Combating International Terrorism

by Thomas Stipe

     We cannot win the War on Terrorism with our military. We had the most powerful military in human history on September 11th, but it could not protect us then, and it cannot protect us now.

     Our current military structure is an outgrowth of the Cold War, and was designed to fight the old Soviet Army. It has changed since then, but it is still geared to fighting a concentration of forces using similar, if inferior weapons and tactics. It does not do so well when the opposing forces are dispersed in an indistinguishable civilian population and use unpredictable tactics, like scattered suicide attacks and car bombings. When the military action lacks legitimacy, as it does in Iraq, the effect can be counterproductive, creating more hatred and more terrorists than existed before.

     The Bush administration is fond of saying that the War in Iraq is the "front line" in the War on Terror, but this betrays a misconception of the basic struggle. There are no "fronts" or "lines" in this war, and it knows no boundaries. It is not limited to Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Middle East. It's a metastasized cancer with small, semi-autonomous cells scattered around the world.

     The common wisdom is that it's better to fight them in Iraq than to fight them here, but terrorists don't see this as an either/or choice. They can walk and chew gum at the same time. We are fighting them now in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's only a matter of time before they're back in action here. While Iraq is certainly the current focal point for the Jihadis, it serves a far more ominous function. Iraq is a magnet, recruiting tool and training ground for aspiring terrorists throughout the Islamic world. It is impossible for us to fully comprehend just what is developing in such psychologically remote cultures, but it looks like a burgeoning transnational revolution, as Islam confronts modernity. The entire region, from the Philippines to Pakistan to Morocco, is being destabilized by our arrogant attempts to resolve their problems for them by force. If this phenomenon were half as broad as it appears to be, fighting it with our military would be like trying to cure cancer with a baseball bat.

     The military is a blunt instrument. Even with precision guided munitions, we can't get the terrorists in Falluja without inflicting heavy civilian losses, and there's no better way to recruit more terrorists than killing civilians. Unfortunately, we're already up to our armpits in ill-conceived military exploits. In the short term then, we have little choice but to try to extricate ourselves from these follies without leaving utter chaos in our wake. Were we to walk away from Iraq in its currently demoralized state, the terrorists would probably exploit the situation, using the area as a staging ground for attacking Saudi Arabia.

     To defeat international terrorism, we will need patience and more delicate instruments than raw firepower. The first thing we must recognize is that international problems require collaborative international solutions. Neo-conservatives are particularly ill suited for this because they equate international cooperation with a loss of sovereignty unless all other countries are willing to follow our orders. The Bush administration has belatedly moved in this direction under great pressure, but this probably represents a tactical move rather than a fundamental strategic shift.

     Once we have relearned the lost art of diplomacy; that is, once we can listen to the concerns of other nations and can take them into account without feeling threatened, we can negotiate a truly collaborative, international approach to the problem. The military will probably play a much smaller role. The intelligence and law enforcement communities have traditionally handled terrorism, and that's still where our efforts should be focused. This is not a "war" in any conventional sense of the word. We were originally attacked by four small squads of suicidal men. There is no point in using our full military might against a five man squad. There was a coordinated concentration of terrorists in Afghanistan, and the provocation was crystal clear, so the military action there could be seen as both legitimate and effective, if we had only followed through on the job, and hadn't been distracted by Iraq. 

     Al-Qaeda has been disrupted and dispersed, but it hasn't been destroyed, and it has inspired other Islamist terrorist groups around the world.  It is unlikely that we will ever locate such a large concentration of terrorists again, but if we're determined to find a connection between a group of terrorists and a "state sponsor", we will.  That's the only scenario requiring further large scale military action in the "War on Terrorism", and that was the excuse in Iraq.  Otherwise, finding and eliminating one terrorist cell at a time will require an army of highly skilled intelligence agents from many countries working in concert with their counterparts in law enforcement. The more autonomous the cells, the more difficult this will be, but undoubtedly some portions of the international terrorist network will be more functionally interconnected. If and when these larger structures can be uncovered, disrupted and eliminated, more rapid progress can be made. The military may be able to play a roll here, but only as small tactical squads and only at the end of a much larger process.

