TCS Daily

Tall Tale of the Tape

By Brian E. Finch - November 18, 2002 12:00 AM

After months of intense speculation, Osama bin Laden's fate might finally be determined with the release of a scratchy, terse audio recording attributed to him. Already critics of the fight against terror (including Sen. Tom Daschle and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen) cite to the alleged reemergence of bin Laden as a prime example of what a poor campaign President Bush is running, saying in part "we haven't made real progress" or calling it a "failure."

Let us assume for a moment that the voice on the tape is actually bin Laden - is it a sign that we have failed miserably? Not at all. If the voice on the tape is in fact bin Laden, all it means is that he escaped death or capture in Afghanistan. Bin Laden's continued existence should not effect the ferocity with which the U.S. purses its fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Indeed, history teaches us that the life or death of an enemy leader has little to do with the lethality of a foe.

A Taffy Surprise

In October 1944, the U.S. Navy was riding high. Having inflicted devastating blows on the Japanese starting with the Battle of Midway in 1942, victory seemed inevitable. The once mighty Japanese Navy was a shell of its former self, jealously guarding its ships lest U.S. forces pick them off. The latest crushing attack occurred in the Philippines, where U.S. forces had invaded, fulfilling Gen. Douglas MacArthur's pledge to return. Meanwhile, off the coast of the Philippines the U.S. Navy had assembled one of the mightiest collections of ships ever seen. Numerous aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and battleships (including the new and deadly Iowa class battleships) literally stuffed the waters. Their mission was to protect the vulnerable invasion forces, and if possible to lure out and send to the bottom of the sea the remnants of the Japanese Navy.

Like lambs to the slaughter, the Japanese arrived. The U.S. Navy pounced on them, inflicting terrible damage. Still, ultimate victory seemed to be eluding the U.S. Navy because the prized Japanese aircraft carriers had yet to be spotted. Then American scout planes reported that they had found the carriers, devoid of fighter cover after merciless grinding by American pilots. To Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, legendary fleet commander, this was the best news possible. The Japanese carriers were alone, ripe for the picking. Halsey immediately ordered three massive carrier groups to steam north and take out the Japanese carriers. At the same time, he ordered four battleships, two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and fourteen destroyers to form into a group known as "Task Force 34" to remain behind and protect MacArthur's invasion fleet.

Meanwhile, another group of U.S. surface units, commanded by Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, engaged and destroyed a section of heavy Japanese surface units. Kinkaid, stepping back from his victory, radioed Halsey to ensure that Task Force 34 was protecting the beachhead. Kinkaid, to his shock, received this reply from Halsey:


Horrible news, as Kinkaid realized the beachhead was virtually unprotected, save for a few small groups of destroyers and escort carriers (which carried only a few planes that were not equipped to attack enemy ships). Kinkaid's fears were transformed into all out horror when moments later he received a message that a large fleet of Japanese battleships and cruisers appeared right off the invasion beachhead.

It turned out that the Japanese were using their aircraft carriers as bait to lure away Halsey, and their plan (called Sho-1) had worked. Halsey had raced north, and in his haste failed to leave an adequate force behind. All that was present was a small force of ships known as "Taffy." Taffy 3, composed of a few escort carriers and small destroyers, was the first to greet the Japanese but could not hope stop them. Even worse, the Japanese force it was facing was no ordinary clutch of ships. Under the command of Admiral Kurita Takeo, the Japanese had destroyers, cruisers, and several battleships including the Yamato, the most heavily armed battleship ever built. If this force could make it to within firing range of the invasion fleet, it would spell doom.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that if Adm. Kurita maintained even a semi-organized posture, he could have walked over Taffy 3 and wreaked havoc with the American fleet. But Kurita, on the verge of a stunning victory, fell apart. He gave his fleet bad orders, while Taffy 3 put up an incredible display of seamanship in an effort to delay the inevitable. Several of the Taffy 3 ships were soon sunk however and the other, equally weak, "Taffy" groups that were stationed closer to the beachheads came with Kurita's range.

