America's novel use of special operations forces (SOF), precision weapons, and indigenous allies has attracted widespread attention since its debut in Afghanistan, proving both influential and controversial. Many believe it was responsible for the Taliban's sudden collapse. They see the "Afghan model" as warfare's future and think it should become the new template for U.S. defense planning. Others, however, see Afghanistan as an anomaly -- a non-repeatable product of local conditions. Both camps are wrong. The Afghan campaign does indeed offer important clues to the future of warfare, but not the ones most people think -- because the war itself was not fought the way most people think.
Both sides in the debate assume that the Afghan campaign was waged at standoff ranges, with precision weapons annihilating enemies at a distance, before they could close with U.S. commandos or indigenous allies. For proponents of the Afghan model, this is what gives the model its broad utility: with SOF-guided bombs doing the real killing at a distance, even ragtag local militias will suffice as allies. All they have to do is screen U.S. commandos from occasional hostile survivors and occupy abandoned ground later on. America can thus defeat rogues at global distances with few U.S. casualties and little danger of appearing to be a conquering power. For Afghan model detractors, conversely, it is the apparent ability to annihilate from afar that makes the campaign seem so anomalous and a product of idiosyncratic local factors.
Yet the war was not purely a standoff affair. Contrary to popular belief, there was plenty of close combat in Afghanistan. Although they were initially taken by surprise, Taliban fighters quickly adapted to American methods and adopted countermeasures that allowed many of them to elude American surveillance and survive U.S. air strikes. These surviving, actively resisting Taliban had to be overcome by surprisingly traditional close-quarters fighting.
Interviews with a broad range of key American participants in the war, along with close
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