Alexei Fenenko, Lecturer, International Relations Department, Voronezh State University (Voronezh, Russian Federation)

The regional war in Central Asia, repeatedly predicted in the first half of 2001 and becoming a reality in the second half, arose from an intricate combination of three factors—oil, terrorism, and Islam. The antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan caused some serious geostrategic shifts: a routing of the Taliban radical Islamic movement, the establishment of U.S. military presence in the south of the CIS, aggravation of contradictions in Pakistan, and indirectly, also a new spiral in the Indian-Pakistani confrontation. Furthermore, it brought about substantial changes in the system of modern world politics itself. The strikes on Afghanistan became not just the first independent action by the United States since the breakup of a bipolar world order: For the first time since the war in Vietnam (possibly even since 19451) the U.S. administration has chosen in favor of directly projecting its own military force toward a complete annihilation of an enemy. Thus, Washington’s action drastically changed the very concept of modern warfare: The “impact strategy” (imposing certain political conditions on the enemy) is replaced by a basically new “annihilation strategy,” the criterion of victory being the complete elimination of the opposing side as a political force.

Along with the new U.S. military doctrine, adopted in May 2001; the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, and the review of the nuclear planning strategy, the operation in Afghanistan per se can be seen as one of the stages in this process. At the same time, the anti-Taliban campaign became the first practical test of the new approach, both generalizing the experience of previous “precision wars” and laying the groundwork for future action based on annihilation strategy. In this context it will be highly relevant to analyze the structure of the Afghan operation as well as its impact on U.S. military planning, which will help identify a new power component in modern interstate relations.

A Choice of Strategy

The rise in the anti-Taliban mood in the United States, caused by the terrorist acts in New York and Washington, and the strongholds of radical Islamic organizations based in Afghanistan can be seen as factors that in their entirety predetermined the subsequent course of action by the U.S. administration. In his policy speech to Congress on 20 September, 2001, George Bush presented the Taliban with a political ultimatum, demanding the handover to the United States of Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the al-Qa‘eda movement as well as an end to persecution of foreign citizens and diplomats. The U.S. president especially stressed that these conditions were not subject to discussion while failure to meet them would lead to new action based on the use of force, against Islamic extremists. Thus, after 11 September, U.S. politicians set the military the following task: not only to deliver a missile and air strike on the infrastructure of a possible enemy but also to ensure its complete destruction.

Of course the decision to carry out an operation against the Taliban hardly came as a surprise to the Pentagon. Indirect evidence of this is the fact that already on 20 September (nine days after the terror attacks in New York and Washington), information about U.S. military plans appeared in the open domain, including in the Russian media. U.S. policy toward the Taliban had toughened in late 2000. At the time, Washington, jointly with Moscow, voted for imposition of international sanctions against the movement at the U.N. Security Council. At the same time, U.S. political analysts increasingly argued that a war in Afghanistan was unacceptable and that it was necessary to work out a joint Russian-U.S. line to realize a common strategic interest in settling the conflict in Afghanistan.2 Finally, the United States had previous experience in delivering strikes on Afghanistan: In retaliation for the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (August 1998), 68 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched within one day on a Taliban base near the town of Khost. (To compare, in the course of a four-day Operation Desert Fox, U.S. aviation and navy used 147 cruise missiles—i.e., at a rate of 36-37 a day.) Previous U.S. action, however, had little to do with the tasks that the White House set before the military in the wake of the 11 September events.

U.S. operations in Iraq, Bosnia, and Yugoslavia in the 1990s, earlier referred to as “impact strategy,” were based on a standoff suppression of the enemy in the interest of attaining certain political goals: driving Iraq out of Kuwait, forcing the Bosnian Serbs to accept the Contact Group plan, and impacting on the Yugoslav leadership to deploy NATO forces in Kosovo. Each of these campaigns followed a single scenario wherein diplomatic pressure was followed up with cruise missile strikes on the enemy’s infrastructure, forcing it ultimately to accept U.S. conditions. At the same time military operations in the Persian Gulf and in the Balkans had two specific features, setting them apart from the upcoming operation in Afghanistan: The fact that U.S. enemies had a diversified economic infrastructure, whose destruction made further resistance impossible; and keeping in power a prewar government, ready to sign a peace agreement with Washington. In planning a campaign against the Taliban, the Pentagon had to take into account the absence of economic infrastructure in a country where military operations had been going since 1979, the main goal being not a demonstration strike but complete elimination of the enemy.

