Friday, September 03, 2004

Don't Change This Course?

One theme that was touted repeatedly at the Republican convention, and one that will surely be revisited on the campaign trail in the upcoming weeks, is how successful Bush has been in the war against terrorism. How his steadfast leadership has made us safer, and how we should stay the course, with the not so subtle implication being that a domestic regime change would make us less safe.

In the interest of following up on my
recent posts regarding truth and the political process, I will take a closer look at the nature of these claims.

Consistent with the disturbing pattern that has been coming into focus, the Bush administration is grossly distorting the record. In June of this year, the State Department issued a
corrected report on global terrorism which fixed the glaring holes in the "Patterns of Global Terrorism" assessment compiled in April by the State Department, the CIA and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC). While the statistics in the April version showed terrorist activity had declined compared to a year earlier, and the Bush administration seized upon these numbers to tout his leadership in the war against terrorism, the June correction contained the grim realities (I posted on this topic here). Terrorist incidents and deaths, the State Department concluded, had steadily risen from to what was a 20 year high (excluding the death count from 2001 with 9/11 providing an anomalistic spike).
When the April report was released, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said it provided "clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight." When the June report was released, Armitage did not say, however, that it provided clear evidence that we were losing the fight.

A recent report from
NBC News analysts, like Roger Cressey, a former deputy National Security Council director of counterterrorism, contains more evidence that undermines the presentation of the President's policies in the war against the spread of radical Islamist jihadism as effective or successful.

Of the roughly 2,929 terrorism-related deaths around the world since the attacks on New York and Washington, the NBC News analysis shows 58 percent of them - 1,709 - have occurred this year.

In the past 10 days, in fact, the number of dead has risen by 142 people in places as diverse as Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel. On Tuesday, the number of civilians killed by terrorists totaled 38 - 10 at a subway entrance bombing in Moscow, 16 in a bus bombing in Israel and 12 Nepalese executed in Iraq.

Moreover, the level of sophistication is increasing. Terrorism experts point in particular to the attacks apparently carried out by Chechen rebels during that 10-day period. The rebels, whose top military commanders have been Arabs, are operating at a whole different level.
Keep in mind this report came out before the siege of the school in Russia, and only included the two airline bombings and the subway bombing, so the numbers in terms of deaths are much worse now (over 200 dead as of today from the incident at the school), and the patterns of coordination and sophistication appear even more advanced than previously feared. According to Cressey, "This is all coordinated. These things do not happen by accident, and in fact, United States officials are frantically trying to determine if they are a forerunner of an attack aimed at the U.S."

That being said, the Bush administration has succeeded in preventing attacks on U.S. soil, but that is only true for the moment, and the fear from many analysts like Cressey is that could all change soon, especially considering the increased activity around the world.

While fewer than 60 of the deaths since Sept. 11 have been of American citizens - and all of which took place overseas - other countries continue to suffer at higher levels than ever before.
The most disturbing trend, however, is in the nature of the groups that are carrying out the attacks. It is not a centralized strategy being implemented by al-Qaeda, but rather a movement inspired by the rhetoric and tactics of al-Qaeda.

Moreover, they say the attacks carried out by what they now refer to as "central al-Qaida" are being dwarfed by those carried out by affiliates, such Ansar al Sunnah in Iraq, the Chechen rebels and even ad hoc groups like those who blew up the Madrid train stations.

While there may be links to al-Qaida in terms of training and in some cases money, these groups operate independently of Osama bin Laden's command.

The threat in fact is "morphing," as one senior U.S. intelligence official put it.

"You're talking about an al-Qaida that's trying to regenerate, and you're also talking about a movement that has looked to al-Qaida for inspiration but is not really al-Qaida central," said another intelligence official. [emphasis added]
This speaks to one of the fundamental flaws in the Bush team's strategy for combating the spread of radical Islamist jihadism. They have failed to adequately assess the nature of the enemy, viewing terrorism in the old Cold War paradigm of nation state actors, as opposed to realizing that al-Qaeda represents a transnational ideology that employs terrorism as a tactic. Their strategy is based upon the belief that if you take out the state sponsors of terrorism, it will wither on the vine for lack of support. But the reality is, support comes from transnational actors and financers, not localized in any one nation or under any one government.

Publius at
Legal Fiction discussed this misconceived strategy in a thoughtful post that relied on an interview with Senator Joe Biden. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

The fundamental flaw --- forget flaw, the fundamental difference between Joe Biden, John Kerry on the one hand, and the neoconservatives on the other is that they genuinely . . . do not believe it is possible for a sophisticated international criminal network that will rain terror upon a country, that has the potential to kill 3,000 or more people in a country, can exist without the sponsorship of a nation-state. They really truly believe --- and this was the Axis of Evil speech --- if you were able to decapitate the regimes in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, you would in fact dry up the tentacles of terror. I think that is fundamentally flawed reasoning.

