In George Will's column this week, he urges an "offshore" alternative to the pointlessly costly, logistically nightmarish policy of basing and supporting a massive American army in Afghanistan. What Will describes sounds like something in the same ballpark as the "lily pad strategy," discussed here with Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely (USA ret.). As Gen. Vallely put it:
"This doesn't mean giving up battle. What it means is you transition to a more realistic, affordable strategy that keeps them (the jihadist enemy) from spreading."
Such a strategy, Vallely explained, relies on "the maximum use of unconventional forces," such as Navy SEALS and other special forces, who can be deployed as needed from what are known in military parlance as "lily pads" -- outposts or jumping-off points in friendly countries (Israel, Northern Kurdistan, India, Philippines, Italy, Djibouti ... ) and from U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups. Such strike groups generally include eight to 10 vessels "with more fire power," the general noted, "than most nations." These lily pads become "bases we can launch from any time we want to," eliminating the need for massive land bases such as Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, by now a small city of 20,000 American personnel who continuously need to be supplied and secured at enormous expense.
"There's no permanent force," the general said. "That's the beauty of it." We watch, we wait and when U.S. interests are threatened, "we basically use our strike forces to take them out, target by target." This would work whether the threat came from Al Qaeda, Pakistani nukes or anything else.
When George Will referred in brief to such an "offshore" strategy, conservatives instantly expressed a generalized skepticism about its effectiveness, but today Max Boot gets into specifics. At the Wall Street Journal, he writes:
We tried the offshore strategy in the 1990s when Afghanistan became a stronghold of al Qaeda. Even after 9/11 we still stuck to a minimalist approach. Recall the failure to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora because we wouldn't commit enough American troops.
"We tried the offshore strategy"?
Yoohoo, Max -- remember the Clinton years? That was one, long, bad stretch of irresponsibility and inaction in the 1990s when it came to national security, and particularly when it came to dealing with Osama bin Laden. Here, as a refresher, is a link to an especially apt 2004 article called "How Clinton Let Al Qaeda Go."
The article specifically highlights the failures of Bill Clinton to authorize the execution of the "offshore strategy" -- in the historical case, a series of carefully planned operations by Special Forces to destroy Al Qaeda. Written by Richard H. Shultz Jr., director of international security studies at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and director of research at the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence in Washington, D.C., the piece opens:
SINCE 9/11, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly declared that the United States is in a new kind of war, one requiring new military forces to hunt down and capture or kill terrorists. In fact, for some years, the Department of Defense has gone to the trouble of selecting and training an array of Special Operations Forces, whose forte is precisely this. One president after another has invested resources to hone lethal "special mission units" for offensive--that is, preemptive--counterterrorism strikes, with the result that these units are the best of their kind in the world. While their activities are highly classified, two of them--the Army's Delta Force and the Navy's SEAL Team 6--have become the stuff of novels and movies.
Prior to 9/11, these units were never used even once to hunt down terrorists who had taken American lives. ...
Schultz wondered why, and he chronicles the fecklessness and failures that particularly marked the Clinton nineties in the rest of the piece. It is required reading now as the argument against withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq has already descended into erroneous cliche -- namely, that "we tried the offshore strategy in the 1990s" as Boot writes, and the result was 9/11. Historically, factually, wrong.
Putting the units to their intended use proved impossible--even after al Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, bombed two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, and nearly sank the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. As a result of these and other attacks, operations were planned to capture or kill the ultimate perpetrators, Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, but each time the missions were blocked. A plethora of self-imposed constraints--I call them showstoppers--kept the counterterrorism units on the shelf.
Among those interviewed, few were in a better position to illuminate the conundrum than General Pete Schoomaker. An original member of the Delta Force, he had commanded the Delta Force in 1991-92, then led the Special Operations Command in the late 1990s. "Counterterrorism, by Defense Department definition, is offensive," Schoomaker told me during a discussion we had over two days in the summer of 2002. "But Special Operations was never given the mission. It was very, very frustrating. It was like having a brand-new Ferrari in the garage, and nobody wants to race it because you might dent the fender."
AS TERRORIST ATTACKS escalated in the 1990s, White House rhetoric intensified. President Clinton met each successive outrage with a vow to punish the perpetrators. After the Cole bombing in 2000, for example, he pledged to "find out who is responsible and hold them accountable." And to prove he was serious, he issued an increasingly tough series of Presidential Decision Directives. The United States would "deter and preempt...individuals who perpetrate or plan to perpetrate such acts," said Directive 39, in June 1995. Offensive measures would be used against foreign terrorists posing a threat to America, said Directive 62, in May 1998. Joint Staff contingency plans were revised to provide for offensive and preemptive options. And after al Qaeda's bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Clinton signed a secret "finding" authorizing lethal covert operations against bin Laden.
These initiatives led to the planning of several operations. Their details rest in the classified records of the National Security Council's Counterterrorism and Security Group. Its former coordinator, Dick Clarke, described them as providing the White House with "more aggressive options," to be carried out by Special Operations Forces (or SOF, a category that includes the Green Berets, the Rangers, psychological operations, civilian affairs, the SEALS, special helicopter units, and special mission units like the Delta Force and SEAL Team 6).
Several plans have been identified in newspaper accounts since 9/11. For example, "snatch operations" in Afghanistan were planned to seize bin Laden and his senior lieutenants. After the 1998 embassy bombings, options for killing bin Laden were entertained, including a gunship assault on his compound in Afghanistan.
SOF assaults on al Qaeda's Afghan training camps were also planned. An official very close to Clinton said that the president believed the image of American commandos jumping out of helicopters and killing terrorists would send a strong message. He "saw these camps as conveyor belts pushing radical Islamists through," the official said, "that either went into the war against the Northern Alliance [an Afghan force fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan] or became sleeper cells in Germany, Spain, Britain, Italy, and here. We wanted to close these camps down. We had to make it unattractive to go to these camps. And blowing them up, by God, would make them unattractive."
And preemptive strikes against al Qaeda cells outside Afghanistan were planned, in North Africa and the Arabian Gulf. Then in May 1999, the White House decided to press the Taliban to end its support of bin Laden. The Counterterrorism and Security Group recommended supporting the Northern Alliance.
These examples, among others, depict an increasingly aggressive, lethal, and preemptive counterterrorist policy. But not one of these operations--all authorized by President Clinton--was ever executed. General Schoomaker's explanation is devastating. "The presidential directives that were issued," he said, "and the subsequent findings and authorities, in my view, were done to check off boxes. The president signed things that everybody involved knew full well were never going to happen. You're checking off boxes, and have all this activity going on, but the fact is that there's very low probability of it ever coming to fruition. . . ." And he added: "The military, by the way, didn't want to touch it. There was great reluctance in the Pentagon."
In short: No, the offshore strategy has not been tried.
As for Tora Bora -- Osama bin Laden didn't escape because, as Boot writes, "we wouldn't commit enough American troops"! One of the main reasons OBL was able to escape from Tora Bora was that the US made a politicially correct, militarily incorrect decision to let Afghan troops take the lead. From a 2002 Wash Post story:
A common view among those interviewed outside the U.S. Central Command is that Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the war's operational commander, misjudged the interests of putative Afghan allies and let pass the best chance to capture or kill al Qaeda's leader. Without professing second thoughts about Tora Bora, Franks has changed his approach fundamentally in subsequent battles, using Americans on the ground as first-line combat units.
In other words, we didn't need more troops -- a pre-surge-surge. What we needed was common sense. We still do. But now we also need to brush up on our extremely recent history.