Bin Laden Operation Shows How to Conduct Anti-Terrorism against al Qaeda: Intelligence and Navy SEAL Units – US Military Occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq Simply not the Right Tool

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by Paolo von Schirach

May 4, 2011

WASHINGTON– I have already said that killing Osama bin Laden –important as it is– is largely a symbolic victory, resonating mostly within the United States because of the memory of 9/11. Indeed, compared with the challenges of a Middle East in turmoil for reasons that have almost nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism and compared with the need to contain Iran, the killing of Osama bin Laden is at best a tactical victory in what has become a secondary national security front.

That said, since Osama’s killing in Abbottabad, Pakistan is still a mile stone, this is as good as any time to take stock of what President George W. Bush most inappropriately dubbed “The War on Terror“, thereafter embarking in an extravagantly large military adventure almost totally out of synch with the nature of the terror threat we were and are still facing. Yes, 10 years after 9/11, notwithstanding hundreds of billions of dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of people who died in the process, including thousands of US troops killed and mutilated, we are still not done.

Counter terror: right goals wrong means

Overall, my assessment is that while the objective of smashing all terrorist groups is unobjectionable, the means chosen –the occupation of two countries via regular armed forces– have been totally mismatched with the goals, this way creating an enormous waste of human and financial resources. Some goals were accomplished. Terrorists have been captured or killed. Al Qaeda lost its 2001 momentum. But the cost has been extravagantly high and totally disproportionate with what was accomplished. The collateral damage immense.

And this is largely because America employed the wrong mix of tools: mostly armies and some intelligence; while it should the reverse. If you want to see the right mix, just look at the operation leading to Osama’s killing: intelligence gathering, with super specialised NAVY SEAL units called in to finish the job. I wish this could become the blueprint for whatever will be done in the future.

US engaged in conventional wars to defeat terrorists

Looking at the past, while national security officials may be able to claim that we did something right, as the US was not successfully attacked after the 9/11 disaster, my take is that the totally valid goal of protecting the homeland did not require a 10 year military occupation of Afghanistan and then 2003 war in Iraq. These decisions turned into large scale military operations that on balance had little or nothing to do with the appropriate goal of dismantling al Qaeda.

“War on Terror”

The US got down the wrong path by defining this conflict with decentralized, multi-national terror cells a “War on Terror“. But this was not a not a war in the generally accepted meaning of the term. Besides, “terror” cannot be an enemy. The term only describes a modality to use force. Our problem is with groups that use terror against us.

And this is not to downgrade anti-terrorism to routine police work. Quite clearly in al Qaeda America faced and faces a lot more than an efficient criminal outfit. Al Qaeda and affiliates are ruthless, ideologically driven enemies, relying on terror via suicide missions in the pursuit of their fantastic objective of destabilizing our society as a necessary step in the creation of a new Caliphate.

It is a conflict

But so, if it was not a war, what was it? It was and is a conflict with an elusive, transnational, ideological enemy that finds shelter in a variety of countries. These countries may be open supporters, such as the Taliban regime at the time of 9/11, or countries too weak to resist. They may also be internally divided countries in which at least some elements of the government or civil society may provide direct or indirect assistance to the terrorists. Shelter may include just pretending that they are not there. And this may have been the case of Pakistan in relation to Osama bin Laden’s last refuge, in the middle of a Pakistani city full of military facilities.

Armies are unsuitable for these conflicts

Facing a hidden opponent, as opposed to a government controlling a country, the traditional instruments of warfare are terribly unsuitable. And the goal, very popular in the early Bush years, of “draining the swamp”, adds even more complexity. By “draining the swamp” they meant modifying the socio-economic fundamentals in Muslim societies so that ideological extremism would not find adherents. While laudable in principle, this principle defined an extravagantly large goal, more akin to “draining an entire Ocean” so that you can catch one particularly nasty shark. Talk about mismatch between means and ends.

Without getting into all the details of 10 very complicated years, the macro picture is of a fight against an elusive enemy that almost immediately turned into a broad “sanctuary denial” strategy via military occupation of entire countries. All this was costly, unnecessary, unpopular and it did not produce the intended results.

Iraq and WMDs

Of course, the motivations for invading Iraq were different, although it was believed that they did fit within the broader goals of the “War on Terror“. It was believed that super rogue Saddam Hussein might have had deals with terrorists and that he would have been willing to supply them with weapons of mass destruction, (WMDs), that America and many others assumed he had. Iraq was invaded not because there were al Qaeda training camps in Baghdad, but because a dangerous outlaw state might be a powerful ally of the terrorists.

Be that as it may, and even conceding that US intelligence was just mistaken in assuming the existence of large scale WMD programs in Iraq, what is most striking here is the assumption that “regime change” in Baghdad would have been only a little more complicated than getting a new management team at the head of a major corporation, after a hostile take over. The naivete displayed by key policy makers in assuming an easy fight, a short occupation and then handing over the keys to capable, pro-Western Iraqi emigres is truly shocking.

Inability to forsee the cost of the Iraq operation

This inability to envision and therefore factor in the cost and complexity of the Iraq operation got the United States, even if one would agree that the motives were somehow aligned with anti-terror objectives, into an extremely expensive multi-year enterprise that had at best a peripheral relevance to fighting terror groups. Sure enough, supporters may argue that the world is better off today without Saddam Hussein and that, with US help, Iraq has now the foundations of democracy that it never would have had.

