WASHINGTON – The 9/11 attacks brought home the simple but unpleasant truth that America and Americans are easy, vulnerable targets for terror attacks. The 9/11 aftermath also brought home that this nasty “asymmetric conflict” cannot be won. At least it cannot be won the way we normally understand the dynamics of “normal” conflicts. In a “regular war” at some point one side gives up. It stops fighting. By doing so, it concedes defeat.
No end to this conflict
Unfortunately, when it comes to jihad, there will be no decisive battle, followed by an orderly surrender. Islamic terrorism, with sporadic or frequent attacks, will continue. As long as there will be enough believers convinced that it is their sacred duty to attack America, (and other Western and Muslim countries), in order to fulfill their religious obligation as jihadists, this conflict will go on and on.
Here is a key point to keep in mind. The incentives to join Islamic militant organizations that routinely use terror as a means to fight their Holy War are totally irrational, and therefore they cannot be easily countered through smart counter moves.
Irrational motivations for an irrational conflict
So, here is the thing. We are facing a small but nasty transnational enemy willing to do crazy stuff in order to achieve what any rational person would call impossible goals. The objectives of establishing true Islamic orthodoxy and/or recreating a Caliphate are in fact dreams. The trouble is that, as long as various Islamic radical organizations, connected or unconnected, hierarchical or dispersed, professional or amateurish, continue to believe in these dreams the Islamic terror problem will not go away.
US response to 9/11
That said, if we look at the early US responses to 9/11 with the benefit of hindsight, we see a fantastic misallocation of resources. If you are dealing with a rat infestation, you do not fight it with tanks and bombers. You better use other, more targeted, counter measures.
“War on Terror”?
The first and probably biggest mistake made by the Bush administration was to label the American response to 9/11 a “War on Terror”. This mislabelling allowed the general public to believe that this was in fact a regular conflict. As Americans were told that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers were hiding in Afghanistan, then it seemed logical that we would send ground troops to get them where they were holed up. Well, this worked, but only in part. Yes, al Qaeda and the Taliban were chased out of Afghanistan. But they regrouped, in Pakistan and elsewhere. When favorable conditions returned, the Taliban came back.
The Iraq blunder
Later on, based on truly bad intelligence about WMDs, America invaded Iraq. The invasion was a bad mistake. And this was only the beginning of the Iraq tragedy. The military occupation was entrusted to amateurs who knew nothing and botched almost everything. Fast forward to today, and we have a semi-destroyed and now hopelessly divided country.
Yes, we got rid of Saddam Hussein, unquestionably a bad guy. But we could not control subsequent developments. We could not prevent a major Sunni-Shia civil war. We could not prevent al Qaeda in Iraq from making gains. And finally, by withdrawing all US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, we created a space for ISIS (or ISIL) to step in from its base in Syria, and occupy most regions where Iraqi Sunnis live.
What a mess! And, yes, America created this mess. And why did this happen? The Iraq invasion was ordered because of bad intelligence, and because of stupid ideas about creating an island of democracy and western-style modernity in the heart of the Middle East.
Counter insurgency versus counter terrorism
In Afghanistan, America made the critical mistake of adopting counter insurgency tactics to fight against small, dispersed radical Taliban groups. This meant deploying large units to find and engage an elusive enemy.
To fight terror groups, America needs to develop counter terror capabilities. And good counter terror is mostly about good intelligence. Without good intelligence we shall keep chasing the bad guys for ever. If you do not know where your target is, nothing else matters. (Think of the operation to get and kill Osama bin Laden. 90% of it was good intelligence). Every now and then you can have a lucky break; but this is no strategy.
Besides, the eventual success of the Afghan operation was predicated on transforming this truly medieval country via modernization. The popular theory was that, as long as young Afghans could see that they could have a good place in a legitimate country that would offer them education and economic opportunity, the appeal of the Taliban would eventually recede.
All in all, the strategy to prevail in this nasty, asymmetric conflict was totally flawed. America wanted to clean up Afghanistan and it failed to do so. It wanted to “drain the swamp” in which terrorists hide, and it failed to do so. It wanted to import democracy into Iraq, and it failed to do so.
These were not bad objectives as a matter of principle. They were bad ideas because of the impossible mismatch between grandiose goals and limited resources.
Indeed, America may be rich; but not that rich. The US never had the means, the funds and the time to make any of this happen. In a fantasy world, if we assume unlimited budgets, unlimited man power, unlimited technical assistance, and unlimited time, we can think about a successful modernization strategy for Afghanistan. But none of these preconditions ever existed. Therefore, the plan was a fantasy.
Well, so much for what happened. Going forward, how do we deal with armed radical groups willing to use terrorism?
I’m afraid there is no silver bullet. We cannot control the appeal of jihadist ideology. And we cannot identify and destroy –once and for all– all violent Islamic movements. There are too many of them. They operate in secrecy.
The only tool is improved intelligence. Of course, this is very difficult. We are talking about identifying and infiltrating various organizations in order to dismantle them.
Again, as disappointing as this may sound, there is no silver bullet. As I said at the beginning, we really do not know how to prevent delusional young people from joining jihadist movements. We can hope that the appeal of radical ideologies at some point will wear out. History tells us that nothing is “for ever” in this world.
But until this happens, we have to get adjusted to the reality of living under a constant, moderate to severe threat. The intensity of the threat and the lethality of the attacks will vary. With improved intelligence, we can and should get better at catching the bad guys before they strike. But nobody can guarantee 100% success.
That said, it is encouraging that President Obama decided to commemorate the 9/11 tragedy at Fort Meade, Maryland. The choice of venue is no accident. Fort Meade is one of the key centers of US military intelligence. It hosts the National Security Agency, the Defense Information Systems Agency and the United States Cyber Command. While imperfect, these are powerful tools for gathering and analyzing intelligence about radical Islamic groups. These are America’s electronic eyes and ears. Let’s hope that they get better –every day.