Halsey meanwhile did not attach much significance to Taffy 3's desperate cries for help. Adm. Kinkaid had sent his battleships to aid the Taffy's, but they were hours away and low on ammunition. Halsey meanwhile received a message from the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Chester Nimitz that read "Where is, repeat, Where is Task Force 34. The World Wonders!" Nimitz actually only sent "Where is Task Force 34," but due to errors in the translation Halsey received the harsher version. Halsey, insulted, delayed responding even longer.

Eventually Task Force 34 formed up and steamed back to confront the Japanese, but it was too late. At that point, Admiral Clifton Sprague, commander of Taffy 3, said he had expected "at best to be swimming" shortly. Taffy 3 was about to be overwhelmed. But then, out of the blue, the Japanese turned away. Adm. Kurita had mistakenly assumed that the Americans were outrunning him and that a massive strike fleet of battleships and carriers was about to pound him. So, in one of the all time great blunders, Kurita retreated. The invasion fleet was spared, and the Japanese Navy was never able to pose a serious threat again.

The al-Qaeda Sho

The Sho-1 plan worked perfectly. The U.S. Navy had been fooled, and the Japanese had put themselves in a position to set the American march across the Pacific back by months if not years. But for a last minute loss of nerve, an unnerving disaster would have occurred.

The Japanese near-success was not all that hard to imagine, considering their skill in putting together tactically brilliant plans such as the Pearl Harbor attack. Consider this, however: The man behind the Pearl Harbor attack, and the object of so much American fury, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was dead when the Sho-1 plan was executed, as American fighters had ambushed his plane in early 1943. Thus Yamamoto had been gone for nearly a year and a half when the Japanese Navy nearly pulled off a coup with its Sho plan.

Could the Japanese have done any better with Yamamoto around? Not likely. Regardless of his presence, the Japanese Navy still wielded a powerful force and had many intelligent leaders at its disposal. In other words, the war did not end when Yamamoto died.

The same hold true for al-Qaeda. Bin Laden's death or life is virtually irrelevant to the progress of the fight against terror. A hallmark of al-Qaeda is its decentralized nature, with numerous cells spread across the globe ready to take up the fight. While bin Laden may be a charismatic leader, his death would not spell the end of al-Qaeda. Rather, it would mean that someone else would step into his place and carry out pre-existing and newly drawn up plans.

That is why when people like Sen. Tom Daschle or the ever-incorrect Richard Cohen cite bin Laden's alleged reemergence as evidence of failure, they display their lack of knowledge about what constitutes success. The capture or death of leaders may well help us in our fight, but there is not any one figure whose removal will cause terrorism to collapse as a whole. Yamamoto's death did not alter that fact that the Japanese still had plenty of ships and planes available to cause real harm to the Allies, and neither would bin Laden's death alter the fact that al-Qaeda and others have access to massive resources across the globe.

Thus now, just as in World War II, the main mission of the U.S. is to find those resources and pulverize them, because an enemy cannot fight if it has nothing to fight with. If we get bin Laden, we will for sure have scored a moral victory and perhaps dampened the enthusiasm of his followers. But al-Qaeda will not disappear with his removal. We have seen over the past year that there are many leaders who have the ability to plan and lead attacks, and that there are many groups all too willing to align themselves with al-Qaeda in order to pursue their own grievances. None of that would have been changed by bin Laden's death or capture.

Thankfully, the Bush Administration has recognized this fact for some time. On numerous occasions Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and others have made it a point to note that bin Laden's status is irrelevant to the ferocity with which the fight against terror is pursued. Those statements are not attempts to spin failure, but rather they are a recognition of the fact that al-Qaeda does not need its head to survive and lash out. The alternative presented by Cohen/Daschle - tying victory to the capture of one person - seems blatantly erroneous in comparison. So, let them obsess about the alleged survival of al-Qaeda's head, because in the meantime the U.S. military will continue to tear its body limb from limb.



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