US Should Brace for a Very Long War
The weather in Washington has blown foul and fair. The northern
autumn brought chilling winds, early sunsets and little good news.
The Taliban appeared resurgent in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the balance
tipped. Americans have now suffered more post-conflict casualties
than losses during the invasion. A memo penned by Defence Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld, published widely in the world press, questioned
whether the United States was ``capturing, killing or deterring and
dissuading more terrorists than the madrassas (radical Islamic
schools) and radical clerics are recruiting''.
Before the first snow on the Capitol, however, Saddam Hussein was
in custody and President George Bush declared America, and
presumably the rest of the world, a "safer place."
The US and its allies are engaged in a protracted struggle.
Neither side will capitulate in a single season. In fact, the tenor
of the Rumsfeld memo seems wrongheaded. The Pentagon could learn a
lesson from its Cold War predecessors. Instead of attempting to
measure incremental progress, Washington should be bracing for a
very long war.
In mapping out a global strategy, three profitable lessons could be
drawn from another long conflict, the Cold War. Two years down in
the war against transnational terrorism, these lessons seem only
First, the war on terrorism, like the stand-off with the Soviets,
is a real war, and war is a competition between determined foes, a
conflict of action and counter action. Al-Qaeda certainly seems to
understand this proposition. Western intelligence experts agree
that the transnational network has suffered serious setbacks:
leaders captured, funding interrupted and operations disrupted. But
the response has been stepped-up recruitment, a shift to ``softer''
targets and inspiring disparate groups to launch attacks throughout
Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The counter-attack on terrorism
has changed rather than broken the terrorist complex. After all,
global terrorism can still be relatively cheap. According to The
Economist, $US2000 ($2600) can dispatch 20 jihadis to Iraq from
neighbouring Arab states.
Al-Qaeda and its allies are unlikely to give up easily because
they fervently believe their own propaganda. Osama bin Laden
declared that waning US support for operations in Lebanon and
Somalia after bloody setbacks ``convinced us America is a paper
Equally determined, the US public, which is often accused of being
fickle and faint-hearted, seems to understand the rollercoaster
nature of war. Even after the bombing of the UN Baghdad
headquarters last year, a Newsweek poll found 70 per cent supported
maintaining current force levels in Iraq. At least for now, there
seems to be enough recognition that there will be progress and
setbacks, ovations and tears.
Second, there should also be no expectation that developing the
right weapons to fight global terrorism will be easy. History
argues for patience. The National Security Act of 1947 created
America's premier Cold War weapons, a unified Defence Department
and the CIA. But it still took about a decade to figure out how
best to fight the Russian bear and develop instruments like NATO,
nuclear deterrence and international military assistance.
Likewise, it will probably take some time to settle on the right
combination to overcome global terrorism. Measures intended to
separate ``high risk'' cargo and travellers from the people, goods
and services that transit global trade networks offer a case in
The US needs profiles to identify suspects for detailed
inspections, but without sophisticated intelligence and
international co-operation that can uncover the sources and methods
of illicit operation and stimulate terrorists to undertake
activities that will compromise their operations, it is unlikely
that security regimes will stop many determined attackers.
There are ample signs that the US, in concert with other nations,
is moving to refine terrorist fighting methods but it is also clear
they have a long way to go.
Third, the US and its allies need a counter-terrorism program well
suited to prevail in a protracted conflict. At the dawn of the Cold
War, Dwight Eisenhower created a strategy that promoted a strong
economy and preserved liberties, as well as providing defences for
the long term. Such balance is also necessary to thrive while
hounding the threat of transnational terrorism into the history
Developing a balanced strategy is the greatest challenge of
competing over the long term. On this point, the US has come under
criticism on every front. Detractors, particularly in Europe,
describe US military efforts as unilateral and likely to create as
many enemies as they destroy.
Meanwhile, critics claim that US economic policies exploit the
developing world, feeding rather than combating the conditions that
breed terrorism. Ironically, while US actions have drawn censure
both overseas and at home, it is in the area of developing a
balanced strategy that the Bush administration has made most
Some backlash of global public opinion is to be expected.
Accusations of heavy-handedness emerged periodically during the
Cold War as well. As during the Cold War, however, the US and its
allies will have to continually both take and explain their actions
to a concerned world. Here, there is much work to be done. In
London, President Bush received more jeers than cheers, despite the
fact that polls show a majority of Britons still think the US is a
force for good in the war.
Two years down in the war and the only point that is clear is that
there is more struggle ahead than behind. That is about all that
can be said of the current campaign.
Carafano is a senior research fellow for defence and
homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Australian Financial Review