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Fighting Terrorism on the Frontier

Military strategies employed by the U.S. Army over 130 years ago in the desert Southwest helped rout the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Instead of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, the foe in 1872 was Apache Indians ignoring a peace treaty signed by their chief, Cochise. Much like the modern-dayAfghanis, the Apaches consisted of many separate tribes and small bands who roamed the rugged Tonto Basin of Arizona. The renegade Apaches were making repeated raids on white settlers, who demanded retaliation from their government. 

The U.S. Cavalry, under the command of Colonel George Crook, was obviously at a disadvantage in the hostile terrain where the Apaches knew every twist and turn of the canyons and the quickest routes through the wilderness. Tracking down the many small bands of warriors and putting a stop to their terrorism was a daunting task.

Like other military leaders before him, Crook recognized the value of recruiting native peoples familiar with the terrain to work as scouts, but he carried scouting a step further: he vigorously recruited Apaches at the San Carlos Reservation who supported the treaty to seek out and fight against their rebelling tribesmen.

"Becoming a scout was initially an honorable thing to do," wrote historian Eve Ball, whose interviews with Apache elders are published in Apache Voices by Sherry Robinson (University of New Mexico Press, 2001).

"Apaches aided the Army against their traditional enemies.  And in the humiliating confinement of a reservation, it allowed a warrior to have a horse and gun. After Crook began using Apache scouts against their own people, scouts were alternately branded as traitors or respected for their effort to bring a futile war to an end. Sometimes, weary of running and fighting, the most loyal Apaches became scouts."

Crook, who praised the effectiveness and loyalty of his Apache scouts, had shrewdly recognized the limits of his own troops and used his allies to great advantage. Instead of being outwitted, exhausted, circumvented and possibly destroyed, his troopers were dispatched in small, highly mobile strike forces -- much like today's Army Rangers -- to doggedly pursue each band of warriors as it was discovered.

"The strategy worked," write Robert Utley and Wilcomb Washburn in the republication of their history, Indian Wars (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). "Throughout the winter nine commands swept the Tonto Basin and its neighboring mountain ranges. The officers took Crook at his word and never gave up on a trail. In twenty actions their troopers closed with the quarry every time...

"As one chief explained after surrendering, his people 'could not go to sleep at night, because they feared to be surrounded before daybreak; they could not hunt -- the noise of their guns would attract the troops; they could not cook mescal or anything else, because the flame and smoke would draw down the soldiers; they could not live in the valley -- there were too many soliders; they had retreated to the mountain tops, thinking to hid in the snow until the soldiers went home, but the [Indian] scouts found them out and the soldiers followed them.'

Crook's strategy, which so resembles the U.S. military action in Afghanistan in 2001, effectively routed the renegade Apaches and put and end to their raids. It brought peace to an area that had been repeatedly ravaged by fighting and earned the officer a hero's respect from both the local popuation and a promotion to the rank of General from President Ulysses S. Grant.

This "new" warfare, consisting of strategic alliances and small commando-style operations rather than conventional infantry assaults, did not put an end to terrorism on the frontier, for there were many other areas of conflict for decades to come. But it did introduce an important gambit to the U.S. military arsenal than would prove very useful more than a century later in a wilderness half a world away.

Southwestern Indian Tribes
Southwestern Indian Tribes

by Tom Bahti 
KC Publications. 1975

Indian Wars
by Robert Marshall Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn,
Houghton Mifflin, 2002

From the Native rebellion of 1492 and bloody attacks at the settlement of Jamestown in the early 17th century to the Sioux War and the harrowing battle at Wounded Knee in 1891, this history provides a comprehensive and balanced account of 300 years of conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers.

Widely respected Native American historians Robert Utley and Wilcomb Washburn examine both small battles and major wars.

Still the Target
Coping With Terror and Crime
by Theodore G. Shackley with  Richard A Finney
Noble House, 2003


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