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War Without Risk?


David Halberstam’s account of the policies and the wars that preceded the conflict in Afghanistan brings into sharp perspective the painful lessons of the post–cold war decade. If generals are said to be prepared to fight the last war, one can only hope that they have learned from their mistakes as they now try to eradicate terrorism from Afghanistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and who knows where else.

In his tale of the Gulf and Balkan wars Halberstam presents a portrait gallery of heroes and—if not villains—ditherers and skeptics. The heroes are Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords that brought a troubled peace to Bosnia; and General Wesley K. Clark, the NATO commander and victor in the Kosovo war. The ditherers include, preeminently, President Bill Clinton; his first national security adviser, Anthony Lake; his secretary of defense in the second administration, William S. Cohen; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, especially under the leadership of General Hugh Shelton. Colin Powell is portrayed as both a hero in the Gulf war and a skeptic on the use of US military power in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans.

Bush père had no intention of intervening in Yugoslavia when the federation was disintegrating in the summer of 1991. Although the Serb president Slobodan Milosevic had shown little interest in Slovenia’s breakaway, he coveted the Krajina, a region of eastern and central Croatia inhabited by a great many Serbs. Taking it over was to be his first step in trying to create a greater Serbia.

The fall of 1991 was probably the last chance to prevent the cruel war that broke out in Bosnia in March 1992. The fatuous statement of Foreign Minister Jacques Poos of Luxembourg, that “this is the hour of Europe,” implying that the European powers could deal with Yugoslavia on their own, only reinforced Bush and Baker in their desire to avoid any American involvement in the Balkan wars. Moreover, General Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, gave both Bush and Clinton an excessively high estimate of 200,000 troops that would be needed to quell the fighting.

The Persian Gulf War was far more to the taste of an American superpower than getting involved with the feuding peoples of the Balkans. The American national interest there was clear: no one country, and particularly Iraq, should be able to dominate the Gulf, which would then give that country the power to disrupt the flow of oil at reasonable prices to the rest of the world. That Saddam Hussein had commenced a war of unprovoked aggression against the small, oil-rich state of Kuwait provided additional, Wilsonian reasons for US intervention.

The devastating images of a beaten and bedraggled Iraqi army, their prisoners of war stretching out across the desert in a seemingly endless line, gave most Americans the impression that the victory belonged to American ground troops led by General Norman Schwarzkopf. But these impressions conceal two very important issues: an intelligence failure that allowed the elite Republican Guard to escape being encircled and decimated by American troops1; and the advent of new American precision-guidance munitions and sophisticated delivery systems.

Halberstam is especially good at describing the quality and range of the new weaponry, which would later play such a central part in the Kosovo intervention in 1998 and in the recent air attacks on Afghanistan. The high-technology air campaign against Iraqi troop and air defenses in the first five weeks of the Gulf campaign ensured that the war was effectively over before the 500,000 ground troops that Powell believed were needed had even joined the battle. In Afghanistan the strategy of using American spotters on the ground to identify targets for bombers turned out to be successful in driving the Taliban out of its strongholds.

The military culture Halberstam describes had an initial bias against heavy reliance on the precision-guided weapons. Air Force officers from the Tactical Air Command (TAC) believed that air power was to be used almost solely in support of troops on the ground rather than to diminish enemy forces. But when General Schwarzkopf called for an air plan during the Gulf War, the request fell into the hands of a maverick Air Force strategist, Colonel John Warden. He believed that precision-guided bombs placed in a new delivery system, such as the F-117 Stealth fighter, which was really a small bomber, could inflict lethal damage on the enemy’s power grid, communications systems, transportation network, and fuel supplies. Warden believed, Halberstam writes, that you could “paralyze an enemy and bring him to the table without destroying his people.” In World War II, it had been a question of how much aircraft was needed to take out one target; in 1990, “it was a question of how many targets one plane with precision-guided weapons could take out.”2

Drawing on his experience in Vietnam, Powell hesitated to use American troops in Iraq, preferring instead to sacrifice Kuwait and draw a line around Saudi Arabia that the Iraqis would not dare cross. He was determined to push his civilian superiors to state precisely what it was they wanted to do and the price in American lives they were willing to pay. At one point, irritated by his cautious approach, Bush’s secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, told him, “Colin, you’re chairman of the Joint Chiefs. You’re not secretary of state. You’re not the national security adviser anymore. And you’re not secretary of defense. So stick to military matters.”

Military matters for this four-star general were embodied in what became known as the Powell Doctrine—that “sufficient” (read: overwhelming) military force should be used to achieve defined political ends, and should have the requisite public support and moral stamina to win. In addition to clear rules of engagement there must also be a well-defined exit strategy.

That strategy worked in the Gulf War, helped by the decision of Bush and Baker to leave Iraq intact as a counterweight to Iranian power in the region. Powell’s insistence on the way in which the Gulf War was to be fought—with half a million troops, to be sent into action only after heavy bombing—affected the Bush administration’s next intervention in Somalia as well as Clinton’s vacillating performance as commander in chief in the Bosnian war.

