How are we to evaluate the success of a “War on Terrorism” (WOT)? On the one hand, the United States has not experienced a foreign terror attack on its soil since 9/11. On the other hand, of all the large and small conflicts that have erupted overseas following 9/11, none have been brought to a successful conclusion. In fact, nearly all are growing worse. In addition, there seem to be multiple “Wars on Terrorism,” with the U.S., Israel, Russia, China and others all apparently fighting their own battle, often with different objectives, opponents and tactics.
The failure to define the WOT has been followed by a failure to set objectives. Even the limited yet essential objective of seizing bin Laden and al-Zawahiri failed to hold the interest of policy-makers in Washington intent on regime-change in Iraq. With the conflict in Iraq sinking into a pattern of terrorist violence and retribution, it has become nearly impossible to separate the Iraq campaign from the wider WOT. Long-term strategic objectives, especially those in the resource sector, have also complicated the conduct of the WOT.
Aside from the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, there are a number of regions worth watching as we enter the fourth year of the WOT.
Russian Republic: After Russia’s recent wave of terrorist attacks there is a pervasive feeling that the President’s once bold response to terrorists (“We’ll kill them in their outhouses!”) has encountered a bitter reality: the state can no longer control Russia’s spiral of violence. The President’s identification of democracy as one of the root causes of terrorism has found little support at home or abroad. As Putin attempts to ride a boiling-pot of political, ethnic and religious tensions he may feel compelled to lash out in some direction to bring the state together. Sadly, this rationale was already used to ill-effect when the then-unknown Putin sought voters’ support in 1999 by promising a quick and victorious war in Chechnya. Unfortunately, the deep corruption in Russia’s security forces ensure a steady supply of arms and documents to terrorists and guerrillas alike.
Georgia: Following the Beslan massacre, President Putin announced that Russia was preparing pre-emptive strikes on terrorist targets beyond its borders. Moscow is angry with President Saakashvili’s attempts to reconsolidate the Russian supported breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia maintains that Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge still harbors “international terrorists” (with a surprising confirmation from the U.S. ambassador), a possible pretext for wider military operations.
The North Caucasus: As Chechnya enters its third century of resistance to Russian rule, it has become a showcase for the fight between conventional guerrilla tactics and outright terrorism as a means of struggle against the state. Practitioners of terrorism such as Shamil Basayev have come to realize that an endless war of attrition against an enemy 250 times larger holds little possibility of success, regardless of how well it is fought. With little chance for a decisive battlefield victory so long as Russia continues to throw new troops into the cauldron, Basayev is seeking a cathartic act of violence that will once and for all force Russia from Chechnya. After 5 years of war, Basayev also believes that so long as Chechens “fight fair,” their struggle will remain Russia’s “internal matter.” Basayev seems to be taking a fatalistic regard to his own future, which makes him even more dangerous. Despite bitterness over the West’s failure to support the Chechen cause, Basayev is unlikely to abandon his focus on Russia in favor of international targets.
Elsewhere in the Caucasus, Ingushetia has been drawn into the conflict and Daghestan’s long pattern of political violence threatens to boil over into rebellion. Balkar militants in Kabardino-Balkaria have also been engaged in a little-known campaign of bombings and attacks on security forces.
Uzbekistan: This strategically important country is now host to an important U.S. military base. This spring’s outbreak of violence in the cities of Tashkent and Bukhara demonstrated the continuing radicalization of the population in the face of growing political repression. Uzbekistan has become the home of the modern “Caliphate” movement, which seeks to revive the Islamic Caliphate as a pan-Islamic political model. (Mustafa Kemal eliminated the role of Caliph, last filled by the Ottoman Sultans, in 1924). Important elements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, including its leader Tahir Yuldash, appear to have survived the WOT in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan. Uzbekistan’s Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, a leader in the revival of the Caliphate, is making progress in other parts of Central Asia, partly as a result of Islamists fleeing the Karimov regime for neighboring countries. Meanwhile, Karimov has learned to play his two suitors, Russia and the U.S., against each other in order to consolidate his personal rule.
Pakistan: If the elimination of al-Qaeda is to be undertaken in any seriousness, it will involve Coalition operations in Pakistan’s difficult Northwest Frontier region. Pakistan’s own raids in the area have yielded few results other than fanciful gun battles with Ayman al-Zawahiri and small defeats blamed on the presence of the ubiquitous Chechens. Any coalition operation in the region will likely be met with fierce opposition from local tribesmen.
