January 8, 2004

January 8, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

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 partially learnt.

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 tiger''.

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 point.

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 books.

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 progress.

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.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for defence and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in the Australian Financial Review