The Post–Cold War Army
With the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet-backed regimes in eastern Europe, the Cold War effectively came to an end. The demise of the Soviet empire left the United States as “the world’s only superpower.” Having overcome fascism and communism during the twentieth century, many Americans anticipated a new era of peace and stability that would enable them to use the “peace dividend” from cuts in military spending for domestic needs. But ancient hatreds and old rivalries among tribal, religious, ethnic, and national groups reemerged from the breakup of the bipolar order,
fueled by the tensions from population growth and the surplus of arms in the developing world as a result of the East-West rivalry. Most dangerous was the increasing availability of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons—“weapons of mass destruction”—to rogue states, multinational movements, and other disaffected groups or individuals seeking to upset the international order. Facing violence and turmoil in many areas, amid renewed questions about the nation’s role in the world and the justifications for military intervention, Americans again turned to their Army. That Army had already begun its evolution during the 1970s and 1980s into a smaller, more diverse force of professional volunteers who relied on skill, maneuver, timely information, and precision weapons to carry out expeditionary missions around the globe. Those missions included everything from deterrence of largescale conventional war in Korea and Kuwait to peacemaking, peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, drug interdiction, and humanitarian relief.
The challenges of the post–Cold War world did not take long to materialize. In late December 1989 Army units conducted airborne night assaults across Panama in a successful effort to topple Manuel Noriega’s rogue regime, which had been involved in drug trafficking in defiance of American attempts to halt the illicit trade. Seven months later, Saddam Hussein’s armies overran Kuwait and appeared poised for a further advance on the Saudi Arabian oil fields upon which western prosperity depended. Rapid deployment by the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps and U.S. Marines, as well as air and sea power, deterred an Iraqi attack and bought time for the U.S. VII Corps and allied forces to take position along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. By January 1991 Army logisticians had built an enormous infrastructure in the desert to support a 500,000-man force. After negotiations failed to dislodge Saddam from Kuwait and an overwhelming bombing offensive softened the enemy defenses, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf and his Saudi counterpart Lt. Gen. Khalid ibn Sultan sent their ground forces across the border in late February 1991. Within 100 hours, the coalition destroyed almost 4,000 Iraqi tanks, captured an estimated 60,000 Iraqis, and ruined 36 Iraqi divisions at the cost of 148 American dead. In the wake of Operation DESERT STORM, the Army not only rebuilt Kuwait and aided the Kurds in northern Iraq, but also cleared the way for a new Middle East peace initiative. Within a few years, this initiative produced an unprecedented accord between the Israelis and Palestinians.
DESERT STORM sparked a new era of American involvement in developing nations. Although American leaders were wary of major
unilateral involvements in other countries, they responded positively at first to multinational “humanitarian interventions” under UN sponsorship to restore order and deliver aid in failed nation-states. These operations grew in scale as they ran into heavily armed factions not as able or inclined to make peace as in earlier peacekeeping missions. In arid, impoverished Somalia, internecine clan warfare blocked efforts by international relief agencies to fight a famine that thrust dying children onto television screens throughout the world. A multinational task force that included about 13,000 U.S. soldiers and marines deployed to Somalia in December 1992 and cowed the warring factions into allowing relief workers to deliver over 40,000 tons of food. By May 1993 the worst of the humanitarian crisis seemed to have passed, the coalition had averted mass starvation, and the UN took command of the operation. However, the UN soon became embroiled in clan politics, resulting in the June massacre of twenty-four Pakistani soldiers by a faction headed by Muhammed Farah Aideed. UN and U.S. forces responded with several raids against Aideed’s clan. During one of them, in October 1993, a U.S. special operations task force captured some of Aideed’s leading subordinates at a cost of two downed heli
copters and eighteen American dead. Some of the bodies were dragged through the Mogadishu streets by cheering Somalis to the horror of American television viewers. Five months later, President William J. Clinton withdrew the remaining American troops. The episode in Somalia would have a chilling effect on future American interventions, particularly in regions where American interests were unclear and no peace existed to keep.
