Strategic issues arising from the World Trade Centre Attack

An Australian Perspective By Peter Lawrence

(Article printed in News Weekly of 20.10.01 under the title "Australia must protect the innocent victims of war". This was materially edited. The title was changed as shown above, a great deal was cut and some words, phrases and formatting were altered, sometimes to bridge the cuts. As some of the cut material was significant, this version shows the original draft with most of the new formatting but with the cuts left in. They are indicated by being coloured.)

After the attacks on Washington and New York and the developments of the past few weeks there are things we should look out for, in case what is happening forms part of some larger scheme, not yet fully clear to us.

Napoleon tried to structure his battles and campaigns using elements from a basic toolkit: engage, dislocate, penetrate, pursue. That's not a straightforward cookbook recipe, just a metaphor for skilled practitioners to adapt. For instance, in dirty fighting the sucker punch works out with engage/dislocate translating into "you hold him" and penetrate/pursue into "while I hit him".

Perhaps the initial attacks were merely "engage" and this US response "dislocate". From the beginning there were real concerns that Pakistan could end up destabilised by US counter-measures, and it is absolutely certain that even if Afghanistan wasn't the enemy of the USA it now is.

Could the terrorist plan be for some real and lasting defeat on the USA? Easily. "Dislocate" places the victim in a dilemma, e.g. needing to be in two places at once or simultaneously moving and staying still. This is what air power delivers; it cannot defeat an enemy, contrary to common belief. What it can do is make it impossible for him to move so other things can be done to him, maybe by the poor bloody infantry.

What happened in Serbia the other year does not disprove this - on available evidence Serbia's will gave when it became clear that ground attacks were about to start, perhaps from the Russians. But there is never a guarantee that the enemy's will will fail. Tamim Ansary has commented on how well placed Afghans are to endure whatever can be thrown at them.

This highlights a common error in understanding military matters. It is not true that wars are just aimed at influencing others' behaviour - there are other possibilities. In Israel the ultimate objective is a secure Israel, and Palestinian acquiescence is not the goal - it would just make it cheaper. But the Israelis are determined to get it whether the Palestinians cooperate or not. The recent attacks on the USA may well have other ends than influencing US behaviour.

So the strikes on Afghanistan can't be the whole of what has to be done. This is particularly true since they cannot possibly be "surgical", even if each and every one only hits real terrorists - the whole country will be disrupted, with some harvests not gathered in, other things not distributed, and so on.

The sequence war, famine, plague and death refers to this - war disrupts, then famine follows, and after a weakened population becomes prone to epidemics which are also more lethal - death comes as no respecter of the innocent.

The attacks on the USA didn't cause significant damage, so many commentators are saying they failed. They certainly got things moving, so now the USA may be unstable and off balance to resist attacks of a different nature, e.g. rocket-assisted mortars fifty miles from continental US oil refining or ordinary sea mines and suicide attacks by boats in the shallow waters of the Middle East. A few months ago there would have been more margin of error, more slack; there are simple counter-measures - but expensive in men, time and money.

That is what dislocation delivers, forcing counter-measures. US forces are getting committed overseas and heavily dependent on a long support "tail" - it is not widely appreciated how very risky an advance on Baghdad in the Gulf War would have been (do you know what happens to an unconverted Abrams tank in a dust storm? what its loss in performance is when protected against that? how very poor it is at outpacing its supplies even with its best performance?).

Make no mistake, the USA is still vulnerable. If Byzantium had not been otherwise occupied the Ottomans would not have got established. This is the significance of "penetrate". At its worst it could leave the USA with an open wound that will not heal, like the Ottomans - "pursue". Or the enemies of the USA may be aiming to use the dislocation to penetrate and pursue somewhere else in the world, somewhere they can reach with the USA otherwise occupied.

Napoleon remarked that with plans "l'execution c'est tout", the trick is doing it. The same goes for our enemies' plans. For us and for the USA, one main defence must be to brace ourselves and not get overbalanced, escaping the dislocation part of the Napoleonic pattern. The USA seems to be avoiding this trap at the moment. There is a further and particular risk for Australia. The right way to inflict terror, Schrecklichkeit, is to pick a suitable victim and annihilate him comprehensively. The victim has nothing to negotiate. What the aggressor wants, and gets, is for some of the observers to hang back or change sides - to split a coalition. It is their behaviour that matters, when they see that the ally of the main player gets no support. We could end up being the object lesson, hung out to dry to show that the USA can't even protect its friends.

We can take positive steps. Americans are not highly thought of outside the USA. Even here we often look on them as benevolent but clumsy, as likely to hurt us by well meaning mistake as anything else, like Lenny in "Of Mice and Men" - and some countries consider the USA outright hostile. So we can play good cop to the US bad cop if the world has cast the USA that way already. The difficulty is, the USA even now will not accept that reading - they often literally do not appreciate what they have done and become. So we should go ahead with good cop stuff independently of US war efforts, even despite US objections. (This is roughly what the British are doing in Oman, which matters for the staging post of Masirah.)

We should establish refugee and relief staging areas, e.g. behind the port of Gwadar in Pakistani Baluchistan, with Australian consular assistance but most definitely not disrupting Pakistani sovereignty.

To work, it must be genuinely and freely offered and accepted, and we should understand how it works too. Good cop/bad cop is so much a cliche by now, few people realise there is a trick to it. What actually happens is, in the face of hostility the subject reaches out for support. That is, the good cop does not initiate his side of things, the subject does.

In a word, we should restabilise Pakistan. That is, repair what the US has just done there, which has the added virtue of heading off our own refugee problems and any Indian encroachment in our area - we don't want the Indian Ocean to be an Indian lake one day. Assistance with local politics works out, since Pakistan would get some patronage over who emigrated. Australia would soften the flow of migrants at source, maintaining a staging area where they could be checked without imposing risks for genuine refugees - this would have been valuable even a few months ago.

This prepares for two strategic benefits. It moves people out of the difficult terrain of Afghanistan into more manageable Baluchistan. And we can start offering genuine intelligence support on the ground. It has been correctly observed that westerners can't be fully fluent in local languages, and we can't pass for locals either. But those aren't the tricks. The first trick is, to understand enough of the local languages - and have that known - that we can't be fooled, since we don't let on just which bits we understand. The second trick is, when going out in search for information, don't try to pass for a local but for some quite other kind of foreigner, perhaps a Baluchi gone to help in Afghanistan.

But, contrary to recent reports, we are not on the same side as the USA, in a larger sense. Indeed, we could with profit repeat de Valera's 1945 speech about small countries caught up in larger struggles. Though we should not be US clients we should be on the side of justice - without seeking to enter into any position of dependence ourselves. In Terry Pratchett's words, "We're just on two different sides that happen to be side by side." If the USA could erode the British Empire to achieve hegemony after 1945 - I see nothing wrong with our eroding that hegemony in our turn, so long as we also build up our ability to survive free and independent. When Americans say we always ask for their help, they are actually referring to this very dependence that they manufactured. They deserve no gratitude for defending us from things they made us helpless from - but as fellow human beings they deserve our every help in their hour of need, whatever we may retrieve from their wreck.

Taken all in all, there are things we can do to help others, to help ourselves, and to prevent fuelling future fires the way western clumsiness has so obviously done in the past. There is no contradiction between bringing justice to bear and cutting back future risks - reducing risks is not blaming the victim.

Peter Lawrence's publication page is at