War casualties could test public's resolve

Officials fear support could shrink as troops search for bin Laden

War On Terrorism

November 18, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The war in Afghanistan has produced no American combat deaths, with U.S. warplanes quickly taking command of the skies and soaring high above the battlefield to soften up Taliban and terrorist strongholds for a proxy army on the ground.

Now, hundreds of U.S. special forces troops are in Afghanistan, engaging the enemy at close range and searching for Taliban leaders and terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, increasing the possibility of U.S. casualties and of a test of the public's willingness to accept them.

The nation has been warned. President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have repeatedly said that American troops might be lost in the tough and lengthy global war on terrorism they have warned about.

Addressing the nation when the bombs began to fall Oct. 7, Bush said the troops might have to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.

Despite such warnings, there is some evidence that U.S. officials have questioned whether Americans would accept significant casualties, in spite of polls indicating that they would.

An adviser to senior Pentagon officials said concerns about high U.S. casualties led the Bush administration to craft a strategy that relied on air power and small numbers of commandos, as opposed to tens of thousands of American ground troops.

"They are risk-averse about casualties," said the adviser, who requested anonymity. "They didn't know what we were facing. Did [al-Qaida] have chemical weapons?"

Initially, the ground fighting was left to America's proxy force, the Northern Alliance rebels who swept through Mazar-e Sharif and the capital, Kabul, with the aid of U.S. bombing. Now, the anti-Taliban Pashtun tribes in the south also have the Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists on the run.

Relying on a proxy army can have its drawbacks, especially in a place such as Afghanistan, where ethnic and tribal rivalries run deep and the United States might not be able to control its surrogates.

Because the Northern Alliance, rather than U.S. forces, holds Kabul, the seeds of another Afghan civil war might have been planted.

More direct involvement

In the weeks before the alliance entered Kabul, American commandos were advising the anti-Taliban leaders and providing them with arms and other supplies. Now, with the northern part of the country in rebel hands and the top Taliban and terrorist leaders in the south, U.S. special operations troops are more directly involved in ground action in the south, blocking roads, calling in airstrikes and engaging in gunbattles.

"They are armed, and they're participating," Rumsfeld said Friday. "They have gone into places and met resistance and dealt with it."

This month, a special operations team was nearly overrun by Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan and had to call in protective airstrikes.

Few U.S. losses have been reported during Operation Enduring Freedom. Last month, two American soldiers were killed when their helicopter crashed in Pakistan and another was killed in a truck accident in Turkey. A sailor was lost this month in a fall from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

Relatively small numbers of U.S. ground troops were introduced into Afghanistan three weeks after lawmakers, including Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and a number of retired military officers - concerned about the slow pace of the action - began calling for the use of thousands of ground troops.

At the same time, Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army officer and professor of international relations at Boston University, was chiding the Army for not becoming more involved on the ground.

"The fault lies with a high command that has lost all sense of what it means to go for the jugular," he wrote in the Boston Globe this month, arguing that the public is supportive of military action. "It can no longer be attributed to casualty aversion on the part of the U.S. public."

"Fault" seems an odd choice of words in light of the events of recent days, during which a classic softening-up operation resulted in a collapse of the Taliban in much of the country. Still, a degree of wariness about combat casualties seems to have been at play.

`Casualty aversion'

Some officers say the heavy casualties of the Vietnam War led to an overly cautious approach in combat and peacekeeping operations that became known as "casualty aversion."

Predictions were made that the Persian Gulf war would produce more than 20,000 casualties.

"But by taking extraordinary care to avoid casualties - 148 were killed - popular support was maintained," retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, commander of the Kosovo campaign against Serbian forces in 1999, wrote in his recent book Waging Modern War.

Still, the ability to hold down casualties in the gulf conflict was helped when the Iraqi army did not live up to its fierce reputation.

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