Sunday, August 20, 2006

Declare Victory and Move On

With terrorism running under the radar before the brutal attacks of 9/11, America was totally unprepared for the suddeness and success of the strikes. We responded as any unprepared superpower would, by identifying those reponsible and destroying them and their capabililty to ever strike us again. But, are we now responding in a manner contrary to our best interests and in a manner that terror groups would hope? Terrorist know they cannot bring down the U.S. government by mosquito-like attacks and freedom is not relinquished for light and transient causes. Fear is the terrorist's stock-in-trade because terror is fear and, as FDR said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Despite the doom and gloom crowd, al-Qaida (translated variably as The Base or The Source) has been been severely crippled, it's staging areas in Afghanistan removed from use, their ability to move money has been curtailed in spite of the New York Times, and recruitment directly to al-Qaida is down. However, what has resulted is "open-source" terrorism largely independent of al-Qaida as the source of money and material, ideas and training - anyone with an axe to grind or a yen to make a name for themselves can be a terrorist du jour. The model created by al-Qaida has been so successful that Iran used it while creating their hybrid surragate army, Hizb'allah, and Syria is about to create a similar organization.

Is America moving into a new and different phase in the the War on Terror for which we are once again unprepared? Is the time for full scale, long-term military combat involvment, for the most part, over? Has open-source terror become the new face of wanton terror while the old al-Qaida is a mere symbol of resistance?

James Fallows, no close friend to the Bush Administration, and an original opponent of the War in Iraq, writing in the September edition of The Atlantic, "Declaring Victory" , asked many of these questions of experts and came to conclusions that he says even he was startled by. The original article is by subscription, a summary article also appears in the Atlantic, Can we Still Declare Victory? In both the long and short versions, Fallows lays out points that victory can and should be declared so that we can move on to the next stage of the conflict which is that of infiltrate, compromise, and stop terrorists before they can strike. The recent bomb plot in London to blow-up ten planes and the several arrests in the U.S., Pakistan, and other countries of potential bombers has shown that full-scale military might is not always the right tool.

Nearly every one of the military, counterterrorist, and intelligence officials I interviewed for my “Declaring Victory” story in the current Atlantic said that attacks on the United States and Europe would continue to be attempted – and that sooner or later one of them would succeed.

That is: It was not because they failed to imagine news like that of the last few days from London that so many said it was time to declare an end to the “war on terrorism.” It was precisely because they could imagine exactly this news – and worse. As I reported in the article, the result of thinking about exactly what works, and what doesn’t, in the long-term effort to minimize a terrorist threat, was a conclusion that the United States could best ensure its safety by saying that the “war” period of the anti-terrorism struggle had come to an end.

How can this be? Consider the three main points of the argument in “Declaring Victory”:

First: “Al-Qaeda Central,” the organization that planned and carried out the devastation on 9/11, has been severely disrupted by U.S. and allied activities. Its leaders are in hiding and on the run. Many of their lieutenants have been captured or killed. It has lost its haven in Afghanistan and has not replaced the training sites and face-to-face meeting opportunities it had there. Its leaders cannot easily communicate orders to operatives or transfer money without being tracked down. All measures show that its brutal tactics have cost it support in the Arab and Islamic world.

The news of the last few days confirms rather than undercuts this argument. Western agencies had never successfully penetrated al-Qaeda before 9/11. Now, it appears, they have. The British apparently had the current plotters under surveillance for a sustained period. A recent analysis from the “Stratfor” group pointed out,
“Al Qaeda’s defining characteristic has always been its ability to maintain operational security. If that has been compromised, then al-Qaeda’s importance as a force has diminished greatly.” The London arrests demonstrate this weakened importance.

Second: the many “copycat” and “self-starter” groups that have been “inspired” by al-Qaeda and that have sprung up in England, Spain, Indonesia, and elsewhere will continue to pose the threat of attacks. The threat is likely to be more acute in Europe than in the United States, where the Arab-origin and Muslim population has been far better assimilated and far more patriotic, despite pressures and provocations, than elsewhere. Politically motivated violence has been a reality of modern life, and will continue to be so. The news, and where it happened, reinforces this point.

Third: the greatest threat posed by these groups is not the damage they can do directly, but rather the self-defeating, irrational, or excessive responses they can goad a target country into making. Osama bin Laden has boasted that the attack of 9/11 cost at most $500,000 to launch and provoked more than $500 billion in military and security spending by the United States; a million-to-one “payoff.” As several military officers and strategists emphasized in the article, the United States can reduce but never entirely eliminate the threat of terrorist attack. What it can do is think about the way it will respond when threats arise – like the one this week. (For instance: banning liquids from flights seems an eminently sensible immediate response. Banning books, magazines, and reading matter may merely amplify the damage done to the air-travel business.)

Immediately after news of the arrests broke, President Bush took the opportunity to remind the country that it was
“at war with Islamic fascists.” No such reminder came from the British authorities, who had actually broken the plot. This is consistent with Britain’s response after the subway bombings one year ago, when the government, press, and public prided themselves on the speed with which life returned to normal – while the police and intelligence agencies hunted down the responsible parties. It is also consistent with the argument that an open-ended state of war has become a major handicap in the long-term effort to penetrate potential terrorist cells, dry up their supply of recruits, and deny them shelter and support from other Muslims.

