An Appreciation of the War On Terror

By January 11, 2003 No Comments

Rene Descartes championed the deductive approach to problem solving, and his basic methodology is drummed into junior officers and NCOs as the “Appreciation” system. In making an appreciation of a situation, one should first remember what their aim or intentions are; list the factors that influence the situation; and outline the available options. By this time a plan should suggest itself. By and large, making an appreciation of most situations is a good habit.

In the 16 months since al Qaeda murdered over 3,200 people in less than two hours, we have learned that dealing with this Meta-Network of Islamic Fundamentalists will not be easy. So what should we do?

The normal Appreciation system taught in militaries consists of the following:

  • What is my aim? Specifically, what do I want out of this situation?
  • What are the factors affecting my aim?
  • What are my options?
  • What is my plan?

Sometimes this process can be simple: A platoon commander ordered to capture a lone defended house on a barren hilltop knows exactly what his aim is, can see where the enemy is and (probably) what weaponry he has, knows what support his platoon can count on, and can see the terrain he must use. Thereafter, he runs through his options about his support arms and possible routes, during the course of which his plan will emerge – undoubtedly something simple like mortaring the #%$@ out of the building while flanking it on two sides, then sending his third section to break inside and start the usual close-quarters brawl that house clearing entails.

Handling al Qaeda is a problem of a much more complex nature and a much higher order of magnitude.

Still, our aim in handling al Qaeda should be simple enough: We want to be free of the threat they and other Islamic Fundamentalist terrorist groups entail.

The aim is simple and, yes, there is no guarantee that another group could not rise to offer the same degree of threat in the future. Still, one must deal with problems as they come. So what are the factors that affect our aim?

Al Qaeda is a terrorist group that is impelled by an ideology. In short, rational discussion with their leaders is as likely to succeed as Chamberlain’s 1938 chat with Hitler. As ideologues, reason is subordinated to their cause and belief system.

The goals of al Qaeda are unacceptable. First, they want a free hand in the Middle East with no outside presence. In short, let them overthrow any government in the Muslim world that they care to. Bear in mind that al Qaeda’s ideas of governing principles have been seen in action with the Taliban “government’’ and its behavior in Afghanistan. Moreover, besides the nightmare they would create for over a billion people, the next phase of the Fundamentalist grandiose plans is the aggressive expansion of the Islamic world through violence and conquest. If we give them any rope, they will hang somebody, and then hang us.

Moreover, if we could negotiate with al Qaeda, with whom would we be negotiating anyway? Private actors who are totally outside the law of nations and feel no real compulsion to abide by any laws but their own cannot be expected to be honest dealers.

Al Qaeda is an unusual terrorist group in that it is a ‘meta-network’ or network of networks; that enjoys the support of at least tens of millions of Muslims around the world and has the broad sympathies of hundreds of thousands more. This means that it can expect discrete unofficial cooperation from any number of people in official positions, perhaps tipping them off to raids, “accidentally” leaving the back doors open to arms warehouses, or not looking too closely when arranging large money transfers for a shadowy client. At present, their ability to regenerate themselves is almost unlimited.

Islamic Fundamentalists present themselves as a heroic future to the impressionable and disturbed peoples within today’s Islamic World and promise answers to all that aggrieves them. Yet, as Richard Pipes has pointed out, much of the Fundamentalists’ agenda and program has been borrowed (albeit unconsciously) from 20th Century totalitarian movements. Unfortunately, they have an almost unchallenged ability to inspire popular imaginations, particularly as their ideology is presented to Muslim populations as a pure and orthodox version of their faith. Other Muslims cannot easily challenge Fundamentalist constructs; both because doing so endangers them, but also because they lack the Fundamentalists’ dramatic appeal. In arguing against the Fundamentalists, non-Muslims cannot use Islamic symbols and notions, as doing so will irritate many ordinary Muslims.

Given that al Qaeda can continuously reinvent and re-arm itself, and cannot be effectively countered by moral suasion or propaganda, it will present a continuing threat for at least another generation if it is embarrassingly humiliated and has its confidence shattered.

An active al Qaeda is a very real danger and, worse still, they are winning so far. While they have not yet been able to match the damage they wrought in the 9-11 attacks, they did manage to achieve the Bali Night club attack and startled the world’s aviation and tourism industries (again) with the SAM-7 attack and hotel bombing in Kenya. Dozens of al Qaeda operations have been prevented since the World Trade Center toppled – such as the plan to introduce Sarin gas into the European Parliament or to convulse Singapore with 11 truck bombs – but there is a tremendous imbalance between the cost it takes to mount these attacks and what expensive results these have on us.