The American interest seemed more apparent in the Caribbean island of Haiti, a nation with a long history of repressive regimes and outside interventions. With the end of the Cold War, the United States became more assertive in its support for democracy among its Latin American neighbors. When a military coup in September 1991 by Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras overthrew the democratically elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Organization of American States and the UN imposed sanctions on Haiti. Thousands of Haitians tried to flee to the United States in fragile boats, many drowning or reaching the American mainland only to be turned back by immigration officials. In the face of this humanitarian crisis, the Clinton administration concluded that it must act to restore democracy and a viable economy in Haiti. After Cedras reneged on an agreement for the landing of a UN peacekeeping force, the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps prepared to deploy in September 1994. At the last moment, Cedras and his accomplices capitulated, and American troops landed unopposed. For six months, American forces stayed in Haiti, maintaining civil order, protecting the interests of American citizens and other nationals, providing technical assistance, retraining the Haitian Army and police, and supervising Cedras’ exile and Aristide’s return. At the end of March 1995, the American-dominated coalition force transferred these responsibilities to the UN Mission in Haiti, a first step toward restoration of full independence.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, torn by ethnic strife after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the United States was initially content to allow other, primarily European, countries to take the lead, but bitter hatreds in the region made a mockery of UN peacekeeping efforts. Despite participation by 38,000 troops from thirty-seven nations, the UN Protection Force could not protect Bosnian Muslims and Croats from heavily armed Serbs who conducted a brutal campaign of murder, rape, intimidation, and deportation in an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” Bosnia. In August 1995, after sanctions on neighboring Serbia and aerial bombardments of Serbs besieging the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, Serbia’s president Slobodan Milosevic finally agreed to a cease-fire. The peace was to be enforced by a robust, 60,000-man,
NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) that would ensure separation and withdrawal of the rival forces into their respective territories, collection of heavy weapons into agreed cantonment sites, and NATO control of Bosnian air space. The United States contributed 20,000 troops, who marched overland from central Europe, bridging the flooded Sava River, to take up their zone in northern Bosnia around Tuzla. Although the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims had little desire to work with each other in a new Bosnia, they were tired of war and respectful of IFOR’s display of force. IFOR—later the Stabilization Force (SFOR)—separated the two sides, kept track of heavy weapons, removed mines, rebuilt houses and resettled refugees, restored some degree of free movement, and supervised new elections. By 2003 the peace had lasted eight years, but the result had been de facto partition of Bosnia rather than the restoration of a truly integrated state.
While helping keep the peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Army took part in attempts to contain the spread of Serb ethnic cleansing to surrounding areas. It deployed an infantry battalion to neighboring Macedonia. In Kosovo—a Serb province and historic place but also
home to an overwhelmingly Albanian population—it helped turn back another Serb attempt at repression. When in March 1999, Milosevic rejected NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo and launched a major effort to drive the ethnic Albanians out of the province, NATO responded by building refugee camps, flying in supplies, and launching an air campaign against Serbia. At first, the bombers could do little to keep the Serbs from terrorizing Albanians on the ground, given poor weather and Serb use of camouflage and of Albanians as human shields. But the campaign shattered much of Serbia’s infrastructure and, using intelligence from the growing Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, destroyed Serb tanks, vehicles, and troop concentrations. After seventy-eight days, Milosevic gave in and agreed to withdraw his forces from Kosovo and to allow NATO peacekeepers to secure the province. The United States contributed a brigade of 7,000 troops to the Kosovo Force (KFOR), which kept the peace, searched for illegal weapons, supported humanitarian relief efforts, carried out liaison with allies, and protected the few remaining Serbs from their vengeful Albanian neighbors. Over time, the violence subsided and economic life returned, but, as in Bosnia, the ethnic communities showed more of a tendency to separate than to reconcile.
Peacekeeping duties stretched the capacity of an Army already carrying out numerous other missions, both foreign and domestic. In Korea the Army continued to defend an armed border against a powerful enemy dedicated to reunification of the country under Communist rule. Despite the destruction of much of Saddam Hussein’s military capability in DESERT STORM, the situation in Iraq still required deployments and training exercises in Kuwait throughout the 1990s. Closer to home, since the 1980s the Army had worked closely with the Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Customs Service, and foreign agencies to halt the flow of illicit drugs into the United States. In Texas the Army contributed as many as three battalions to Joint Task Force Six to help with aerial reconnaissance, border surveillance, intelligence analysis, communications, and other military skills in the war on drugs. Both at home and abroad, the Army aided victims of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, war, famine, oil spills, forest fires, and other natural and man-made disasters. It helped with toxic waste removal under the Superfund cleanup program, and it provided helicopters and paramedics to communities lacking these resources for medical emergencies. While performing these missions, the Army also strove to transform itself in anticipation of the challenges of the future.
The Army also worked with foreign and domestic agencies to counter the shadowy threat of international terrorism, particularly
Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda movement. An offshoot of radical Islamic fundamentalism, deeply hostile to Israel and the American presence in the Middle East, al Qaeda was already suspected of numerous attacks, including the car bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the suicide ramming of the destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000. The United States retaliated with cruise missile strikes against possible terrorist bases and training camps in the Sudan and Afghanistan but seemed to do little damage to the terrorist movement. Under the Department of Defense’s Domestic Preparation Training Initiative, the Army trained local law enforcement for a terrorist attack that used weapons of mass destruction. Still, the terrorists had never been able to conduct a successful attack on the American homeland.
