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Should Cops or Generals Spearhead the War on Terror?

Paging James Bond and Mr. District Attorney: please report for duty against terrorism.

by
Richard Fernandez

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July 30, 2008 - 12:54 am

An Associated Press article quotes Seth Jones, a RAND political scientist and author of a study on fighting terrorism, as saying that intelligence operations and police work, not military operations, are the most effective tools against terrorism.

terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests there is no battlefield solution to terrorism. … The United States has the necessary instruments to defeat al-Qaida, it just needs to shift its strategy.

One component of that strategy would be to end the “War on Terror” and transform it into a police action. The AP writes that “nearly every ally, including Britain and Australia, has stopped using ‘war on terror’ to describe strategy against the group headed by Osama bin Laden and considered responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 suicide attacks at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.” Why shouldn’t America do the same?

A closer reading of the RAND study shows it doesn’t wholly disparage military force. The monograph, How Terrorist Groups End, points out that terror groups often become susceptible to political reconciliation or police action only after the neutralization of their geopolitical and state sponsors, a process in which military force plays a preeminent role.

Based on a study of “648 groups that existed between 1968 and 2006″, RAND finds “the evidence … indicates that most [terrorist] groups have ended because (1) they joined the political process or (2) local police and intelligence arrested key members.” Yet this is often made possible only by the decline in the fortunes of their international sponsors. The RAND report gives a number of examples.

Page 15 says “a number of terrorist groups that advocated the creation of an independent Armenian state, such as the Armenian Resistance Group, disbanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Page 21 says “the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that a number of groups, such as the FMLN in El Salvador, saw their outside assistance quickly begin to dry up.” Page 69 cites the “end of the Cold War” and the “Soviet Union’s withdrawal of support for Marxist movements in Latin America” as a key factor in the the Salvadoran insurgency’s decision to negotiate a peace settlement.

Nor did police action itself take place in a vacuum. The RAND report points out that military protection is required for the police to go about their work. Without an Army to protect police and informants from heavily armed groups, neither law enforcement nor intelligence can long survive. RAND cites the case of al-Qaeda in Anbar as an example of where military force is necessary to enable law enforcement (page 109).

US operations in al Anbar province provide a useful illustration of when military forces can be appropriate against terrorist groups … such groups are often well equipped, well organized and well motivated, and police acting alone would be quickly overpowered.

The critical relationship between the police and the military was demonstrated in other settings, like Kosovo. On March 17, 2008 several hundred Serb rioters fired weapons and threw grenades at the UN police headquarters in Mitrovica. “The rioters had freed 21 Serbs detained in the raid, stopping the UN cars that were carrying them. At least four UN and NATO vehicles were burned . . . and the police were eventually forced to pull out of northern Mitrovica, leaving NATO troops to face the rioters.”

What the RAND study actually criticizes is a strategy which overly relies on military force without a corresponding police, intelligence and political component. It claims the campaign in Iraq drained away resources that could have been better used to fund intelligence and political initiatives against terror. As proof of the inefficacy of military responses, the report on pages 137-138 cites the rise in total al-Qaeda attacks after the US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence that military action didn’t slow the AQ down.

There are no reliable estimates — and no way to reliable assess — which attacks in Afghanistan included a significant al Qa’ida component. … Nonetheless, al Qa’ida’s direct role in the Afghanistan and Iraq insurgencies, both of which occurred after September 11, 2001, strengthens the argument that it was involved in more attacks in the first six years after September 11, 2001, than it was before that date. …

After 2001, al Qai’da significantly increased its number of attacks which spanned a wider geographic area across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. As Figure 6.2 indicates, al-Qai’da continued to conduct attacks in several key locations, such as Saudi Arabia and Kenya. But it also expanded into North Africa (Tunisia and Algeria), Asia (Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan), the Middle East (Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt), and Europe (the United Kingdom). …

The obvious problem with citing the rise in al-Qaeda attacks on US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2002 and 2007 as evidence of growing terrorist strength is that it is correlated with combat operations between the two forces. The number of clashes would be expected to grow in any case as both sides came to grips. The intensity of fighting between the two sides in war is not a good indicator of who is winning, but the end state is. The increased clashes between the Imperial Japan and the United States between 1942 and 1945 didn’t prove that Japan was gaining strength, but the surrender on the battleship Missouri proved Japan had lost. Similarly, whatever the intensity of combat between al-Qaeda and the coalition may have reached between 2003 and 2006, the growing stability in Iraq which has prompted Joe Klein of Time to write that “the reality is that neither Barack Obama nor Nouri al-Maliki nor most anybody else believes that the Iraq war can be “lost” at this point” should call into question the argument that simply because al-Qaeda was fighting hard in Iraq, it was therefore gaining in strength.