All true. But again, it is a matter of cost effectiveness. Much was accomplished and hopefully it will have a lasting value. But the cost has been immense; while the whole operation at least for a few years stoked more terrorism, as the US military occupation became a magnet for assorted foreign fighters and an al Qaeda in Iraq franchise.

Afghanistan, where it all began

Back to Afghanistan, where it all began on account of the hospitality offered to al Qaeda by the old Taliban regime, the conflict could have been carried out differently, since the initial and quite successful operation was conducted –note this– mostly with unconventional means.

Undoubtedly the US had every justification to pursue both al Qaeda and the Taliban allies in Afghanistan. But interestingly enough, even though an intervention in a sovereign country would have been the closest thing to a conventional war, at least at the beginning, the US did not engage in a regular armed conflict.

In order to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban the US used mostly unconventional tools in Afghanistan in 2001. America relied on alliances with local war lords established via the CIA. It paid leaders so that they would switch sides. It supported and supplied the Northern Alliance that was already engaged in a fight against the Taliban. All in all, while the US Air Force bombed Taliban positions to help the Northern Alliance, conventional military means and US “boots on the ground” played a relatively minor role in getting the job done.

Stick with a light foot print formula to haunt al Qaeda

It would have been good to stick with that formula, trying to stay friends with the war lords and make sure that the Taliban would not easily reorganize. Instead the US and its allies fell into the usual trap of engaging in reconstruction and modernization programs with the objective of “immunizing” –thanks to us– a modernised Afghanistan against the perils of fundamentalism. Good idea in principle. A disaster in practice given the incredible magnitude of the objective, compared with the resources that America and all the others were willing to expend. So, we ended up with a botched affair. A 10 year military occupation, an inconclusive counter insurgency and billions of dollars spent to move a country away from the Middle Ages.

Afghanistan turned into a counter insurgency

In the end, in Afghanistan we have a huge, poorly conducted, nation building effort with very little to show for all that was spent. Sure enough, we can claim that Afghanistan now does not provide sanctuary to al Qaeda training camps. Fine. But this is a small victory and this goal could have been achieved via special forces sent in to destroy any new camps.

Besides, camps and terror networks can be created elsewhere. Al Qaeda and all the other offshoots are transnational groups that can find some shelter in various parts of the globe. If Afghanistan is denied to them, then they’ll find another place. Which is to say that the way the conflict in Afghanistan has been conducted is rather pointless.

What have we accomplished?

Even now, notwithstanding a huge increase in troops and resources since the end of 2009, the attempt to defeat the reorganised Taliban is almost a lost cause. And it is not relevant to our anti-terror goals, since not all new Taliban are natural al Qaeda allies. Many Taliban are Pashto tribesmen who want to reassert control over the country. This has almost nothing to do with anti-American terrorism. They fight the Americans because they are there.

More broadly, our goal is not to have Afghanistan with a government made to our specifications. Our goal is to have a reasonably stable situation in which al Qaeda will not find it easy to get back in. If Afghanistan has or does not have a good human rights record and whatever they will do with gender equality or girls education is way beyond the goals of fighting Islamic terrorist groups. We did not go into Afghanistan so that the military would help build schools. This is nice; but it is not part of the core mission.

Osama operation illustrates how you do it right: intelligence work and special ops

In the end, what really works against elusive terrorists is exemplified by the effort aimed at locating Osama bin Laden. This was intelligence work. It was a thorough intelligence operation that finally led to his location. It was only at the very end that elite SEAL units were called in to execute the arrest, or killing as it turned out. I am sure that this operation had its significant costs. But the size, scope and means seem to be commensurate with the ends: capturing or killing the foremost leader of al Qaeda, and seizing materials that may help dismantle their communications and overall effectiveness.

In an ideal world we would want to reform countries so that the appeal of fundamentalism would fall flat. But this is way too expensive and, as it turns out, America does not know how to do this. And that includes whatever we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. It would be great if we could clean up the country, while helping a legitimate government in a genuine modernization effort. But Afghanistan is 200 years behind the modern world. Meaningful help in this would take at least a generation. A noble endeavor; but totally beyond our means.

No need to “drain the swamp”

Besides, except for some extreme cases, this type of effort may not be necessary. As the Arab uprisings are showing, Muslim societies have already formulated strategies aimed at obtaining political change that are quite separate from religious fundamentalism. In this sense, it would appear that “the swamp has drained itself“, without calling in the Marines to do the heavy lifting.

And this intellectual maturation that has occurred within Arab countries is the best indication that al Qaeda may very well be on its way down, at least in terms of its ability to generate broad based appeal for jihad. All the more reason to focus on the real targets: the actual terror networks, without being distracted by peripheral goals of reforming entire societies.

Modernizing Afghanistan, nice idea, assuming unlimited resources

In the case of Afghanistan, assuming unlimited US resources, it would be great to stay involved. But America, as we now know, chose the most complicated and least cost effective tools to fight this conflict with terror groups right at the time in which it was running low, (for completely separate reasons), on national resources. It is a fact that Washington has run out of money. A country that currently borrows 40 cents of every dollar it spends cannot afford to fight wars of choice indefinitely. Uncle Sam cannot pay the bills.

Fight terror with intelligence tools

So, let’s go back to basics: our problem is with anti-American groups that use terrorism. This is our target; and not the reform of the Muslim world.

Which is to say that sticking with intelligence tools to fight terrorism is both good policy and good economics. I do hope that someone will realize this, and soon.

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