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August 17, 2006

Two Wars on Terror
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Here's a piece I just published at the American Prospect Online

Five years after September 11, it is possible to take stock of what parts of the battle against terrorism are succeeding and failing, and why. The thwarting of an elaborate terrorist plot against trans-Atlantic flights last week prevented what some maintain could have been a second September 11-style attack. Regardless of what the would-be perpetrators were actually capable of, credit goes to the intelligence, law enforcement and transportation security agencies that uncovered the plan, caught the culprits, and protected the public.

The rest of the picture is bleaker. The announcement that more than 3,400 Iraqi civilians died in unrest in the month of July is a shocking reminder that the world’s most powerful military has, let’s face it, failed in its chief aim of stabilizing Iraq. The Israel Defense Forces’ inability to vanquish Hezbollah in a month-long fight further shows that when in on-the-ground combat, terrorist groups can stand up to the world’s most advanced armies

It’s clear that meticulous intelligence and collaborative criminal enforcement can curb terrorists’ ability to carry out episodic headline-grabbing attacks. But when it comes to uprooting endemic terrorist schemers with roots in unstable societies, at least as a military matter, the task is virtually impossible. The war on terror is happening on two fronts, but headway is being made on only one.

The conclusion is not a surprise. During the last three decades, Israel, despite preventing targeted killings and kidnappings around the globe, never effectively clamped down on the intifada back home. The United States likewise had an easier time defending itself against hijackings and assassinations than it had fighting Viet Cong forces hidden in jungles.

The reasons for the disparity are clear. To succeed in sowing fear, terrorist attacks must be carried out in places and against people who are well-protected and feel safe. Grassroots terrorist activity targets vulnerable populations in already unstable situations. High-profile attacks require perpetrators to risk suicide, capture, or life on the run. Endemic terrorists can melt away anonymously. Whereas splashy international terrorists must plot with utmost secrecy and isolation, domestic terrorists can draw succor from supportive civilian populations.

To read the rest, click here.


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Terror prevention has had the success it has had in large part because we have worked with existing governments (eg. Pakistan) instead of intervening to change them as in Iraq. But Iraq has been difficult largely because we have tried to stabilize the country without resorting to the methods of Saddam Hussein, not because we have spread ourselves too thinly.

We cannot focus just on counterterrorism if the roots of terrorism directed against us have deeper causes. Nearly everyone who has become a terrorist has expressed a sense of grievance rooted in a sense of hurt pride.

Although expressed in the embrace of some traditional ways, this is not really an internal social or cultural problem in the Islamic world to be adjusted internally. Nor will the disappearance of Israel or the United States overcome it; a homogeneous anti-modern Islam (if such a sphere is possible) will still feel inferior, because it cannot match the outside world in technology and in the other measures of planetary success.

The need is to find areas of connection to the Islamic world that more strongly emphasize equality without surrendering the basic human values on which we differ. The way to do this is to build a global security order in which all nations sacrifice equally to belong. The measure of what we ask others to give up should be the measure of what we give up ourselves.

When we brought democracy to Europe after 1945, we embedded it in an alliance. We did not just engage in ad hoc regime change and stay in Europe on a temporary basis hoping to go home as soon as we could. Yet in Afghanistan in 2001 (the "good war" of the two recent wars) that is exactly what we did, and as a result our enemies took courage and our friends there took refuge.

The differences between Afghanistan and postwar Europe are of course obvious, but they underline the fact that our commitment to the former (just as much as the more controversial commitment to Iraq) is a limited commitment. We have to expect a greater likelihood of defeat when we make commitments that are (whether by necessity or by discretion) limited.

This two-tiered approach to commitment will not end until we change our notion of global security from fortress-like alliances to a system more open to the world, in which countries outside our core areas that meet us halfway can share in some of the duties and privileges of belonging.

Over the past few days in Lebanon, Hezbollah has positioned itself as the conduit for reconstruction and humanitarian aid sourced from Syria and Iran. Unless the UN and the international community help the Lebanese government compete in these areas, the war may occasion the very victory that Hezbollah now claims.