Sure, the lack-of-infrastructure factor should not be overestimated. By the time military action began, the Taliban had four fairly powerful groups, each constituting a serious combat force in high-mountain terrain. The Kandahar group was based in the southeast of the country: air-defense installations, an air base in Kandahar, and a large terrorist training camp to the east of the city. In the southwest, the Herat group: Herat and Shindan air bases and two large training camps in the area of Herat and Farah. In the northwest, the Mazar-i-Sharif group: air bases in Maimana and Mazar-i-Sharif as well as three large training camps. And finally, the Kabul-Jalalabad group: air-defense installations; four air bases—in Bamiyan, Kabul, Bagram, and Jalalabad, and three large training camps.3

Each of these targets could be effectively engaged with U.S. cruise missiles using satellite surveillance data, especially given that Tomahawks have a hit coefficient of 0.5 and a range of 1,600 kilometers to 1,800 kilometers. The problem, however, was that destruction of infrastructure would not have meant automatic capitulation by the enemy, accustomed to fighting in mountainous terrain without a centralized command and control system.

Furthermore, the U.S. available military resources seriously constrained a “shoot-to-kill” operation. Military operations in the Balkans had shown that precision weapons strikes could force the enemy into political capitulation but that was clearly insufficient for routing its land force. Thus, according to the London Institute for Strategic Studies, NATO aviation was not able to inflict the heaviest damage on the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo until early June 1999—i.e., when Belgrade had already decided to capitulate.4 The U.S. military equipment and weapons themselves, developed back in the Cold War period (the bulk of combat hardware in use was supplied in the 1976-1993 period), were to a very large extent such a constraint.5 Thus all modern U.S. weapons models were created or designed back in the second half of the 1980s, when, under the Reagan doctrine, the Pentagon was oriented toward a limited nuclear war in Europe.6

Perceiving the Soviet Army as its main adversary at the time, Washington saw a future hypothetical war as a series of air strikes on the military infrastructure of the Warsaw Pact—i.e., as combined attacks by bombers armed with guided bombs and medium- and shorter-range missiles with tactical nuclear weapons.7 The objective of such an operation per se fully tied up with the “impact strategy” insofar as it was oriented toward a “breaking up” of enemy capability (crowding the Soviet Union out of Eastern Europe or the GDR). So, despite the obvious shifting in priorities under Clinton, “impact weapons” were tapped in regional conflicts in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf. Missile strikes on military-political centers attained political results necessary for the United States, and from the “big-time strategy” perspective, the 1993 military doctrine only transferred the Reagan theory of a large but “limited” war to a series of local and “controlled” conflicts.

At the same time, the planned operation in Afghanistan called for an entirely different approach. Analysis of publications that appeared in the open domain in the second half of September 2001 suggests that the U.S. military was seriously considering various scenarios in the wake of the air strikes. There are four main scenarios.

Scenario 1 provided for the use of tactical nuclear weapons with a yield of up to 10 kilotons.8 The consequences of such a move are all but unpredictable as the damage effect from nuclear weapons is inseparable from radioactive contamination of terrain and an epidemic of radiation sickness. Furthermore, the use of even tactical nuclear charges would have set a precedent in the use of such weapons after 1945. That could in turn have led to entirely unpredictable political consequences following a negative reaction from Russia and the Central Asian states as well as a new upsurge in extremism in Pakistan (at the same time calling into question the future of its nuclear arsenal). As a result, just as in previous U.S. military campaigns, nuclear weapons were used only as a factor of political deterrence.9

Scenario 2 expanded somewhat the traditional “impact strategy,” shifting the emphasis from missile strikes to the use of B-2 bombers, capable of carrying, instead of 16 cruise missiles, 80 tonnes of conventional bombs, and F/A-18 Hornet bombers, using guided JDAM bombs and laser guided GBU-28 bombs, highly effective in mountainous terrain. In theory, this could have inflicted heavy losses on the Taliban army, but implementation of this plan was predicated on the use of adjacent military bases (Hornets have a range of a mere 600 kilometers) and, most important, exploitation with an advance by ground forces. Thus Scenarios 3 and 4 were predicated on a ground operation. The difference between them was only that proponents of one favored a large-scale ground operation10 while others emphasized coordination of action with the Taliban’s internal enemy—the Northern Alliance.

The latter approach was not entirely new to U.S. strategy. Back in the 1995 Bosnian operation, NATO air strikes on the Serbs’ antiaircraft installations and command and control points enabled Bosnian Muslims to mount an offensive even though the plan at the time was only to force the Bosnian Serbs to adopt a peace plan, acceptable to the West. In the fall of 2001, the task facing U.S. strategists was far more complex: The Northern Alliance, an essentially weaker force that controlled a mere 5 percent of Afghan territory and oftentimes being on the verge of military catastrophe, was to support U.S. and British air strikes with a ground offensive operation. In that situation, a broader U.S. presence was needed to ensure success for the alliance. While granting the Northern Alliance a status as a strategic ally, Washington was to keep its paratrooper units on constant alert to help it at a critical moment in the offensive operation but mainly to coordinate fire on the enemy’s forward positions, which for its part required a reliable satellite communication link with the alliance. Thus the operation plan largely predetermined the White House’s subsequent political steps: expansion of military infrastructure in Pakistan, an agreement with the Central Asian states on establishing U.S. military bases on their territory, contacts with Northern Alliance command, and active diplomatic cooperation with Russia. Up until September 2001, Moscow had acted as the main guarantor of stability in the south of the CIS and as one of the main allies in the anti-Taliban coalition.