The 9-11 attacks cost al Qaeda an estimated $500,000 to plan and execute. They cost the US and the Global economy some 3,200 lives, almost $100 Billion in direct costs (destroyed buildings, recovery costs, reconstruction, and insurance pay-outs) and the indirect costs in terms of lost business, economic instability, higher insurance premiums and new security budgets. Even if only one al Qaeda attack in 50 succeeds, it does so at a ruinous price to us. One might do well to remember the line in Kipling’s 19th Century poem about British troops in Afghanistan — Arithmetic on the Frontier. It read “Two thousand pounds of education/Drops to a ten-rupee jezail [a simple Afghan matchlock musket].”

Normally, an anti-terror campaign is an exercise in attrition. Authorities confronted by a terrorist group hope that, year by year, they can capture the skilled experts and leaders within the terrorist group faster than new ones can develop; thus eventually limiting the ability of the group to do real harm. In the case of al Qaeda, they have lost their Afghan sanctuaries and hundreds of their members have been detained. But there are thousands more trained members at large, including most of the senior leaders of the group, and there are areas where they can cautiously train recruits without much interruption.

Al Qaeda can operate on an international scale, and the campaign against the group needs international cooperation. But, different nations have different operating methods, different resources and degrees of motivation for the campaign. In exchanging information on financing, or swapping intelligence on suspects, the US has received a good degree of cooperation. The liberation of Afghanistan received less concrete support, although a large number of countries lent a hand. Even if the UN determines that Iraq is in violation of resolutions about its weapons programs, the US could really count on a handful of active partners when it moves to topple Saddam. Plainly, support for the campaign is going to be widely variable.

One aspect of the durability of al Qaeda will probably be that a great many sources of its support cannot be identified or dealt with. The Wahabi sect whose puritanical strain is the foundation for much of al Qaeda’s thinking is practically the state faith of Saudi Arabia. While Pakistan’s leader has bent over backwards to support operations against al Qaeda, the ability of his government (or that of any Pakistani government) to impose its will in the wild northwestern provinces is extremely limited. Many other Muslim countries that have connections to al Qaeda are on the verge of being failed states, and even if their governments should wish to cooperate with Washington and its allies, it would be impossible for them to do so.

The hot and cold running attitudes of partners and allies will compound another problem. In passively fighting terrorism, success breeds complacency that in turn breeds vulnerability. So long as the Western world acts defensively, its successes are going to result in a complacent public, relaxed security, dwindling budgets… then thousands more us will be killed, billions of dollars of property will be destroyed, and the cycle will resume as everyone rushes to be vigilant once more.

There are two other points about being passive; an old military maxim which Napoleon frequently cited was that “he who defends everything defends nothing.” This is especially true considering that terrorism involves a constant search for weaknesses to exploit. Also, the most sure guarantee of defeat is to surrender the initiative to the enemy – as a host of lost battles and slaughtered armies can attest throughout all the ages of recorded history.

However, if acting passively is reasonably sure to annoy some other nations, an aggressive posture certainly would. Still, the Western world is very good at inflicting death and destruction – in fact, we excel at it. Terrorists prefer to remain covert and hidden among civilians, and al Qaeda learned very quickly in Afghanistan that there was no refuge that could protect them from the open power of Western militaries. If the West was willing to meet violence with violence, we could do so very easily indeed.

However, Western societies share a reluctance to unleash our capacity for violence. It frightens us and reminds us of the dire carnage and destruction that results from wars fought between Western peoples. Additionally, we have habitually constrained our conduct in warfare with rules and restrictions on how we fight; and only set them aside with the greatest reluctance.

Yet, it is one of the sordid secrets of counter-terrorism that fire can be fought with fire. The new Irish government of 1922 was faced with renewed terrorism by IRA members who were outraged by the conditions of peace with Britain. Dublin then seized dozens of IRA men and shot them after drumhead trials. The insurrection stopped. Decades later, one of the reasons why the Provisional Wing of the IRA agreed to the 1994 Ceasefire in Ulster was that Protestant paramilitaries had taken to randomly murdering Catholics in Republican neighborhoods – thus pointing out that PIRA was powerless to protect the very people it purported to represent. There are similar examples from other terrorist campaigns.

So what options does the Western World have?

Negotiation with al Qaeda? This is both impossible and unacceptable.

Being defensive and passive? It may work in the short term, but will prove to be a losing proposition in the long run. In the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan, this is largely what we are doing now.

Being totally offensive? It is tempting, and might even work after a while – but the price would involve permanently poisoning our relations with the rest of the world (except, perhaps, India); but would also be unacceptable to most of our own population. We could win, but the price would be unacceptably high and we might ruin the legacy of our own civilization.

Operating defensively while taking aggressive action when and where possible? This sounds like what President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have already cooked up, and hope to advance with the toppling of Iraq. It also sounds like the guiding basis for a workable plan for a struggle that will probably take a decade or two to accomplish.

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