We can't rush bombs to Israel and then expect to buy the Shiites' sympathy. If you want to compete with Hezbollah you have to restrain Israel from following through on its self-destructive policies. But neither party is willing to do this and risk being called anti-Semitic. The only politician who even talked about being even-handed was Hagel.

A related key to fighting endemic terrorists is limiting their ability to obtain arms and resources. Backing from Syria and Iran has been essential fuel to terrorists in Iraq and Lebanon. Stringent international penalties for abetting terrorist groups -- including broad economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation -- are needed to raise the price of suborning terror.

Easy to say, but you have to go through China and Russia first.

It's interesting that you don't even talk about negotiating with Iran or Syria. It might be too late now, but back in 2003 Iran was willing to give up everything, including terminating support for Palestinian militant groups and accepting Israel. Would you have returned Iran's call, or would you have sacrificed these benefits for your overriding goal of regime-change?

I'm a little concerned that Suzanne Nossel's analysis overlooks the key dimension of asymmetric warfare. This is not the difference in military power between organized governments and insurgent or terrorist groups but rather the difference in power between these groups and the unorganized civilian population among whom they live and move.

There are good reasons why nearly all successful modern insurgencies have, once they attained power, formed governments that ranged from merely oppressive (Algeria) to homicidal (Cambodia). We could actually go further than this and observe that both Russian Communists and German Nazis started as small, fringe groups opposed by, and committed to destroying, the governments of their respective countries; they succeeded not because they enjoyed universal support but instead through their unwavering dedication to crushing all active opposition. This is how insurgencies, and terrorist groups, work.

We lose sight of this if we dwell on whether or not the population terrorists and insurgents use as their base supports them. Oftentimes they do, sometimes out of passion or shared faith, sometimes because they have no choice -- and sometimes for both reasons. These are not things that the civilized countries should think they can change, except in a few cases where the circumstances are unusually favorable.

Acting on this understanding means recognizing the limits of globablization, focusing our efforts at development and political assistance on the places where they have the best chances for success and keeping people from those countries where terrorism is firmly rooted as far away from us as possible. It means, specifically, liquidating the commitment in Iraq -- a drain on American resources we cannot afford anyway -- and ceasing to pretend that democracy and freedom as we understand them are realistic objectives for American policy toward some of our planet's more backward cultures.

Talking is absolutely the right way forward. Look at Britain- only negotiations brought peace to Northern Ireland after literally hundreds of years of unrest.Secretary Rice has apparently been itching to tlak to Syria, but to no avail.
Perhaps the US should also take the initiative in rebuilding Lebanon. that's how you win hearts and minds, nobody cares about the words that are spoken and written for free on commercials and leaflets. show them that you do not mean to destroy them. telling them isn't enough.

I always enjoy reading Nossel because, as a Holbrookian sort, she's invariably serious about statecraft, military force projection, diplomacy, et al, from a progressive's viewpoint.

This article? Not so much.

I should have noted Holbrooke's evolving, but ultimately hedging, perspective on terror and mitigating the problems of failed states in last weekend's post-Lieberman op-ed.

Now that I read Nossel's words, I fear we might be seeing more of the same.

First, I strongly question the bromide that military force always "fails" against terror networks entwined in failing states. For all the aplomb about our incompetence in Iraq and the IDF's very limited, very brief and very recent foray into Lebanon, are we really suggesting that the U.S. has failed completely in its goals against the Talibi or al Qaeda in Afghanistan?

It's quite fair to suggest that controlling or "defeating" (perhaps, better, "containing") transnational terrorist organizaions is a difficult, lengthy process, with very few publicized "milestones" along the way to rev up public support.

That one poster should suggest that the UK's containment of Provisional IRA terror was somehow suggested by talking is so absurdly at odds with what happened (or, more appropriately, what brought everyone to the bargaining table) as to be eye-popping.

I should know. I cut my teeth in the 1980s in the North anaylzing the conflict. It was a classic COIN efforts, with fits and starts, that took nearly four decades to bring to closure. And no one would declare today that no Northern Irish/Ulsterian paramilitary group has surrendered completely either the means or the wherewithal to inflict violence.

