Along the Tracks

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Parallels to another past war

Wow, must be “politically incorrect” day at The Leader office (by the way, if you don’t already get The Leader weekly, subscriptions are just $20 a year here in Williams County, Ohio, and just $23 in places like Archbold, Ohio; Angola, Ind.; New York, N.Y.; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Teheran, Iran. E-mail me or call 419-485-3113 to start this week. There, my plug is done). Once again, inspiration has led me to a topic many may not like to consider. Even so ....

One of the most heartbreaking and morally indefensible chapters in American history concerned the Indian Wars. I’m a bit of a history buff, particularly American Indian history, and I look at that shameful period as an example of a time when America failed its own values. The treatment of the native tribes, through the reservation system and government bureaucracy, has continued to be a dismal failure for the past 125-plus years.

That being said, during the Indian Wars, the military had to employ strategies and tactics to win against an outnumbered and outgunned but determined foe that was close to the terrain and knew how to use it. After some fits and starts and several massacres (what the military called it when they lost a battle to the Indians), a successful strategy finally brought the northern tribes to their knees: Winter campaigns. The Indians would gather into small villages in the mountain valleys during the winter and early spring, relying on stockpiles of food while they awaited the thaw. They felt safe in these remote areas, believing the army was incapable of reaching the valleys with artillery and large numbers of troops requiring food and supplies themselves. But under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman, field commanders put together huge, plodding wagon trains to supply troops and carry the big guns deep into the Rocky Mountain wilderness, taking the battle to the Indians when they were at their weakest and least mobile. It was only a couple of years after the ignominious defeat at Little Big Horn that the U.S. Army had broken the back of the northern tribes and forced them off the war path and onto reservations.

Though they probably wouldn’t publicly admit it, the U.S. military is employing the same strategy right now in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, after running to the hills to escape the onslaught of America and her Afghan allies last fall, has gathered into encampments in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, waiting for the weather to break so they can sneak out of the area and cause more havoc. The United States, however, isn’t playing that game. We’ve focused our support and transportation capabilities into an assault at the very time al Qaeda is least able to fight back effectively and least likely to escape. I wouldn’t be surprised if similar operations in other mountain hideouts get underway in the next few weeks.

Al Qaeda is worldwide, so this won’t necessarily “break their backs.” But it will hasten the end of their ability to fight head-on with U.S. or allied troops inside Afghanistan. And that is an important step toward victory.

There are many ways you can learn from past mistakes. Military planners have apparently set aside the moral questions from the Indian Wars to rediscover a valuable strategy that can be highly successful in this struggle.

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