On the whole, the qualitatively new strategic choice predetermined a shift also in U.S. military planning. The discussion about the means of “crushing” the enemy per se identified the main parameters of success in the upcoming operation: the presence of military airfields in close proximity to Afghan territory; the shifting of the punch from missile strikes on infrastructure to aerial bombing; and close coordination of action with Northern Alliance forces.

These steps not only laid the groundwork for the U.S. anti-terrorist operation but also became the first elements in a new strategy of warfare aimed not at a demonstrative missile strike on the enemy’s economic infrastructure but at air attacks closely tied in with a ground offensive.

Operation Concept

The search for an essentially new “annihilation strategy” affected the general concept of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom, wherein Washington originally singled out three stages.11

The first, “traditional,” stage provided for a massive strike with sea-launched 200-250 cruise missiles on the enemy’s antiaircraft targets, bunkers, government buildings, and airfields. It is inseparably linked with the previous “impact strategy,” but in the Afghan operation it was assigned far from the main, even though fairly important, role: effective engagement of the Taliban’s fixed military targets.

The second, “main,” stage, provided for air strikes on the identified concentrations of Taliban troops. In line with preceding recommendations, the main striking force at this stage were to be F/A-18 and B-2 bombers, capable of carpet bombing and hitting cave targets. Furthermore, at Stage 2, the Pentagon sought the closest possible coordination of action with the Northern Alliance and other participants in the coalition. The latter were entrusted with two tasks: coordination of air strikes on Islamic extremists’ forward positions and exploitation with a ground offensive.

Finally, the third, “final,” stage provided for a landing of U.S. and British assault forces (approximately 15,000 marines) to crush the last pockets of Taliban resistance.

Analysis of the general concept of Washington’s operation in Afghanistan points to its main challenges: an insufficient number of bases for tactical aviation, a lack of combat experience in effective engagement on the forward edge of the battle area, and the threat of insurgency should a land operation go ahead. What solution did the U.S. command propose on the eve of the campaign? To find an answer to this far-from-easy question, it will be essential to analyze the deployment of U.S. and British troops in September-early October 2001.

At the “preparatory” stage, U.S. and British command reorganized the structure of its naval force. Whereas the number of aircraft carriers was established almost at once (four multipurpose nuclear-powered carriers and one light carrier), in the first week of October, the number of cruisers and destroyers with guided missiles was substantially increased (from two to eight and five to seven, respectively), as was the number of multipurpose nuclear submarines (from four to 10). This shows that, just as in the Balkan conflicts, the operation in Afghanistan provided for an active use of “pinpoint” missile strikes. They were designed to destroy infrastructure (forces for this operation had been mustered back in late September) and actual targets on the forward edge. (Suffice it to mention that instead of the original 200-250 cruise missiles, by early October, the allied aircraft carrying firepower was 1,300 to 1,500 missiles, which allowed for their use not only in the first strike but also in subsequent attacks.) The change in the role of missile weapons can be seen as one of the first “reforms” that emerged within the framework of the “annihilation strategy” as in the new campaign they were not only to effectively engage fixed targets but also deliver so-called flexible strikes on mobile targets in the mountains.

In line with the general concept of the operation, Washington and London substantially increased the number of ground based combat aircraft (to 184 from 19 in late September) and refueling aircraft (up to 43). The latter helped not only provide constant support to combat aviation but also, equally important, build an air bridge for continuous reconnaissance, target identification, and fire adjustment. Thus, the new strategy had logically outgrown the bounds of the previous one: The high accuracy of target engagement ensured an effective demonstration of force (as, say, in Bosnia) and inflicted a crippling standoff strike on the enemy.

Following up on this observation, it is noteworthy that space has occupied an important place in U.S. military doctrine ever since the time the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was advanced in the 1980s. Already in the course of air strikes on Yugoslavia, Russian military experts came to the conclusion that a date and even time of a U.S. military operation could be easily forecast: It was to begin as soon as a U.S. satellite group was deployed over the area of the operation. In the spring of 2001, the new administration gave a higher priority to space (withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and plans to build a “space bomber”). Nonetheless, it was not until the operation in Afghanistan that a satellite based communication system was used as a platform for strikes on “mobile” targets. Just before the start of air strikes on Afghanistan (7 October), on the night of 5-6 October, 2001, a satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral to monitor targets in Central Asia while uninterrupted refueling of reconnaissance aircraft enabled the Pentagon to receive reliable information on a continual basis. Thus, even before the operation began, the Americans managed to fulfill one of the most complex tasks of “annihilation strategy”—effective engagement of mobile enemy targets in the combat area.