And Northern Ireland actually was a fairly low key conflict, most especially when compared to FARC or Hezbollah or Hamas or Ansar al-Islam or al-Qaeda or the Tamils or, well, pretty much anyone else.

What, exactly, is Nossel saying here? That there are different forms of terrorists/insurgents, and that they behave differently in different environments, and that it's easier to either detect or defeat them when they're fighting us on our own shores than on theirs?

I'll stop the presses.

I'll also ask Nossel to keep going. You've presented the problem. Fair enough.

What are the solutions?

Are we to never use bombs and bullets to take on terrorists, their sponsors or their allies?

When should we invade, as opposed to more indirect attacks on their clandestine operations (and at the risk of vindictively blowing up a Khartoum aspirin factory or an abandoned Taliban goat farm/training camp)?

What did we do so right in Afghanistan, but so wrong in Iraq? Have we slipped in Kabul?

What should have been Israel's goals in its battle with Hezbollah? Are those goals necessarily different from how they respond to Hamas? How is Iran involved? Syria? How are they contained?

What form of "negotiations" should we embark up with Iran? Syria? Are we being honest with ourselves and the public if we believe that talking, alone, might constrain Tehran's imperial ambitions?

I admire Nossel enough to realize that she's just teasing us with her effort above. I want to hear more. If the Democrats wish to compete in the war of national security ideas, they need to move beyond the platitudes of and Michael Moore.

In the words of another Cold War warrior who wasn't afraid to use military force, "Where's the beef?"

It is easy to think of terrorists as only "over there," outside the US, in foreign countries.

The fact that that the leaders of the latest plot to blow up transatlantic flights are British-born raises major issues about the overall strategy that should be employed to disrupt and deter future terrorist plots. The Bush administration's overall strategy for the "War on Terror" has been locked into a Cold War mentality of interstate warfare. Failed states are identified as a major threat to US security, and thus to fight terrorism, the US must confront the (failed/failing) states that harbor terrorists. This worked well in Afghanistan, which was a clear example of a regime that supported and harbored al Qaeda terrorists. Failed states are indeed a major threat, but they are not the only kind of threat the US faces.

How does the failed state perspective serve us in this case? Should the US bomb Britain, where several of these terrorist leaders were born and raised? Of course not; the British government was not harboring these suspects. But apparently parts of British society were harboring these terrorists. How do we stop terrorism in cases such as these? Here the interstate warfare strategic model fails us.

First and foremost, we have to make it more difficult for committed terrorists to recruit new people. In the Middle East, this means changing everything from economic to political aspects of life. The Bush administration is not blind to this idea, but fitting this idea into the Cold War interstate war strategic model resulted in the 2003-present Iraq war. To change the socio-political climate of a region, much more is needed than militarily destroying authoritarian regimes-in fact, this may backfire and result in even more terrorist recruiting. Instead, economic development strategies are essential for attracting people away from blowing themselves up and towards buying into the legitimate social system that most of us live within.

In Britain and the US, people who might turn to terrorism must be attracted to a different, legitimate way of life. While we do the essential work of tracking, catching, and/or killing the absolutely committed terrorists, as a society we must at the same time work to attract and include all communities in our economic and political lives. This attraction does not start with bullets-it starts with economic and political opportunity; we need a comprehensive strategic outlook that includes different dimensions of the human experience. In short, we must recruit more people and communities into our world.

These people lump everybody together and blur the distinctions between widely different groups. A Shia is not a Kurd; an Iran is not an Iraq; what happens in Afghanistan is not the same as what's going on in Pakistan; Tamil Tigers aren't Al Qaeda, yet both are terrorists. I wrote that phrase "the war on terror" is a high level abstraction, semantically. It blurs the distinction among such different categories of threats, situations that make us uncomfortable and non-threats. Bush & Co. have used this catch-phrase to justify going into Iraq by lumping it together with Al Qaeda and, unfortunately, if the polls are right, the American public has "bought" their propaganda. A pity, because, as I also wrote, I grieve for our sons and daughters and grandchildren who must now clean up the mess this propaganda, this blurring of distinctions among these various groups has bred.

