Who would have thought that one day the amphibious assault ship USS Ponce, docked in Virginia Beach, would be converted into a "mothership," a floating staging base for commandos, as an instrument of modern-day gunboat diplomacy?
In international politics, gunboat diplomacy refers to the pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of military power implying or constituting a direct threat of warfare, should terms not be agreeable to the superior force.
During the period of colonial imperialism, European powers, through a demonstration of their superior military power extracted concessions, established colonial outposts and expanded their empire. Nowadays, gunboat diplomacy transcends naval forces. Special Operation Forces play key role in a military strategy that focuses more on combating irregular forces than waging traditional wars against the armies of enemy states.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV's), proved to have become the most effective weapon against Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist organizations. The Pentagon is said to have presently more that 7.000 aerial drones in its inventory, and it is believed that the UAV's are going to transform the way America fights its wars.
It was reported that one of the crucial tools in tracking down and spying on Osama bin Laden, living hidden in a compound in Pakistan, were drones operated by the CIA. Many of the most wanted Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, using Pakistan's tribal territories as their operating base, have been killed by drone strikes. And so was Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born Islamic cleric, who from a sanctuary in Yemen, used the Internet to recruit terrorists to kill Americans.
American drones were used also in the NATO-led air war against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's forces in Libya. It is believed, it was an American Predator drone missiles strike that forced Qaddafi to flee from the Jeep in a convoy he was traveling. A gun battle ensued, and he was killed.
Although, there are still over 100,000 American and NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan, the daily news dispatches are not reporting on large-scale battles, but rather on small-scale, but deadly raids on enemy forces.
According to a report in The Economist, Northwest Pakistan, and the seven semi- autonomous tribal territories has emerged as the main refuge and supply-route for Taliban insurgents. The leaders of al-Qaeda, displaced from Afghanistan, are also there.
In contrast with previous practices, The Economist maintains, the United States is not invading and occupying Pakistan's tribal territories, but is conducting a clandestine war. Using helicopter-born Special Operation Forces who land under the cover of darkness, they cross the border from Afghanistan and conduct "cleansing" operations.
Another example of the new warfare was a daring and risky operation by contingent of Navy SEALS to rescue two hostages held by Somali pirates. According to press reports, the commandos dropped down in parachutes, hiked two miles from where they landed, killed the nine pirates guarding the hostages, and flew the freed hostages to safety.
Although, it is said that the rescue was carried out by commandos from the same SEALS unit that carried out the successful raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, operations by Special Forces are becoming not isolated occurrences, but part of a strategic design to wage anti-insurgency and anti-terrorist campaigns.
In an up-dated version of the 19th century gunboat diplomacy, to confront threats around the world, the United States is adopting also the Musharraf doctrine, namely that each tribe is responsible for the behavior of its members. We are rewarding tribes who cooperate and punishing those who support and give shelter to terrorists.
The campaign that ended the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan is often cited as an example. There, Special Operation Forces of the U. S. Army, in conjunction with local militias and the support of strong air and naval forces, were able to defeat the Taliban, destroy the Al Qaeda training camps and kill many of its leaders.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.