The Americans have started in the same old style. The Afghans will no doubt meet them in their same old style – but their first reaction will be to run.
The first US strikes at about 5.30pm British time yesterday were against the usual US targets – command and control centres and air defence radars, notably at Kandahar airport.
Unlike Iraq in 1991 or Serbia in 1999, Afghanistan has not much in the way of an integrated command and control network or air defence system to hit, but what there is was hit "like an earthquake", according to a CNN reporter in Kandahar.
The aim, according to President Bush, was "to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations". He also said the aim was to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a base for terrorists and that their training camps were a prime target.
All this makes sense. US strategy is twofold: the first part is to clear the way for their air forces, as they did in the Gulf war and Serbia. The second is to make Afghan forces on the ground move like "switching on a light in a room of cockroaches", as an American planner reportedly said last week. That will make those hiding more vulnerable.
Afghanistan still has some big ex-Soviet SA-2 and SA-3 missiles which, although antiquated, can bring planes down from a high altitude. The US will be conducting this operation largely alone, although Mr Bush acknowledged that the British were already involved.
They must have complete freedom of the air. This will also help the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, who face up to 200 Taliban tanks. With the land defences and any remnants of integrated command and control destroyed, the Americans can range freely over Afghanistan, destroying anything significant that moves.
The US is also likely to make much use of robots – unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs – as a low-risk means of targeting Taliban and terrorist forces. This could be the first real robot war. But before the vulnerable robots go in, the air defences have to be destroyed. The attacks are just the first phase of a long drawn-out campaign.
Whatever the public reservations about helping the indigenous anti-Taliban factions, their co-operation is crucial. They still occupy perhaps 10 per cent of Afghanistan and are close to Kabul. It may not take much to help them capture it. But the Americans, drawing on long experience, will fight this war in their way. They are a highly technological people, with enormous resources, and that is how they have always fought and won wars.
The Afghans have seen off two British and one Soviet invasion, using their knowledge of their country and warrior cunning. But all those three invasions were incompetent, and the technological disparity not nearly so marked as now. We may be in for some surprises.
The author is professor of military science and doctrine at Cranfield University.Reuse content