I also must note that there is no such thing as a "war on terror." I am in agreement with you although it may not, at first, sound like it. It is a stupid statement, and I’ll explain why in a moment. I don’t mean that as a pejorative. And to repeat it, or give it any credence, is to help spread a lie, a deliberate attempt at propaganda, or a statement by a person who does not know what he or she is talking about. I find that the newspapers and television, as well as “blogs” on the internet, all use the phrase “war on terror” and it does everyone a disservice. Google alone states that there are 137,000,000 references to this phase.

When our President, George Bush, says those words, he is talking non-sense. So is anyone else using these words.

The words are inflammatory, and their ultimate effect often deliberately to cause people to suspend any rational judgment about the things the speaker wants to do because of this so-called “War on Terror.” When rational judgment is suspended, people will do anything no matter how ineffective it is because of the emotional mind-clouding power, and the fear it gives rise to, when such meaningless words are used.

It is also extremely sloppy journalism to repeat this phase, except as a direct quote, because it is meaningless. It is as meaningless as “war on laziness” or the “war on weather.” Journalists seem never to have heard of semantics, or an “abstraction ladder”, a key concept in semantics (well worth looking at), both of which deal with the meaning of words and how their use affects us.

Right now, we as a country are involved in a number of situations, some dangerous, some not, one or two very separate wars, some diplomatic efforts, and a very diverse set of circumstances that may possibly threaten our way of life, and we, as a country, appear to be afraid of a number of diversified groups of people who reside in various countries. We are also, as a country, possibly threatened in a number of ways by a number of countries, as opposed to small scattered groups of people. All of these have been lumped together into a catch phrase that is entirely meaningless, namely a "war on terror."

If we can define what these groups and countries are and distinguish how they differ from one another, it can help us to understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what the characteristics of all this mixed up “war on terror” might really mean. This, of course, immediately implies that there is no one single opponent against whom we can wage war, but instead presents a variety of different situations, some more dangerous than others, each of them requiring that we handle them, as best we can, in different ways if we want to reduce any threat they pose.

• The first group of people that we claim to be fighting with is a vaguely defined group, once led by a man named Bin Laden, that calls itself Al Qaeda. It appears to be based in Afghanistan, but may have spread to various other countries. It is a loosely-knit, guerrilla group that dislikes “the West”, vaguely defined as European and American countries. We don’t know nearly enough about it to be “at war” with this group because it is so diffuse, and it is all too easy to confuse it with other groups at times. It is not certain that its leaders are alive or have control over this group because it is so diffuse. Originally, it was most probably responsible for the event known as “9/11”. We, as a country under President Bush, claim to be fighting this group but appear to have lost interest in pursuing this group forcefully.

I say “claim to be fighting” because, for all of our efforts, we have never caught Bin Laden, and Al Qaeda appears to be stronger than ever before. We have troops in Afghanistan, but they appear to be there mainly poised to defend the central government, which has been threatened by a number of groups including the Taliban (the prior totalitarian government), war lords in various provinces, and a loose network of guerillas including the Al Qaeda group. The current Administration, led by President Bush, has apparently de-emphasized our military efforts in Afghanistan and his rhetoric, his use of the words “war on terror”, appear to be mainly directed at Iraq, not Afghanistan.

The number of deaths of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan in this first military operation is 255 with 765 injured as of January 2006, as tracked by Wikipedia. I cite this figure in sharp contrast to the number of U.S. troops killed in the next military effort, still going on today, in Iraq which was 2,299 U.S. soldiers killed and 33,094 seriously injured as of March 2006 (cited at the site The disparity between Afghanistan and Iraq, in terms of dead and casualties is very revealing about what is being emphasized.

• The second group that we were fighting was the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. It was a war declared by President Bush, with no real resistance from Congress. The enemy was a vague one – mainly the dictator, Saddam Hussein, who somehow had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and was linked vaguely to “terrorists”, the same ones named in Afghanistan as being Al Qaeda. None of these reasons has proven to be true. I repeat: None of the reasons given for this war have been proven to be true. As cited above, more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq as a result of this war. Because of what the President and his Administration have been saying, and repeating as a mantra, according to many surveys, many people in the U.S. believe, irrationally, that this war is being fought as a “war on terror.” This is simply not an accurate or true statement.