     The great danger here is that most of this work will, of necessity, take place in the shadows, because that's where the terrorists are. As we have already witnessed, civil liberties are of secondary concern to law enforcement when operating in this murky light. Mix in clandestine operatives from a few dozen countries and the stage is set for abusive intrigues of all sorts. The tensions between security and civil liberties are unavoidable and the balance will swing wildly, driven by events. We will be dependent on the judicial and the media for oversight as never before and we have little reason for great confidence in either institution. This process will be comparatively dissatisfying, having none of the spectacle of a full-fledged military assault. The media will have to exercise judgment and self-restraint. If we're lucky, most of the drama will occur in the courtroom and not on public streets, whether here or in Baghdad.

     In the long run though, even effective clandestine operations cannot fully solve the problems within Islam. Ultimately Islamic problems must be resolved between Moslems, by Moslems, and for Moslems. If we can help in any way, dialog and development are the keys. We obviously can't discuss our differences with suicide bombers, but there are large segments of the Islamic world with whom we can communicate, if we keep in mind the fact that at least half the process of "communication" is listening. Our president seems to think Islamic terrorists hate our freedom, but it is obvious that they instead, hate our power and the manipulative policies we choose to pursue in their region. We must be willing to rethink the unqualified support we give to the state of Israel. That doesn't mean abandoning it, or condoning Palestinian suicide bombers. It just means being even handed. It means acknowledging the widespread despair that generates suicide bombers, and displaying a willingness on our part to restrain Israel when it uses excessive force, appropriates Palestinian land, or otherwise degrades the Palestinian people.

     We must also start taking concrete steps toward a post carbon based economy. This is a deeper issue, challenging the unquestioned consumptive lifestyles nurtured in our culture for generations. It is our petroleum addiction that dictates most of our Middle Eastern policies. This is why we've opted for the stability of repressive governments over any of the messy alternatives in the region for many decades. The problem is that few of us make the connection between our personal consumptive behaviors and national policies. The predominant attitude is, "If I want it and can afford it, it's my right", with no thought of how individual behaviors, taken collectively, have larger, long-term consequences. Challenging basic assumptions always generates resistance, and the "pursuit of happiness" through consumption is a fundamental tenet of American society.

     We haven't achieved societal perfection or even a firm consensus on many critical issues, so we cannot, with any honesty, force our solutions on anyone. Most Islamic countries are underdeveloped or suffer from the distortions of an economy based exclusively on oil. We can offer development assistance, but can't dictate the terms. Some segments of Islamic society seem to be stuck in the Middle Ages, while others are thoroughly modern. Those portions of Islamic society trying to adapt to modernity should be encouraged. They know where the problems lie and they are better equipped to effect change than we are. We can and should point out problems we see within Islamic cultures from our perspective. Many demographic issues, such as unrestrained population growth and the repression of women are interrelated and deeply engrained in the culture. We can suggest solutions, but we can't impose them.

          The broader this cultural communication, or public diplomacy, if you will, the better. Some government to government communication is essential, but not sufficient. We must reach out with our Religious, Academic, Business, and Cultural communities to any counterparts we can find, willing to strive toward mutual comprehension. The media is an obvious place to start, but we can't beat them over the head with transparent western bias. If we expect the Arab world to listen to Al-Hurra, it should be revamped, with much more air time opened to engaging diverse Islamic voices on the full range of cultural and societal problems they are wrestling with. While it is fair for us to express our perspectives on these issues, it should be made abundantly clear that we are not speaking from a position of superiority and that we do not all speak with one voice. Rather than complain about the biases of Al Jazeera, we should seek to engage their audience in open discussion, not restricting ourselves to apologists for the Bush administration. None of this will be quick or easy. The American public is probably more culture bound than the Islamic world. We are so internally fixated that we have little if any appreciation for other Western cultures, much less Islamic culture. For most of us, the only thing worth knowing about Islamic countries is how to get their petroleum as cheaply as possible. Our chief cultural ambassadors in the Islamic world are big oil conglomerates, and it will remain that way without a concerted effort, on both sides. Should the neo-conservatives retain control over the levers of US power in the Fall, no efforts will be made in this direction. From their perspective, we are the enlightened ones, and need only project our vision and power to a waiting world.