The coming weeks promise a severe test for the armed forces of the United States. Their last major test – the 1991 Gulf war – took place in optimum conditions. There were months to get forces into position, and bases and ample fuel available in Saudi Arabia. The main fighting when it took place was in open desert. Victory came easily.
A decade later the US faces an enemy that is far less numerous or well-armed, but in every other respect much more difficult. Afghanistan offers the perfect terrain for guerrilla warfare. That is why elite units are expected to play such a large role. They carry some impressive gadgetry but this is not the sort of war where the US can use advanced weaponry to fight from a distance. Any substantial fighting may well be close and vicious. This puts a premium on robust logistics, intelligence gathering and training. Time is of the essence. There is also the risk that the American people's patience will wear thin or that the fragile international coalition will buckle, and the onset of winter only adds to the pressure.
The assumption that the US only understands large-scale air attacks against civilian populations has been discredited. Air power might be used against the meagre defences of the Taliban and any obvious military facilities but strikes are going to be as much for show as serious military effect. The infra-structure of Afghanistan is now so wretched that there are few suitable targets. What is the point of aiming for power plants in a country where only 6 per cent of people have electricity? The most valuable form of air power will be attack helicopters, but there is an uncertain risk from any remaining Stinger portable surface-to-air missiles, handed over to Muslim rebels during the war against Soviet occupation. Recall the futile Soviet military experience of the 1980s and there is good reason for apprehension.
It is not hard to define the worst-case scenario: allied forces are unable to find the al-Qa'ida group in any significant numbers or undermine the Taliban. Helicopter crashes and ambushes lead to a loss of confidence. Unverified claims are made about Western massacres of the innocents. Hardline elements in other Islamic countries mobilise and instability starts to engulf Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Followers of Osama bin Ladentake the initiative and mount more terrorist spectaculars.
There is, however, also a best, or at least better, case scenario. The starting point for this is the shift over the past three weeks from a focus on al-Qa'ida to one on the Taliban as well. It is now clear that the two are intertwined, so that the defeat of one creates a crisis for the other. In this case it is the Taliban that is closest to the Soviet position in the 1980s, as the power in charge of Kabul, attempting to defend itself. The regime is divided, its support eroding and it lacks the capacity for re-supply. There is already evidence of anxiety among the Taliban leadership and the best case is that they would crumble at the first shot.
This creates scope for a reasonably bold American strategy. If special force operations against al-Qa'ida are going to be sustained then a forward-operating base will have to be established early on. Pakistan appears to be unavailable; Uzbekistan is a willing host to the Americans and 1,000 US troops are already on their way there. But it may be more suitable for the early stages of the campaign than long-term operations. It must be tempting for the allies to establish a base within Afghanistan.
There are, as it happens, substantial American and British ground forces close by because of long-planned exercises in Egypt and Oman. Such a base would make it easier to take on al-Qa'ida while at the same time challenging the Taliban to act in circumstances where any direct assault would almost certainly be defeated.
The course and outcome of the Gulf war could be predicted with confidence. This case is far more difficult as the human factor weighs more heavily than the technical. Whatever the strategy adopted, success will depend not only on the courage and skill of the armed forces but also a sensitivity to the wider political context, and the ability to use all available economic and political carrots, as well as military sticks, to weaken the Taliban and al-Qa'ida.
The author is Professor of War Studies at King's College, LondonReuse content