination of 45 participant interviews, terrain inspection in Afghanistan, and written documentation from both official and unofficial sources. The results suggest that neither of the main current interpretations is sound: Afghanistan offers important clues to warfare's future, but not the ones most people think. The campaign of 2001-2 was a surprisingly orthodox air-ground theater campaign in which heavy fire support decided a contest between two significant land armies. Of course, some elements were quite new. Precision firepower was available in unprecedented quantity and proved crucial for success; special operations forces served as the main effort in a theater of war. In an important sense, though, the differences were less salient than the continuities: the key to success in both Afghanistan and traditional joint warfare was the close interaction of fire and maneuver, neither of which was sufficient alone and neither of which could succeed without sizeable ground forces trained and equipped at least as well as their opponents. In Afghanistan, our allies provided these ground forces for us; where others can do so, the Afghan Model can be expected to prevail. Hence Afghanistan is not unique. But not all future allies have armies trained and equipped to their enemies' standards. Without this, neither the bravery of our special forces nor the sophistication of our PGMs can e