Afghanistan is being pounded from the air. Taliban troops are
being pummeled. "Bunker buster" bombs are devastating mountain caves.
The intensity of strikes is increasing. Taliban leader Mullah Omar
narrowly escaped a bombing attack. Key lieutenants in the command
structure and that of Osama bin Laden have been hunted down and killed.
If you read only the headlines from Operation Enduring Freedom, you
might imagine that the tactical brilliance displayed by air power in
the past week is actually winning the war on terrorism. The news
stories project an image of mass and consequence, and the always-
impressive gun camera videos and satellite photographs being released
by the Pentagon suggest decimation from the air.
But the images are completely at odds with the actual air campaign that
has unfolded since Oct. 7. Not only is the effort sparse to the
extreme, but the operation displays conventional wisdom and chronic
hesitations that are driving air power insiders to bewilderment and
Dazed and Confused
"I'm extremely pessimistic with the lack of imagination" being
displayed in the first week of bombing, an Air Force general officer
says. He admits that the security clampdown has closed off information
even to the higher ranks in the Pentagon, and that covert and special
operations accompanying the air attacks may indeed be having some
impact. "If it's out there, they haven't shared it with little 'ole
me," he says.
He points to the undeniable arithmetic of the endeavor and the modesty
of the claims being made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers. These are
indicators that should tell the American people that any hope of quick
victory is fanciful. Further, distorted reporting about the pace and
scope of bombing signals dangerous messages to the Islamic world, and
even to the Taliban, messages that will cause enormous additional
problems in the future.
The math is most revealing. Despite reports and rumors coming out of
Afghanistan about this and that being bombed, fewer than 50 distinct
targets were struck in the first week. At the end of the week, only six
or seven targets were being hit daily, this in a country the size of
Texas. Lots of re-strikes of previously hit targets are included in
each day's list.
Mostly because of the distances involved in flying to attack Afghan
targets and then return, and because only 10 bombers and 15 fighters
are being employed daily, in all attacks, fewer than 2,000 bombs and
missiles have been fired in the campaign so far. In the first five days,
Air Force heavy bombers delivered some 500 satellite-guided 2,000 lb.
Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAMs), 1,000 Mk82 dumb bombs, 50 CBU-87
cluster bombs, while B-2s delivered two bunker busting GBU-37s. Fifteen
Navy fighters flying daily from carriers delivered some 240 JDAMs and
laser-guided bombs, the latter including 1,000- and 2,000-pound
versions, including a BLU-109 improved penetrating warhead version, the
main "bunker buster" (but actually a fairly conventional hard target
weapon). Another 50-60 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired.
The individual statistics are impressive: B-2 bombers flying from
Missouri are carrying 16 JDAMs capable of being targeted on 16
dispersed aimpoints for each mission; B-1s are carrying 55 Mk82s and 24
JDAMs or 10 CBU-87s in adjoining bomb bays; B-52s are unloading 27
Mk82s and 12 JDAMs.
But how does any of this compare with previous air wars? In the Gulf
War, the first day saw a total of 2,388 sorties and 812 strikes, with
150 cruise missiles being shot. First night targets alone numbered 144.
In Yugoslavia, there were some 120 strikes flown on the first night,
with around 100 cruise missiles fired. A total of 51 targets were on
the first night list, as many as were hit in a week in Afghanistan.
Direct comparisons with the Gulf War and Yugoslavia, of course, are
misleading, both in terms of aircraft and targets. The number of
aircraft mobilized for Iraq was much larger than in Yugoslavia, and
much larger than for Afghanistan. The Iraqi target base itself was
three times the size of the Yugoslav one, and the Pentagon has
constantly cautioned that there are few lucrative classical targets in
Afghanistan. In Iraq, furthermore, there were few constraints on what
could be bombed initially (constraints were introduced later).
In Yugoslavia, leadership, urban, communications and electrical targets
The Learning Curve
In his review of the first week, Rumsfeld says that bombing
has "disrupted their communications somewhat… weakened the Taliban
military, and damaged but certainly not eliminated their air defense
capabilities." Gen. Myers adds that, "We have made a good first step
in... destroying or damaging terrorist training camps."
Even when it comes to the tiny 1970's Taliban air force, Rumsfeld
says, "it would be wrong to think that ... all of the aircraft from these
films... have disappeared. They have not."
Disrupted. Weakened. Damaged. Those are carefully chosen words,
dampening expectations of instant gratification. Neither Rumsfeld nor
Myers provide historical examples to show how meager the effort is,
though they have been saying since the beginning that a cruise missile
or bomb won't win the war. U.S. and British spokesmen caution that the
tempo of operations in the coming days will be "fluid."
"We are also, of course, very sensitive to the feelings of Moslem
people around the world," British Under Secretary of State for Defence,
Dr. Lewis Moonie, said Friday.
"Are we ever going to get it?" the Air Force general asks. There are
actions of brilliance in the field, he says, and yet, the air campaign
is trapped at the tactical level. Airmen are sent out everyday to hit a
set of aim-points at targets, which they are doing superbly with no
losses, but it is unclear what the connection is to the aims of the
overall campaign, and indeed, hitting targets seems to be an aim in
The messages conveyed are fourfold. First, though the conviction after
Sept. 11 on the part of the American people was that they were willing
to absorb U.S. casualties to fight this nasty war, the diffident
unfolding suggests falsely that maybe that will not be necessary after
Second, by moving forward with excruciating deliberateness against a
puny and non-threatening Taliban air and air defense force, a sense of
weakness and unwillingness to take risk is communicated, both to the
American people and the bad guys.
Third, by the Pentagon not being more explicit about the sparseness of
the effort and the modesty of the target base, claims of civilian
damage and of devastation wrought in Afghanistan resonate more,
particularly in the Islamic world. Maps with fancy graphical symbols
and gun camera video tapes are no longer sufficient -- there needs to
be real data released every day: a list of targets, the number of
weapons dropped, some historical analogy, U.S. estimates of civilian
Finally, there is also an enormous danger that exaggerated descriptions
of ever increasing bombing intensity makes the Taliban and Al Qaeda
believe that they are able to absorb the best that the U.S. military
throw at them, giving them greater confidence rather than make them
that they are heading for disaster.
Every air war entails an enormous learning curve, as intelligence
analysts gain a greater textured understanding of the target, as pilots
learn the terrain, as new opportunities unfold and as the enemy reacts
to destruction and pressure. No doubt that is happening in Afghanistan.
Now it is time for the Pentagon and the administration to learn as
well. They may be preparing the battlefield in Afghanistan for special
forces and ground operations. But they are not doing a good job
of preparing the rest the American people, the Taliban, or the world to
understand what is happening and what is to be expected in the future.
William M. Arkin, the author of ten books and numerous studies on military affairs, is a consultant to numerous organizations, and a frequent television and radio commentator. He was an Army intelligence analyst during the 1970's, a nuclear weapons expert during the Cold War, and pioneered on-the-ground study of the effects of military operations in Iraq and Yugoslavia. In 1994, his "The U.S. Military Online: A Directory for Internet Access to the Department of Defense" was published. His Dot.Mil column, launched in November 1998, appears every other Monday on washingtonpost.com. E-mail Arkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.