It appears that Iraq has three major ethnic groups that have never gotten along. When Saddam was in charge of the country, the Sunni controlled everything with an iron hand. The Shiites, although in the majority, had no political power. The Kurds, the third group, also had no power. Once Saddam’s forces were overcome by the U.S. forces, the Shiites grabbed political power, the Kurds grabbed the northern part of the country, and the Sunni who had control and resented losing it have begun conducting an insurgency. The Shiites and the Sunni both have deep hatred of each other; it is obvious that the Sunni aren’t used to being out of power, and the Shiites resent all of the terrible things that were done to their people when the Sunni were in power. This is has led to brutal killings, with our troops in the middle, mainly siding with the Shiite majority. The country at this time may be in civil war.

Our troops really aren’t fighting “terror” or “terrorists” here. They are actually intervening in an internal conflict that has been going on for a long time back to when England and Winston Churchill was involved. I will add that there have been instances of non-Iraqi individuals crossing the border into Iraq from Syria and Iran to attack American military forces, and some of these individuals may be linked to Al Qaeda, but that is not the biggest part of the problem. In fact, because of our invasion of Iraq and our destruction of the status quo, by eliminating Saddam Hussein, it may be that we have opened a whole new breeding ground for, and encouraged, these individuals to learn how to operate successfully and conduct terrorist operations.

Iraq thus appears to be involved in a civil war of Sunnis versus Shiites, with Kurds protecting their interests, and some outsiders conducting guerilla terrorist operations aimed at fomenting unrest and driving the U.S. forces out. We cannot be involved in a “war on terror” here because there are at least four separate parties here, and it isn’t always clear who is doing what to hurt or kill whom.

• A third arena whom we are not fighting is North Korea, a dictatorship that is working to build an atomic bomb capability. This country is a military threat to South Korea because it possesses a huge standing army of more than a million soldiers. It is a country with a well-defined government, not a loosely organized group of individuals. We have not declared war on them, nor have they declared war on the U.S. But for some reason, at times, they have been included in this “war on terror.”

• A fourth arena that is also sometimes referred to under the mantra of “war on terror” is Iran. Iran is the largest country in the Middle East, with a government that is primarily run by its religious right. They may provide a place for Al Qaeda and other groups which dislike the U.S. for various reasons to develop and train members. We are not at war with Iran, and they are not at war with us. But, for some reason, they also have been lumped into this “war on terror”.

• There are other places in the world, such as South America and the Philippines, that have been also lumped into this “war on terror”, but, again, we have not declared war on them nor have they declared war on the U.S. Numerous groups, some of which hate the U.S. and some involved in insurgencies against their existing government, have the earmarks of “terrorists” in that they conduct underground operations, kill people indiscriminately, have loose organizations, may or may not be linked to other similar organizations.

• In general, it is also important to separate different types of terrorists (a very maligned word) into specific and different groups. For example, Basque separatists, in Spain, commit what we would call terrorist acts. So do the Tamil Tigers in northern Sri Lanka. They can both be called “terrorists.” Please note that, although these groups commit acts that seem to be terrorist acts, such as blowing up bombs in public places and killed innocent civilians, both of these groups are internal in their countries and act much as if they were engaged in a civil war against their existing government.

• So we are not at war with all of the groups I’ve mentioned. We couldn’t be. Many of them have no government for us to declare war on. It is sloppy use of communication to say that we are engaged in a “war on terror” when we really need to understand that there are many such groups around the world, each separate and different, each requiring different tactics, each posing a different type of threat (in some cases, no threat) to our country.

Please remember that next time you hear these words. If you understand what has been said here, you will be able to determine how absurd such a claim is (“war on terror”) and look at what the person saying these words is really trying to do. He or she may be trying to scare you so you don’t think clearly; he or she may be pushing an agenda to take rights away from you; he or she may be saying such words to get elected again; or to be considered “patriotic” or “strong” or “effective”. Always listen to the words and match them to the actions. The outcome may surprise you and open your eyes to what is actually going on.

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