Shortly before the beginning of the military action, Washington also revised the concept of a ground operation. Formation of highly mobile air assault and raiding groups, provided with helicopters and ground attack aviation, shows that the United States placed a bet not on direct commitment of troops but on local operations in mountainous regions and active support for internal opposition forces. The latter predetermined a basically different perception of Americans in Afghanistan itself. The routing of the Taliban regular forces turned the United States, rather, into an ordinary ally of the Northern Alliance and a part of Pashtoon tribes, only helping rout the extremists with local operations from the outside.

Analysis of the Pentagon model of the Afghan operation shows that well before direct military action began, U.S. strategists had proposed their own solution to the main problems in the upcoming conflict: engage targets in combat areas while conducting a ground operation without bringing into the country a regular armed contingent—that is to say, not the way it was done by the British Empire or (much later) the Soviet Union. Furthermore, by ensuring, through a series of agreements with Moscow, Tashkent, Bishkek, and Dushanbe, its military presence in Central Asia, the United States not only set up bases in close proximity of the front line, but also demonstrated to the Northern Alliance its fundamental support for Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbek and Tajik population. Therefore, the conceptual development of the “annihilation strategy” began in advance of the military operation while its course became only a kind of a durability test for the U.S. warfare concept.

Operation Structure

In revisiting the fall of 2001 events, it needs to be said that the majority of domestic military experts took an extremely pessimistic view of the upcoming military action, pointing out, in particular, that Washington did not have forces in the region analogous to what it had at its disposal during Operation Desert Storm or during the air strikes on Yugoslavia.12 Today the forecasts about “prolonged Taliban resistance” that were made at the time sound anachronistic, but the sheer comparison of strategic groups in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, and the Middle East points to some interesting conclusions. Thus, the aggregate allied naval force in the Indian Ocean (34 surface vessels and 10 multipurpose nuclear powered submarines) is quite comparable with the U.S. forces in the Gulf (50 surface ships) and especially five NATO surface ships in the Adriatic Sea in the spring of 1999. Clearly, this is, rather, a case of a skeptical perception of new strategy.

Russian experts commenting on the U.S. operation the first night after it began, linked the success of Washington’s previous actions to either the presence of a powerful ground force, necessary to finalize the offensive,13 or the effective engagement and destruction of infrastructure with intensive air strikes. The sheer possibility of wiping out the enemy by air strikes in interaction with a weak ground ally appeared dubious. As a result, in October 2001, few could foresee that the very structure of the new campaign would make it possible to attain the main political goals by other means than in the 1991 war or conflicts in the Balkans.

In line with the original plan, four stages can be singled out in the Afghan operation.

Stage 1 (7-15 October, 2001): missile strikes on fixed targets of the Taliban’s infrastructure, recalling the bombing of Yugoslavia (engagement of command and control points, antiaircraft systems, airfields, and communication nodes). A classic example of such action was the first night of the air strikes, in the course of which the Americans used up to 110 air launched cruise missiles and 250-kilogram laser guided bombs. Of course it is still difficult to assess the effectiveness of these strikes now. At the same time the constant reports by U.S. pilots about the absence of targets and the command’s de-facto refusal to use precision cruise missiles as early as the second day of the operation14 show that the majority of designated targets had been disabled and no longer posed a threat to the Pentagon.

Stage 2 (15 October-2 November, 2001): air strikes on Taliban positions, which began with the U.S. command’s decision to reorient tactical aviation and special task forces, assigning them to search for and destroy mobile targets. As a result, the main content of this stage was the bombing of the Taliban’s combat infrastructure across Afghanistan, capped with a visit by U.S. commander Tommy Franks to Central Asia and direct preparation for the coalition’s ground operation.

Stage 3 (2-15 November, 2001): offensive by coalition ground forces. As of 2 November, the U.S. strategy of air strikes changed radically, their main purpose now being the actual destruction of Taliban forces on the line of contact with the Northern Alliance army; the main striking assets were E-8 flying radars and Global Hawk strategic unmanned aerial vehicles, detecting ground targets and guiding aviation on these targets. As a result of the Doustom and Fahim-led offensive operation, which began on 8 November, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Baghlan, the Salang mountain pass, and Kabul were seized in short order (on 12 November). At the same time, the Pashtoon opposition in the south took control of Kandahar, a key Taliban defense line, as a result of which they lost a centralized command and control system, dashing their hopes of building an effective defense system.