But are [nations], if you eliminate them, the life blood that flows to these organizations? It is much more important for us to be able to go at their sources of funding. It's more like organized crime. They love this thing about, you know, it's not law enforcement. . . . But it is basically gumshoe work. It is intelligence; it is cutting off the source of their supply of money. It is infiltrating their organizations beyond bombing their training bases. That's a good thing. They bomb their training camps --- that's a good thing. We did a good thing in getting rid of Saddam. That son-of-a-bitch was a butcher. But it had nothing to do with our central problem, terror. And the reason why it's so dangerous what they're doing, their approach --- it's not intentional --- but it takes their eye off the ball.
It is important to remember that aside from not being dependent on any one nation state, Osama Bin Laden is first and foremost a propagandist, seeking to spread his version of reality in order to radicalize the Muslim world and inspire imitators and like-minded movements. Osama speaks about an American/Israeli crusade against Muslims in an effort to dominate the Middle East and its oil, and Bush provides him with the apparent backup to his otherwise outlandish theories. These sentiments were echoed in the book Imperial Hubris by the 22 year CIA veteran and counter-terrorism expert identified only by the moniker Anonymous. According to Anonymous, "Bin Laden saw the invasion of Iraq as a Christmas gift he never thought he'd get." By invading a country that's regarded as the second holiest place in Islam, he asserts, the Bush administration inadvertently validated bin Laden's assertions that the United States intends a holy war against Muslims. It has become increasingly difficult to refute these accusations in the Muslim world.

This view was further elaborated upon in an article appearing in
Foreign Policy (subscription required):

...if countries are to win the war on terror, they must eradicate enemies without creating new ones. They also need to deny those militants with whom negotiation is impossible the support of local populations. Such support assists and, in the minds of the militants, morally legitimizes their actions. If Western countries are to succeed, they must marry the hard component of military force to the soft component of cultural appeal. There is nothing weak about this approach. As any senior military officer with experience in counterinsurgency warfare will tell you, it makes good sense. The invasion of Iraq, though entirely justifiable from a humanitarian perspective, has made this task more pressing.

Bin Laden is a propagandist, directing his efforts at attracting those Muslims who have hitherto shunned his extremist message. He knows that only through mass participation in his project will he have any chance of success. His worldview is receiving immeasurably more support around the globe than it was two years ago, let alone 15 years ago when he began serious campaigning. The objective of Western countries is to eliminate the threat of terror, or at least to manage it in a way that does not seriously impinge on the daily lives of its citizens. Bin Laden's aim is to radicalize and mobilize. He is closer to achieving his goals than the West is to deterring him.
Here is the neoconservative Francis Fukuyama's take:

But the radicals swim in a much larger sea of Muslims-1.2 billion of them, more or less-who are not yet implacable enemies of the United States...On the other hand, recent Pew surveys of global public opinion show that positive feelings about the United States in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and other supposedly friendly Muslim countries has sunk to disastrously low levels. What these data taken as a whole suggest is that for the broad mass of public opinion in Muslim countries, we are disliked or hated not for what we are, but rather for what we do. What they do not like is a familiar list of complaints about our foreign policy that we somehow continue to fail to take seriously: our lack of concern for the plight of the Palestinians, our hypocritical support for dictators in Muslim countries, and now our occupation of Iraq.

The War on Terror is, in other words, a classic counter-insurgency war, except that it is one being played out on a global scale. There are genuine bad guys out there who are much more bitter ideological enemies than the Soviets ever were, but their success depends on the attitudes of the broader populations around them who can be alternatively supportive, hostile or indifferent-depending on how we play our cards. As we are seeing vividly in Iraqi cities like Fallujah and Najaf, counter-insurgency wars are incredibly difficult to fight, because we must somehow destroy the enemy without alienating the broader population and making things worse. Counter-insurgency requires a tricky mixture of precisely targeted force, political judgment and extremely good intelligence: a combination of carrots and sticks.
The evidence, in the form of increased terrorist activity, supports the assertions of Biden, Fukuyama and others from all political persuasions, including the influential pro-war British think tank the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), who have argued that the invasion of Iraq has increased the recruiting capacity of Bin Laden and his ilk, while increasing his support and appeal. If that is success in the war against the spread of radical Islamist jihadism, then what does failure look like? Do you think the so-called liberal media will take the Bush campaign to task for its spurious election year claims? Don't count on it.

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