Somalia, riven by civil conflict as different clans contended for power and profit, did not involve a clear American national interest. The Bush administration would probably never have intervened had it not been for the so-called CNN factor when television cameramen showed the horror of mass starvation and roused America’s humanitarian impulses. As images of starving children increased, in mid-August 1992, only months before the presidential election in which Bush’s popularity was swiftly evaporating, the administration declared that it would fly UN peacekeeping forces to Somalia for humanitarian purposes. Powell apparently believed that as many as 500,000 Somali lives could be saved if America sent in two divisions, and as quickly as possible turned over the job of feeding and organizing their country to the United Nations. This was, according to Halberstam’s sources, “Powell’s way of doing something humanitarian but, equally important, of not sending troops to Bosnia, a place that, as far as he was concerned, was far more dangerous.” (It must be noted here that Halberstam’s book contains few footnotes; there is a formidably long list of people he interviewed, but rarely can the reader trace who was interviewed for what purpose.)

Everything seemed to be going well: food was delivered, US military power held sway, the Americans and the chief warlord, Mohammed Aidid, seemed to get along. Clinton took office with the expectation that the United Nations would soon take over the mission. And then everything went wrong.

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian Copt from an old and aristocratic family, had no small opinion of his own intelligence and judgment. He was determined to end the power of Aidid, whom he loathed. How this was to be done was never clear, however, and as UN troops began to replace the Americans, Aidid became alarmed. On June 5, Aidid struck at Pakistani patrols in the capital of Mogadishu. In New York UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright called for the overthrow of Aidid and help for Somalia to become an “emerging democracy.” Meantime, back in Washington Powell and Defense Secretary Les Aspin believed that the United States should get out. By late August, both men reluctantly approved a request from the UN deputy commander on the scene, Major General Tom Montgomery, for a battalion of Rangers and a Delta Force unit of commandos. As Halberstam tells it, at a dinner for Richard Holbrooke, then about to ship out for his new job as ambassador to Germany, Aspin, “looking terrible, drained of energy and absolutely gray in the face,” told Holbrooke, “We’ve just made a fateful decision. We’re sending the Rangers to Somalia. We’re not going to be able to control them, you know. They’re like overtrained pit bulls.” Aspin said he was having trouble getting any guidance from the National Security Council adviser, Anthony Lake; nor was the President giving him any clear direction.

A tragedy took place in October when the Rangers and the Delta Force were trapped in the center of Mogadishu and had to be extricated. Hordes of Somalis, armed with Russian-made AK-47s, opened fire on the Americans, and by the time the battle was over, eighteen Americans had died, two helicopters had been shot down, and perhaps as many as one thousand Somalis were killed. That evening, video clips showing a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets by a cheering mob were beamed to American television.

In his account Halberstam leaves out a critical fact: that the US Rangers and Delta Force soldiers, while formally part of the UN peacekeeping mission, acted on their own. Although the UN deputy commander General Montgomery was also the commander of most US troops, the Delta and Ranger forces that attempted to abduct two lieutenants of Aidid in Mogadishu took their orders not from the UN but from US central command in Tampa, Florida. No one in the UN headquarters knew exactly what the Rangers were up to. When the disaster occurred, the Americans had to be rescued by a UN force led by Malaysians and Pakistanis. Although the UN headquarters had not planned the Rangers’ attack, the UN was widely blamed for the death of the Americans, and its peacekeeping efforts were unfairly discredited.3 Neither Halberstam nor the widely viewed film Black Hawk Down makes clear this fatal divergence in command.4

Clinton was enraged by the attack: he believed he had never been told of the change in policy that involved hunting Aidid down. His anger finally focused on Aspin, though privately Clinton was deeply critical of Powell, who escaped all blame for the escalation of the US role, and Tony Lake, who had never made clear to him the consequences of what was happening. Aspin, however, took the fall, especially after a Senate investigation revealed that he had failed to send in the tanks and armored personnel carriers that commanders in the field had requested.

  1. 1

    See James Chace, “New World Disorder,” The New York Review, December 17, 1998.

  2. 2

    According to Halberstam, “Warden had studied the air campaign against Germany, and in all of 1943 when the Allies were going after German targets, they had hit only fifty of them. But now if you had fifty or sixty key targets, you could hit them all with devastating accuracy in the first few hours of the war. Thus you had a parallel rather than serial campaign.”

  3. 3

    See Brian Urquhart’s review discussing the events in Somalia, “Mission Impossible,” The New York Review, November 18, 1999.

  4. 4

    Nor does Halberstam mention the recent allegations, which may have been made too late for him to include them, that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were involved in the attack, a claim that was made openly last February at the trial of the terrorists who attacked American embassies in Africa. The evidence was summarized in the report on terrorism issued this October by the British government:

    In 1992 and 1993 Mohamed Atef travelled to Somalia on several occasions for the purpose of organising violence against United States and United Nations troops then stationed in Somalia. On each occasion he reported back to Usama Bin Laden, at his base in the Riyadh district of Khartoum.

    In the spring of 1993 Atef, Saif al Adel, another senior member of Al Qaida, and other members began to provide military training to Somali tribes for the purpose of fighting the United Nations forces.

    On 3 and 4 October 1993 operatives of Al Qaida participated in the attack on US military personnel serving in Somalia as part of the operation “Restore Hope.” Eighteen US military personnel were killed in the attack.

    See “Responsibility for the Terrorist Atrocities in the United States, 11 September 2001,” 10 Downing Street, October 4, 2001, www.number10.gov.uk/default.asp?PageId=5321. See also Benjamin Weiser, “Ex-Aide to bin Laden Describes Terror Campaign Aimed at US,” The New York Times, February 7, 2001; “Witness Revealed bin Laden’s World,” Associated Press, October 1, 2001.

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