Finally, Stage 4 (from mid-November 2001): deployment of U.S.-British coalition ground forces which conducted a series of operations to wipe out separate Taliban armed groups (in the mountains of Tora Bora, Anaconda, etc.). A distinguishing feature of this stage is the search for a political settlement to the conflict: creation of a provisional administration, led by Hamid Karzai, and confirmation of its powers at the Afghan Loya Jirga national assembly in June 2002. Furthermore, in late 2001, the Pentagon substantially expanded its military presence in Central Asia by concluding treaties with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on opening new military bases on their territory. Thus, despite the somewhat protracted character of this stage as well as first serious losses, the Americans managed to attain the main political goal of the operation: eliminate the Taliban’s state apparatus and its movement as a political force.

At the same time, while reflecting the specifics of military-and-staff planning, this periodization does not answer the question about the specifics of the U.S. new “annihilation strategy.” Domestic military analysts typically see the high point of the Afghan operation coming in early November 2001, when the Americans began directly to interact with Northern Alliance troops while the anti-Taliban coalition launched a general strategic offensive.15 Its rapid pace and the virtual absence of organized resistance, however, suggest that the main objectives had been attained in the course of previous air strikes. Moreover, back in October, the Pentagon consistently set three objectives to its aviation: search and destruction of mobile targets, fire support for alliance forces, and provision of its troops with ammunition and foodstuffs—each of which was attained a month later. Thus, from the point of view of the fulfillment of the main strategic tasks, the crucial period was from 15 October (“target-of-opportunity roving”) until the end of the month, when a concrete plan for an offensive operation began to be fleshed out at a meeting in Tashkent. For convenience, this stage of the operation can be presented in the following table16:


The number of targets/areas attacked

Operational tasks


15 October

11 targets

Reorientation of tactical aviation and special task forces to search and destroy mobile targets.

Up to 60 combat aircraft: fighters, carrier bombers, B-1B and B-52 strategic bombers, U.S. SOF AC-130 attack aircraft and helicopter gunships.

16 October

15 targets

Effective engagement of the Taliban’s small mobile groups and strategic targets in a target-of-opportunity roving mode. Special priority is given to the Kandahar area. Information and psychological operations.

Up to 50 combat aircraft, including B-1B and B-52 strategic bombers and two AC-130 attack aircraft.

17 October

12 missions

Transition to round-the-clock patrolling of Afghan territory divided into sectors of responsibility. Independent detection and identification of targets and their effective engagement with permission from command and control points.

Ninety to 95 combat aircraft. The first ever combat employment of RQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, armed with Hellfire AT missiles, and F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bombers of the U.S. Air Force.

18 October

17 missions

The main efforts are concentrated on fire support for Northern Alliance forces. Organized ammunition and food supplies to Northern Alliance troops.

Ninety to 95 combat aircraft, RQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, armed with Hellfire AT missiles, F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bombers of the U.S. Air Force, AC-130 attack aircraft and helicopter gunships.

19 October

15 missions

The main efforts by aviation are concentrated on support for the Northern Alliance in destroying targets in the northern part of Afghanistan. On the night of 20 October, a Special Forces air-ground operation was carried out in two areas (one of the targets was an air field 100 kilometers to the southwest of Kandahar).

Up to 100 combat aircraft, including from 10 to 12 strategic bombers and AC-130 attack aircraft.

20 October

6 areas

Completion of the Special Forces ground operation, evacuation of troops from Afghan territory. Effective engagement of targets on the contact line between Taliban and Northern Alliance troops. The appearance of U.S. Air Force helicopters over Kabul.

Eighty-five U.S. Navy carrier fighter/bombers, five strategic bombers, four C-17 military transport planes with humanitarian aid.

21 October

8 areas

Concentrated strikes on Taliban ground forces on the line of contact with Northern Alliance troops. Target-of-opportunity roving for tanks and transport facilities in the Mazar-i-Sharif area and to the north of Kabul.

Seventy-five U.S. Navy carrier fighter/bombers, 10 strategic bombers, the EC-130 Commando Solo airborne radio-teletransmitter, and four C-17 military transport planes with humanitarian aid.

22 October

11 areas

U.S. Air Force strikes are distributed in approximately equal proportion between targets in the southern part of Afghanistan and regions near the contact line with Northern Alliance troops. At the same time, experts point out that the strikes were not synchronized with action by the Northern Alliance.

Up to 80 aircraft, including 10 B-1B and B-52 bombers, approx. 10 F-16 tactical fighters of the U.S. Air Force (first use in the conflict), and AC-130.