That changed on 11 September 2001. On this late summer morning, two hijacked airliners smashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, another struck the western face of the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after a battle between hijackers and passengers for control of the plane. Almost 3,000 people died in the attacks. From the beginning of the crisis, the Army was heavily involved, drawing on extensive experience with homeland security in World War II and civil defense in the Cold War. In particular, the National Guard provided disciplined, readily available man power with special skills and a tradition of responding rapidly to emergencies. The New York National Guard quickly deployed to help New York City authorities with traffic control and security, medical support, and the removal of debris from the site. National Guardsmen and Reservists from other states secured federal facilities, as well as airports, waterways, nuclear plants, tunnels, bridges, and railroads. As the federal response evolved, the Army helped secure major events like the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, conducted disaster training exercises, reinforced the Border Patrol and Customs Service at points of entry into the United States, and generally supported local agencies. Abroad, the Army exchanged information and cooperated with foreign governments in the crackdown on terrorists, notably in the Philippines where soldiers provided logistical, intelligence, and training support to the Philippine Army in its struggle with the Islamic separatists of the Abu Sayyaf movement. Similarly, the Army expanded cooperation with several Muslim countries in their operations against terrorism.
The major blow against al Qaeda came in Afghanistan. There, bin Laden’s organization had established extensive base and training facilities under the protection of the fundamentalist Taliban regime. The Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of anti-Taliban tribes, controlled
the rugged northern 10 percent of the country, but its guerrillas lacked the resources to seriously threaten the Taliban’s grip. In early October 2001, however, the United States launched an air and missile campaign against the Taliban. As American planes bombed Taliban installations and dropped humanitarian rations to the Afghan population, Special Forces teams deployed by helicopter to Northern Alliance base areas. Accompanying the tribal warriors by foot, truck, or even horseback and carrying sophisticated communications, navigation technology, and laser designators, they called in air strikes with precision-guided munitions on target after target. This enormous firepower enabled the Northern Alliance to break out of its enclaves in the north and rapidly overrun most of the country.
But the war in Afghanistan was far from over. The remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban fled to remote areas, especially to the mountains along the border with Pakistan. While a multinational UN force secured rear areas and began the task of creating a new Afghan army, American troops, their Afghan allies, and special operations forces from five other nations drove into these mountains, fighting in rugged, frozen terrain as much as 12,000 feet above sea level. During Operation ANACONDA in early March 2002, coalition forces defeated as many as 1,000 al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in well-defended positions and cave complexes with huge stockpiles of arms and ammunition. While an interim government took control in the capital of Kabul, coalition forces continued the hunt through 2003.
By then, the focus of President George W. Bush’s administration had returned to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein continued to brutalize his people and, possibly, to develop weapons of mass destruction that might fall into the hands of terrorists. After twelve years of Saddam’s obstruction of UN weapons inspections and enforcement of no-fly zones over Iraq, President Bush decided that a “regime change” in Iraq
was necessary. On 20 March 2003, Central Command’s General Tommy R. Franks launched Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, sending coalition aircraft and missiles against strategic Iraqi targets, including Saddam’s command bunker, while thrusting three divisions across the frontier. To the north, Special Forces and an airborne battalion joined Kurdish guerrillas to create a front that diverted thousands of Iraqi troops from the real point of decision. In the western desert of Iraq, additional American special operations forces conducted a series of raids on Iraqi installations and potential weapons storage sites, helping keep the Iraqis off-balance. Despite sandstorms and Iraqi attempts to slow the advance with guerrilla attacks on the lengthening allied communications, the Americans rapidly drove through occasionally intense but only sporadic resistance to Baghdad, which fell on 9 April.
With the fall of Baghdad, another major challenge faced the coalition. The original plans for a modest reconstruction effort had seriously underestimated the resilience and depth of the Baathist infrastructure and the appalling conditions in which Saddam and twelve years of sanctions had left Iraq. Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis warily eyed their liberators and each other, and many who might have welcomed the allies were intimidated by the regime adherents and terrorists in their midst and were frightened by the looting and lawlessness that accompanied the breakdown of Saddam’s rule. While American administrators disbanded the Iraqi Army and began the task of rebuilding Iraq, American troops patrolled and established checkpoints to catch loyalist guerrillas and foreign mercenaries, losing comrades to mines, booby traps, rocket-propelled grenades, and firefights. In a few months, schools and hospitals began to function again, local councils took over the task of governing, and the coalition trained a new Iraqi police force, which helped with the overriding task of security. Gradually, the coalition restored some order, aided by the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, but the long-term prospects of the new state remained an open question in early 2004.