Evidence of victory by the U.S. falls short

Questions: Beyond assurances by the Pentagon that victory is at hand, little is available to determine how well the troops are doing in the fighting in Afghanistan. Where's the proof?

March 24, 2002|By Bernard E. Trainor | Bernard E. Trainor,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ARE YOU on the objective? Are you still taking fire? What's your casualty count? Do you have prisoners? How many are wounded? How many killed? How about captured weapons? What type? Can you continue the attack? How's your ammo?

These were the questions thrown at me over the radio when I led a platoon of Marines in the Korean War, and I, in turn, asked of platoon leaders when I was a battalion commander in Vietnam. They are essential questions in judging victory or defeat. They are questions appropriate to the recently concluded battle at Shah-e-Kot.

Unfortunately, we are not privy to the answers. That makes it difficult to know how well we are doing in the war. We have seen no pictures of the carnage, no video of defeated soldiers, no schematics of what we intended to do and how successful we have been. All we have are assurances from the Pentagon that all goes swimmingly, and that victory is ours.

Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the operations in Afghanistan, said Monday that Operation Anaconda, which began March 2 and was designed to strangle the enemy in the Gardez region, was an "unqualified and absolute success."

Pardon me, but knowing something about close combat, I'd like some evidence of victory. The battle has been described as "fierce," but our casualties were extraordinarily light. No evidence is available on the enemy's losses.

In World War II, Korea, and even Vietnam, close combat had visual results. Casualties on both sides attested to the ferocity of battle. We also had testimony by those who fought of a harrowing trial by fire. We have none of this in Afghanistan.

True, some soldiers tell of enemy machine gun fire and mortar bombardments and complain that the friendly Afghan troops ran away. No one speaks of killing the enemy. They all praise the effectiveness of airstrikes. But nobody talks about assaulting them, and apparently the friendly Afghans were not up to the job.

Canadian officers accompanying the American troops said few direct engagements occurred with enemy forces. For lack of other evidence, it appears that commanders had their troops depend on airstrikes to kill the enemy.

I am not critical of the skill and bravery of the soldiers in this battle. Maybe bombs and rockets did kill the defenders of Shah-e-Kot. If so, that is to the good. It is better to defeat an enemy with airplanes than with attacking infantry. But, the fact that enemy fire ceased under air bombardment does not mean that the enemy was annihilated.

At the battle for Tora Bora last month, we were told of great success using air power. It now appears that many, if not most, of the Taliban and al-Qaida soldiers survived and slipped away to fight another day. Many may have regrouped at Shah-e-Kot.

Notwithstanding the assertions of crippling enemy casualties in the latest battle, no visual evidence of "absolute success" has been shown. Occupying mountaintops and empty caves does not count.

Where are the prisoners and wounded we saw after the battles for Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz and Kabul? There is little doubt that the bombing inflicted punishment. Perhaps the nooks and crannies of the mountain redoubt are littered with the human detritus of war. But without proof we have only the Pentagon's word that damage to the enemy was extensive and telling. After Tora Bora, can we count on those assurances?

If the al-Qaida and Taliban soldiers successfully slip from one mountain complex to another, we will be in Afghanistan for a long time regardless of how much we bomb.

We are told that the al-Qaida and Taliban forces are regrouping for further action, and Maj. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, commanding the American 10th Mountain Division, has hinted at hot pursuit of the elusive foe across the border into Pakistan.

The Pentagon is playing a shell game. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld tells us what he wants us to hear. At news conferences, he adroitly sidesteps or patronizingly discounts honest questions from journalists and discounts conflicting reports from the field.

When enemy losses are questioned, we are told that "we don't do body counts," an allusion to inflated claims of Viet Cong losses in the Vietnam War. But, surely somebody in the Pentagon keeps a scorecard on enemy losses, one of the few ways to measure success in this war.

Despite the marvels of modern-day television, the American people have little knowledge of what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan.

Secrecy was understandable in the early days of our intervention when Special Forces were clandestinely working with the Northern Alliance. But now that conventional Army soldiers are openly engaged in the ground fighting, the American public deserves more than ambiguous briefings dispensed at the Pentagon. It is time for the country to get a verifiable accounting of our progress.

Bernard E. Trainor is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general and an MSNBC military analyst. He is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the co-author of "The Generals' War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf."

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