23 October

9 targets

The main efforts of U.S. aviation are concentrated on northern parts of Afghanistan, including near Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, and Herat. The greater part of strikes is delivered on out-of-town targets in the target-of-opportunity roving regime.

Up to 90 attack aircraft: 75 carrier aircraft, 10 strategic bombers, and up to 15 tactical aviation and AC-130.

October 24

9 areas

The U.S. Air Force continued to step up strikes on the Taliban along the line of contact with Northern Alliance troops. First reports come in saying that U.S. air strikes on ground targets are coordinated with the ongoing Northern Alliance offensive on Mazar-i-Sharif.

Approx. 80 attack aircraft, including 65 carrier aircraft, between six and 10 AC-130 fighter/bombers, and more than 10 strategic bombers. The Pentagon admitted that B-52s and B-1Bs were being used to engage area targets with unguided bombs. In some instances B-1B bombers use precision weapons.

25 October

10 areas

U.S. aviation continues strikes on northern parts of Afghanistan, also stepping up the intensity of the bombing of Kabul and Kandahar following a letup in impact on these regions earlier in the week.

The Pentagon positively assessed interaction with the Northern Alliance, saying however that the United States will not necessarily be adapting to its plans.

Up to 80 attack aircraft, including 70 carrier aircraft, from four to six tactical fighters and up to 15 strategic bombers. The Pentagon also admitted that a certain number of Tomahawk cruise missiles had been launched.

26 October

9 missions—Kabul; Kandahar, N/A

No official information about U.S. operations was available. According to unofficial reports, U.S. aviation delivered a series of strikes on Kabul (nine targets, including an air field) and Kandahar at night.

According to CNN, U.S. and British political and military representatives held negotiations with the Northern Alliance command. Details of the negotiations are unknown.


27 October


No official information about U.S. action was available. According to unofficial reports, U.S. aviation Saturday morning delivered a series of strikes on Kabul as well as on hills around the city and the airfield. Experts point out that the Taliban deploy their forces and hardware in residential parts of the city that had not been subject to air strikes before.

Air strikes—N/A.

According to Japanese reporters working in the north of Afghanistan, approximately 1,000 military servicemen are involved in ground operations. They are deployed at the Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan with an aggregate force of up to 2,000 servicemen, including 10th Light Infantry Division personnel and SOF.

28 October

6 areas

U.S. aviation once again concentrated its main efforts on the line of contact between the Taliban and Northern Alliance troops

A Pentagon spokesman said that at the next stage of the operation the main U.S. objective would be to provide support to Taliban opposition forces in the north and south. It was also announced that the United States would seek to improve ammunition supplies to Northern Alliance troops.

Sixty-five attack aircraft, including 55 carrier aircraft, between four and six tactical fighters of the U.S. Air Force and as many strategic bombers.

The table points to some new trends in the use of force, following up on the principles of “shoot-to-kill” air warfare.

First of all, the United States used several basically new types of weapons: the RQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle with Hellfire AT missiles and F-15E Strike Eagle fighter/bombers which substantially enhanced U.S. air capability. Building up on this experience, on 20 October, 2001—i.e., at the moment when the task of destroying targets on the line of contact was set and U.S. helicopters appeared in the sky over Kabul—Pentagon representatives said that satellite assisted guidance of cruise AT missiles was becoming the main tactical task of the operation. Of course the non-availability of accurate data limits any assessment of the effectiveness of this action, but an early routing of Taliban forces (8-12 November) shows that their infrastructure had been seriously damaged in the course of the October air strikes. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that U.S. reports constantly draw a distinction between “missions,” “targets,” and “areas” of strikes. Presumably, the first refer to fixed targets (barracks, bridges, command and control points) while the second and third, to mobile combat hardware and equipment with the number of areas constantly growing, reaching a maximum in the 20 through 25 October period. This shows that in the course of the operation in Afghanistan, the satellite guidance system had achieved a level enabling it to be used for pinpoint air strikes against mobile targets on the forward edge of the battle area, disabling the enemy’s regular army.

Second, the target-of-opportunity roving mode used by the Americans predetermined a new air force packaging system. In the course of the operation in Yugoslavia, NATO aviation delivered 22,000 strikes on 490 fixed and 520 mobile targets, but the main striking assets were either cruise missiles, launched according to prearranged flight plans, or JSOW satellite guided air bombs. By contrast, in Afghanistan, the Americans preferred to act in dense groups of 50 to 100 aircraft, traditionally including striking assets to engage fixed targets, strategic bombers to “disperse” bombs, and tactical aviation to deliver surgical strikes. Such interaction helped effectively engage entire areas of concentration of Taliban forces, attaining campaign objectives with a series of multiple air strikes. Thus, in the course of the Afghan conflict, aviation emerged from a means of destroying infrastructure into a means of destroying ground forces, thus replacing classic ground-force offensive with auxiliary attack.