Why? A state of war with no clear end point makes it more likely for a country to overreact in ways that hurt itself, especially by losing the moral high ground that was crucial to America's victory in the Cold War. It also makes it harder for the country to do the patient work of tracking down, catching, and thwarting the "copycat" groups, since that depends so heavily on relations with allied countries and with sympathetic Muslim groups. Remember: it was police work, surveillance, and patient cultivation of sources that broke the airline bombing ring – not speeches about a state of war.

If Americans lose their heads when they hear of a threat, they do the terrorists’ work for them. They can harm themselves in short- and long-term ways far more than any hostile group could do. The effort to destroy terrorist groups goes on. It is more likely to succeed if the war is over.
(An interveiw with the author, James Fallows, can be read here.)

Caleb Carr, in his book "Lessons of Terror", argues the use of terror is as old as warfare itself and has never worked. To combat the level of terror sophistication reached in our time we must develope methods and strategies the terrorists have not thought possible without becoming terrorists ourselves. One of his pillars has been removed from the anti-terror arsenal. We can no longer go after countries that harbor terror groups because, in the main, open-source terror does not depend upon established countries and governments for protection and funding. The terror groups are ad hoc, often privately funded by many small donations, and are widely dispersed over the planet making the job of rolling them up with massive military operations impossible.

Plenty of options remain and those options are being used successfully, they are just not as sexy and news worthy as open warfare. New law enforcement procedures and operational groups encompassing agencies from the various nations should be formed on an as needed basis to respond to the looser, open source terror groups and tactics. Laws that can enforced over national borders without compromising national sovereignties should be enacted between cooperating nations. Military power should be used in a more judicious manner than has been used in the past century and a half. Scalpels are needed to cut out the cancer of terror, hammers when larger threats need to be pounded into submission. The U.S. government and mlilitary needs to learn a lesson my father taught me - use the appropriate tool for the job at hand. We must be smarter than the terrorists and in the end, outwit and outlast the outlaws.

The life of Indigo Red is full of adventure. Tune in next time for the Further Adventures of Indigo Red.


Mike H. said...

Indigo it would be reassuring to be able to agree with him but he's missing part of the problem. Al-Qaeda is only one part of the whole, then comes Iran and then comes the Muslim Brotherhood. All forms of warfare will be required and to declare victory and move on would leave us vulnerable to that which went before. For some reason no one will look at the problem in the gestalt.

Indigo Red said...

"All forms of warfare will be required..."

That is precisely the point the author is making, Mike. We have been relying on the military solution for so long it is becoming impossible to let it go. The militray is just one tool; we need to use all the tools.

The victory delaration that is advocated is that we have, in fact, defeated al-Qaida. They are no longer a significant threat. The goal in Iraq was to depose Saddam, bring about a democratically elected government, and destroy any possibilty of WMDs being developed there. We have succeeded on all points.

Declare victory and move on to the next stage in the War on Terrorism whether that is Iran, Muslim Brotherhood, or whatever the clear and present danger may be. The agility of our armed forces has been compromised and we have retake the initiative. I believe that is what is needed and I bellieve that is what the administration is doing by letting Iraq know they have 3-4 months to get their act together before they are on their own.

devildog6771 said...

Actually we have already moved on to the next step in Iraq. We have handed over and are handing over as they are able the responsibility of military operation and police enforcement to the Iraqi. Right now we are working side by side or behind the Iraqi as they clear out cordon by cordon the weaponry and fighters of the terrorists and insurgency in Baghdad. As each area is cleared and local police are firmly in control, U.S. and Iraqi military "and" Iraqi local officials are clearing out all trash, restoring services like water and electricity, and helping loca;l businesses open up. They are thus helping to restore the local economy, create jobs, "and" making individual local contact to hear out grievances and what the local citixenry needs.

In Mosul, when the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team left, the al-qaeda and local insurgents tried to move and and collapse the local police force that collapsed and ran last year. When the replacement Stryker Brigade arrived, the local police force had "it all" under control! They received the new Stryker Brigade with "great pride" as they had defeated a major offensive on their own.

There are only 3-4 hot spots in Iraq. They are being surrounded by joint US and Iraqi forces to cut off retreat and supplies and cleared out house by houe and it is beginning to work. In the areas already cleared, many report "no" killkings in days and that peace is finally setling in and the local economy and people are re-establishing a normalcy.

What has made the difference is the level of competance of the new Iaqi military and Police units and their nationalism that has finally begun to take holsd. In one of these areas there is an Irtaqi Colonel who twice daily makes personal visits to businesses and local iraqi families to personally get their feedback. He also checks out every one of his check points randonmly twice dailty. His men, the local citizenry, and the local police departments under his jurisdiction are all greatly respectful of the Colonel and his success.

Check out American Citizen Sildier, a member of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. As security allows, he posts accurate updates. He does not cover up truths.

I believe you will be surprised at what isn't on the news.

By the way, Indigo, great site. I appreciate your open mimdedness and obvious effort to be fair and unbiased. I wish there were more blogs like yours. You always get to the heart of matters and accept views from all sides. Thank you!

Indigo Red said...

Thanks, Devildog. I hadn't heard of Citizen Soldier before, but I know the unit. Bunch of good guys from Alaska recalled for duty for up to 18 months after packing to leave Iraq then to unpack.