How 9/11 Triggered The Learning War

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The savagery of our enemies on 9/11 was just the start of our confusion, fears, and commitment for justice. Terrorists were clandestine, mobile, and able to turn our civilians into weapons. In order to defeat them, America had to learn to fight in an entirely new way.

The United States prepared for an industrial-grade shooting war with Soviet Russia in the Cold War. As those tense years went by, we failed to value the future potential of external, low-tech foes. Terrorists aren’t professional soldiers. They churn in cellars and caves with other hateful thugs. When their hate is mixed with creativity and determination—and their fighters are indoctrinated in suicide tactics—the first blows comes hard. But Western nations have adapted to disaster since the Romans lost at Cannae. The ongoing war on terror has yielded many hard lessons, and that war must be studied in order to be won.

My enemy doesn’t wear a uniform. Terrorists will never adhere to traditional combat. They fight in urban or rural areas without identifiable outfits, formations or battle standards. They blend into the neighborhood, sometimes our own, making it difficult to discern friend from foe. They work with equally unorthodox paramilitaries and blend into the countryside. This is the kind of camouflage that can hinder military operations but encourage us to amplify intelligence and surveillance. Developments in biometric scanning, urban assault tactics and drone reconnaissance have also enhanced our ability to seek out the enemy.

These guys work out of a truck. The first coalition forces sent to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan found enemies driving around in Toyota pickups, not personnel carriers or battle tanks. The bad guys fought like backwoods guerrillas and with none of the regimented tactics we knew from the Soviets or Iraqis. Our troops had to hunt them in a rugged country nearly as big as Texas. Flexible special forces became the predominant type of combatant in Afghanistan. Some troops use pack mules to carry supplies into mountain zones or call for air drops where landings were impossible. Low-tech combat is the name of the game in this historically perilous country.

It’s hard to trust those who used to fight for you. Saddam Hussein was praised by the U.S. in the 1980s for his offensives against Iran. The Taliban was also supported by the U.S. for anti-Iranian standards in the 1990s. Siding with “necessary evils” can solve some of our problems, but those would-be allies can still turn against us in the future. The problem of trust is even harder today in a reconstructed Afghanistan as NATO forces deal with native policemen who fire on friendly troops or abuse their new-found authority on rival tribes. Forging peaceful and long-lasting partnerships is the real challenge to commanders, diplomats and politicians.

Improvise, improvise, improvise. Like the insurgents of Baghdad, enemies in Afghanistan like to play with “kitbash” explosives. The last ten years have seen all manners of devices wreaking havoc on coalition soldiers. Testing and analysis have led to better tactics to detect, avoid and destroy them. Some of the latest personnel carriers are specially armored to withstand roadside bombs.

What are we doing here? Vietnam taught us the importance of a political evacuation. Some of the most remote and inhospitable countries have readily consumed Western soldiers for an intolerable span before they were removed. The British and Russians saw the futility of conflict in Afghanistan long before the Americans arrived. Our soldiers will vacate Afghanistan in the near future if all goes well. With luck, we can keep a remade nation in working order with international support, timetables, humanitarian aid, and a heap of diplomacy.

These lessons should always be remembered in the years after September 11. For the sake of our loved ones, lost on 9/11 and abroad, American endeavors must be long-lasting. They are the product of an honorable country. They help the people from falling back into chaos, weed out the vipers of terrorism, and bring the forgotten concept of lasting peace to the region.

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