Sure, the “annihilation strategy,” used in the fall of 2001 basically differed from that used in World War II: In Afghanistan, the objective was only to annihilate a hostile regional force and establish U.S. military presence in Central Asia, but the sheer structure of this war inevitably affected U.S. military planning as the development of guidance and satellite communication systems made it possible to effectively engage the enemy without coming into direct contact with it. Thus the operational consequences of the events in Afghanistan could change the entire force component of the modern world political system, creating new possibilities (and new dangers) in the use of military power.

Campaign Results

The shifting of accents in U.S. military strategy should definitely be seen as an important landmark in the evolution of military-political thought, including a review of the limits of the use of military force. The operation in Afghanistan, which coincided with the latest technological breakthrough in arms production, created prerequisites for new effective operational methods of warfare that for their part modified the meaning of such notions as acceptable and unacceptable levels of confrontation.17 Whereas in the Cold War period, the superpowers neutralized each other while after 1991, the United States preferred impacting on the political will of its opponents, the latest events predetermined new principles in the use of military power.

One major outcome of the Afghan war is a reordering of technological priorities for the U.S. armed forces. According to Business Week, back in December 2001 (i.e., immediately following the completion of the first stage of the operation), military experts set four basically new tasks before the U.S. military: monitoring the action of allied forces and enemy troops, modernization of guidance and aiming systems, flexible response to a changing situation, and an ability to operate in isolation from base.18 These tasks were to be fulfilled on the basis of a new technological breakthrough: replacement of guided reconnaissance aircraft with Predator missile-armed unmanned aerial vehicles; development of homing bombs, real-time guidance communication systems, and new transport aircraft technology, but most important, reorientation of the Air Force from fighters to long-range bombers and carrier aviation. This program has, without a doubt, been influenced by the results of the anti-Taliban operation, showing that in future regional conflicts, Washington will be giving priority to effective engagement of mobile targets in the battle area from the air. As a result, the theory of a large-scale ground operation, which appeared all but unviable in 1999, is now emerging as a fairly practicable form of combat action whose success is guaranteed by an accurate hit and destruction of targets with guided air bombs and precise coordination of strikes through satellites.

Furthermore, it was in the wake of its military success in Afghanistan that the United States also reviewed its nuclear strategy. The new nuclear doctrine, presented in January 2002,19 envisions the creation of a basically new strategic triad, based not on nuclear deterrence, a principle characteristic of the second half of the 20th century, but on flexible nuclear weapon systems. The new doctrine provides for nuclear weapons to be proportionately divided between traditional strategic offensive weapons, offensive strike and defensive systems (subdivided for their part into active and passive), and the so-called nuclear infrastructure—all of these based on an underlying command and control, communications, and intelligence system.

This doctrine not simply allows for the possibility of using super-small nuclear charges, modeled after the depleted uranium bombs used in the Balkans, but also directly links tactical nuclear weapons to the development of satellite-communication and mobile-target engagement systems. According to the January concept, various strike options will require great flexibility and extensive planning, which points to its close interrelation with the results of the Afghan operation, prior to whose launch it was planned to deliver limited nuclear strikes on military infrastructure. Sure, the Taliban’s relatively weak military machine was wiped out with a series of conventional missile strikes, but in the event of a conflict with a more serious enemy this firepower may prove insufficient. Thus the new nuclear strategy shows that the events in Afghanistan became a kind of a military planning criterion for the United States within whose framework “annihilation strategy” gradually emerges both as a method of eliminating relatively weak regional adversaries (say, international terrorist enclaves) and a means of effective impact on its rivals from among the “great powers.”

On the whole, the results of the operation point to the following conclusion: The military operation in Afghanistan marked a new stage in the use of force and firepower. Whereas within the system of bipolar confrontation, the use of nuclear weapons or military action on the European theater was considered unacceptable, the consequences of the regional war in Central Asia expand the potentiality of the unilateral use of force. The evolution of “annihilation strategy” creates a new model of regional conflicts wherein the elimination of hostile elements is seen as a normal precondition for asserting one’s own interests whose protection is increasingly contingent on the presence of a diversified military infrastructure in a particular region.

* * *

The “annihilation strategy” that the United States used in Afghanistan, came as a result of a dramatic technological breakthrough in the arms sphere. The groundwork for it was laid in the second half of the 1980s, when as a result of a scientific-technological revolution, for the first time in Cold War history, Western countries began to overtake their rival in such state-of-the-art development projects as electronic reconnaissance, guidance, and navigation systems as well as precision weapons.20 In this respect, success in Afghanistan, achieved as a result of a breakthrough in space-based weapons guidance technology, marked a transition from the previous “revolution” into a new quality, when the weakening of the enemy’s military capacity is replaced by the complete destruction of its armed forces. These trends suggest that the first quarter of the new century will be marked by the evolution of a new local conflict strategy wherein priority will be given to space based guidance and adjustment of air strikes while the nuclear deterrence threshold will be progressively lowered through the use of tactical charges and possibly even anti-missile technology.