RAND’s citation of increased al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tunisia, Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and the United Kingdom after 2001 as proof of growing strength is devalued by the curious fact that there have been no significant attacks against the United States homeland since 9/11. If al-Qaeda were indeed gaining capability over that period — which the increase in the number of attacks is intended to prove — then why should it expend most of its ferocity upon Muslim majority countries or European countries with large Muslim populations rather than upon its hated enemy, the United States? One alternative hypothesis to explain the same data is that al-Qaeda was fighting to maintain support among Muslims who were less confident of global victory after observing the American response; that the attacks on Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and the United Kingdom were attempts to keep their base in line even as it proved unable to strike at the American homeland.

There is other evidence to suggest that military action has had some political effect on al-Qaeda. Carl Ciovacco‘s study of the evolution of al-Qaeda’s policy toward attacking noncombatants describes how al-Qaeda went from punctilious observance of noncombatant immunity in 1991 to declaring American civilians as legitimate targets in 1997 during the period before the American military response. He notes the moment when Bin Laden declared it was licit to attack US civilians.

This phase begins in March, 1997, with a CNN interview of bin Laden in Afghanistan. In a dramatic change to bin Laden’s view of noncombatants, he hints that civilians may not be as shielded as they were in the past. …

By 1998 al Qaeda declared it was not only permissible for attack civilians, it was actually their holy duty.

Bin Laden moved from lukewarm approval of noncombatant immunity to overtly declaring that noncombatants were legitimate targets. On February 22, 1998, bin Laden released a signed statement on behalf of the World Islamic Front. … In this statement, bin Laden, and the rest of the alliance, not only sanctioned the killing of civilians, but also elevated it to level of a holy duty, or fatwa.

By June, 2002, before the invasion of Iraq, every vestige of restraint for taking civilian life was already gone. Suleiman Abu Ghaith, al Qaeda’s official spokesman, said in an essay on al Qaeda’s web site al Neda:

We have the right to kill four million Americans – two million of them children – and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons, so as to afflict them with the fatal maladies that have afflicted the Muslims because of [Americans'] chemical and biological weapons. America knows only the language of force. America is kept at bay by blood alone.

Al Qaeda went to increasingly high levels of ferocity even when faced largely with a political and intelligence response. These developments took place before the invasion of Iraq. In fact, September 11 happened before the first military response to al-Qaeda had taken place. But amazingly it was al-Qaeda’s sad combat experience in Iraq that pushed them to reverse its policy towards unlimited attacks on civilians. Ciovacco, a former officer in Iraq who holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School described the political effect of the contrast between US military operations and indiscriminate terrorist attacks on al-Qaeda’s image in the Muslim world.

there is considerable evidence that al-Qaeda’s attacks on noncombatants are having a deleterious effect on al-Qaeda’s support base both within the organization and the mainstream Muslim community. The number of ex-jihadists and formerly supportive Muslim clerics speaking out against al-Qaeda has increased in the last several years precisely because of its targeting of civilians. After al-Qaeda’s former chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, began targeting noncombatant Shia, support for al-Qaeda within the greater Muslim community dropped precipitously. Al-Qaeda’s increased suicide attacks on civilians within Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have also caused its supporters to leave in droves. In fact, a recent Terror Free Tomorrow poll in Pakistan shows that support for bin Laden has plummeted from 46% to 24% and backing for al-Qaeda has dropped from 33% to 18% in the past six months. In another survey from 2005, when suicide bombings against noncombatants first peaked, the number of Pakistanis believing that suicide bombing was justified dropped from 73% to 46%. …

In 2005, Zawahiri directed al-Qaeda in Iraq to stop killing Shia noncombatants because it was hurting al-Qaeda’s greater cause. Furthermore, a top al Qaeda strategist, Abu Yahya al-Libi, has written to al-Qaeda in Iraq telling them that its killing of “too many civilians” was undermining al-Qaeda’s global strategy.

Ciovacco cites the same attacks on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that RAND does, but reaches another conclusion from the evidence. This paints a somewhat different picture from the portrait offered up by RAND. While it doesn’t discount the importance of intelligence and police work, these bits of evidence suggest that military action indeed has a legitimate role to play against terrorism. First, military and diplomatic action is required to neutralize state sponsors of terrorism, something which law enforcement cannot achieve. Second, military action is necessary to protect policemen and intelligence agents in lawless parts of the world, in failed states where terrorism is commonly to be found and where it would be too dangerous to venture otherwise. Finally, military action sends a signal which police work cannot equal. And this last may prove vital. If Samuel P. Huntington correctly predicted a long-term Clash of Civilizations the world may need more than cops and intel agents to deal with it. The RAND study has only looked at terror groups that existed since 1968. The Jihad has been in existence for more than a thousand years.

Maybe a more prudent announcement might be: Paging James Bond, Mr. District Attorney and Sergeant Rock. Please report for duty against Islamic terrorism. Even that may not be enough.

Richard Fernandez's portal is at Wretchard.com.
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