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Initial Lessons Learned
from Chapter 3 Fighting the War on Terror, DoD Annual Report, 2002

Initial Lessons Learned

In the few months it took to topple the Taliban regime, U.S. forces proved highly adaptable. They went to war in Afghanistan without an on-the-shelf plan in a very difficult environment. They showed ingenuity in tackling the challenges of operating half way around the world in some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet. And the fact that a key breakthrough at Mazar-i Sharif was secured by the first American cavalry charge of the 21st century merely underscores the point. This capacity for adaptation is a precious commodity. It will be essential not only in the ensuing phases of the war against terrorism but also in transforming the Armed Forces to cope with the very different challenges that will emerge in the future.

Already some of the important lessons of the war in Afghanistan are clear. This conflict does not present a model for the next military campaign, which in all likelihood will involve very different circumstances and impose very different demands. This is true both for future engagements in the war against terrorism and for future operations more generally. Nevertheless, some lessons can be drawn from recent events and can be applied to the future.

First, wars in the 21st century will increasingly require use of all elements of national power—economic, diplomatic, financial, law enforcement, and intelligence, as well as both overt and covert military operations.

Second, the ability of forces to communicate and operate seamlessly on the battlefield will be critical to our success in future wars. The victories in Afghanistan were won by "composite" teams of U.S. Special Forces on the ground, working with Navy, Air Force and Marine pilots in the sky. Special Forces identified targets, communicated targeting information, and coordinated timing of air strikes through interoperable data links—with devastating consequences for the enemy.

Third, wars are best fought by coalitions of the willing—but they should not be fought by committee. The mission must determine the coalition. The coalition must not determine the mission.

Fourth, defending the United States requires prevention and sometimes preemption. It is not possible to defend against every threat, in every place, at every conceivable time. The only defense against is to take the war to the enemy. The best defense is a good offense.

Fifth, the United States must rule nothing out in advance—including the use of ground forces. The enemy must understand that the United States will use every means at its disposal to defeat him and that it is prepared to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to achieve victory. In short, for a persuasive deterrent, the United States must lean forward, not back. And the enemy must see that.

Sixth, victory in the war against terrorism requires steady pressure on the enemy, leaving him no time to rest and nowhere to hide. This means that the United States should give no strategic pauses that would allow the enemy breathing room or time to regroup. In Afghanistan, this has proved to be the more humane course because it brought a more rapid end to the brutality of Taliban rule. Ultimately, it means bringing the war to an end earlier, with fewer casualties on all sides.

Seventh, the new and the high-tech have not totally replaced the old and conventional. In Afghanistan, precision-guided bombs from the sky did not achieve optimal effectiveness until the United States placed old-fashioned boots on the ground to tell the bombers exactly where to drop their munitions. Putting U.S. Special Forces on the ground early to assist with reconnaissance, communications and targeting dramatically increased the effectiveness of the air campaign.

Eighth, the United States must link military operations directly with humanitarian assistance, radio broadcasts, rewards, and other efforts to help the local population and rally them to the U.S. cause.

Ninth, and finally, American leaders must be straight with the American people. Tell them the truth—and when you can't tell them something, tell them that you can't tell them. The American people understand what their Armed Forces are trying to accomplish and what is needed to get the job done. They also understand that this war is not going to be easy. And they must know that—good news or bad—their leaders will tell it straight. The enormous public support for the war effort stems from the bond of trust and common purpose that has been forged between the people and the President. This bond is a key to victory.

While much can be learned from this initial engagement in the war against terrorism, the United States must not make the mistake of believing that terrorism is the only threat of the 21st century. Terrorism is a deadly asymmetric threat but not the only possible one. The next threat could be from missiles or cyber attack. Moreover, the rise of asymmetric threats does not preclude the possibility that in the future great regional powers will seek to challenge the United States or its allies and friends by conventional means. Even as the United States wages the war against terrorism, it must prepare for challenges beyond this war. The Armed Forces must be prepared for the next war—a war that could be nothing at all like the one they must fight today. And DoD must balance a wider range of risks.