At the same time, this trend changes the political conflict management system per se. Sure, expanding weapons capabilities and transition to unilateral “annihilation” action elevates the existing superpower to the rank of an incontestable political leader. These trends could eventually lead to a search for a more adequate response to its breakthrough in the military sphere. So the events in Afghanistan can be seen to be raising the key question of the modern security system: Will the “annihilation” model remain but a means of fighting international terrorism or is it going to become standard practice of state interaction in regional conflicts?

1 Thus, back in 1966, in the course of Congressional hearings on U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam, Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor stressed that U.S. command sees its goal only in influencing the political will of the Hanoi regime (see: G. Palmer, McNamara Strategy and the Vietnam War, Westport-L., 1978, p. 81).
2 See: M.B. Îlcott, “Razmyshleniia o politike SShA v Tsentral’noi Azii,” Pro et contra, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2000, p 168.
3 See: Kommersant-Vlast, No. 41, 16 October, 2001, p. 10. An official report on the Taliban armed forces has yet to be released, so this author’s classification is based on analysis of the map presented in said publication.
4 See: Nezavisimoie voennoie obozreniie, 26 November, 1999.
5 See: [http://www.vif2.ru] (the official site of the Federation of American Scientist, citing U.S. Navy and Air Force reports).
6 For an interesting insight into the Reagan strategy, see: V.L. Tsymburskiy, “Sverkhdlinnyie tsikly i mirovaia politika,” Polis, No. 3, 1996, pp. 30-31, 40-42; although the parallels drawn by the author between this strategy and wars of the 18th century appear to be rather far-fetched.
7 It is noteworthy in this respect that older aircraft, designed at a time when “massive retaliation” doctrine reigned supreme, such as, e.g., the B-52H bomber, have a greater bomb load capacity while more modern aircraft are armed predominantly with guided missiles, the 1987-model Hornet carrier strike aircraft featuring the maximum number thereof.
8 A report filed by the Japanese Kyodo news agency on 19 September, 2001.
9 A similar scenario was observed in the Persian Gulf. At the outset of the crisis (3 August, 1990), the White House officially announced that should Baghdad follow up its occupation of Kuwait with military action against Saudi Arabia, it will be subject to tactical nuclear strikes. This threat forced Iraq to abandon its plan to deliver a militarily advantageous strike on Saudi Arabia both in August 1990 and in the course of Operation Desert Storm. It is noteworthy that in preparing for the operation in Afghanistan, reports about the possibility of using super-small nuclear charges appeared two days after the Taliban leadership said it was ready to strike against possible U.S. allies.
10 It was in late September that the United States deployed the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Air Assault Division as well as special task units on the Afghan-Pakistani border.
11 A detailed plan of the operation was published in Profil, No. 35, 24 September, 2001, pp. 12-17. See also: Nezavisimai a gazeta, 14 September, 2001.
12 An assessment by Nezavisimoie voennoie obozreniie commentator P. Felghenghauer in an NTV night-time show on 7 October, 2001.
13 Shortly prior to the war in the Gulf, the United States deployed 325,000 servicemen, 1,000 tanks, 2,000 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, and 1,500 helicopters to the region (see: I.M. Popov, Buria v pustyne, Znaniye Publishers, Moscow, 1992. Pod znakom Marsa series, No. 4, p. 15).
14 See: Nezavisimoie voennoie obozreniie, No. 38, 2001, p. 1.
15 See, e.g.: S. Sokut, “Novoøe slovo v voennom iskusstve,” Nezavisimoie voennoie obozreniie, 16 November, 2001.
16 The table is based on Pentagon and news agency reports as well as memos by the U.S. Center for Defense Information (see: Nezavisimoie voennoie obozreniie, 26 October, 2001; Nezavisimoie voennoie obozreniie, 2 November, 2001).
17 For a detailed analysis of these categories, see: A.D. Bogaturov, Velikiie derzhavy na Tikhom okeane, Moscow, 1997, pp. 52-58.
18 See: Profil, No. 48, 2001, pp. 44-45.
19 A detailed account of the doctrine is published in: Nezavisimoie voennoie obozreniie, No. 9, 2002, pp. 1-2.
20 See: Rossiiskaia Federatsiia segodnia, No. 7, 2002, p. 30.

SCImago Journal & Country Rank