Iraq: The great danger from Iraq will be the internationalization of this conflict, should Coalition forces fail to establish a working democracy in the nation. With the decreasing likelihood of this result in the near future, it is possible that the Iraqi resistance might take their fight overseas. Despite their reputation, few Iraqis have figured as players in international terrorism. If the many emerging forces in Iraqi politics are again repressed it is almost inevitable that terrorist groups will attempt to force international involvement through extra-territorial violence.
Yemen: This South Arabian country remains deeply unsettled as the military struggles to enforce the rule of President Salih, whose alliance with the U.S. is widely resented. Yemen has long been a recruiting ground for al-Qaeda, as well as hosting a variety of home-grown militant movements.
With a few exceptions, there has been surprisingly little innovation in terrorist methods. High explosives, packaged as a car-bomb, a truck-bomb or a pedestrian suicide-bomber have all proven easier and more effective to carry out than the daily parade of nightmarish scenarios presented in the media. The media’s lurid and prolonged fascination with bizarre methods of mass destruction bears little resemblance to reality. It is easier to kill someone with a bullet than anthrax. It easier to blow someone up than it is to induce them to ingest ricin. A recent trend that will likely be seen more often is the large-scale coordinated attack, combining targeted killings, bombings, and the temporary seizure of government installations. Examples of this occurred in Ingushetia and Uzbekistan earlier this year.
In response to terrorism the U.S., Russia and Israel have all adopted a pre-emptive strike policy (including assassination) without reference to the UN Security Council. Unfortunately, acceptance of the “pre-emptive strike” policy invites covert manipulations and provocations designed to provide a pretext for war. The dangers of such policies in a volatile world are clear from history: WWI began with a political assassination, WWII with a “pre-emptive” strike.
The fallout from the WOT has created a new set of dangers and challenges. Foremost is a growing willingness to accept democratic reversals in nations “on-side” with the WOT, such as Yemen, Pakistan and Uzbekistan; closely related is the failure to address the concept of “state terrorism,” an important issue in many parts of the world. Both of these issues strike at the moral legitimacy of the WOT. The use of torture has compounded this effect, taking most of the moral steam out of the WOT and irrevocably alienating many in the Muslim world who would otherwise be open to the U.S. message of democracy and the rule of law. A lesser known outcome has been the collapse of “the War on Drugs.” In the last year of Taliban rule, opium production was nearly eliminated. Today Afghanistan provides three-quarters of the world supply, as neither the Coalition nor NATO forces consider drug enforcement part of their operational mandate. As the blight of heroin use spreads across Asia, disease and corruption follow in its path.
Finally, one cannot overlook the damage done to the intelligence capacity of Coalition countries through political interference. The shortcomings of U.S. and British intelligence have been well documented. Their problems are rooted in two issues, the selective use of raw and unconfirmed intelligence to support ideological positions and the uselessness of the “Links” method of intelligence analysis. Though they might look good in a PowerPoint presentation, “Links” are not connections, agreements or alliances. The construction of a web of conspiracy with al-Qaeda at the center of all Muslim terrorist or guerrilla activity is counter-productive. There are numerous struggles in which Muslims are engaged throughout the world. At the moment it seems sufficient to declare all such struggles as “al-Qaeda-inspired” (through the magic of the “links” system) in order to gain Western military support. The “links” obscure the far more regional and specific concerns of societies struggling with economic and political turmoil, much of it unforeseen fallout from the end of the Cold War complicated by the appeal of an “Islamic alternative.”
The list of potential flashpoints is unfortunately long and far from complete, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Most people in the Islamic world don’t take bin Laden seriously. In the years before and after 9/11, he has still to form any kind of political platform or suggest some alternative to the current world order other than a vague “return to Islam.” Having seized the world stage, he is at a curious loss for words. His attacks have done nothing to improve the lot of Muslims in Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, or any other scene of conflict. No state would willingly harbor bin Laden and his agents at this point, partly because al-Qaeda is an anti-state organization with no national allegiances, a lesson learned the hard way by the Taliban. His usefulness to anyone now is limited; as Shamil Basayev says, “I don’t know him, but I’d take his money.” Bin Laden’s condemnation by many of Islam’s most radical shaykhs for bringing ruin upon a Muslim nation (Afghanistan) has been little noted in the West. Al-Qaeda is best noted for its cynicism, its willingness to consign both Muslims and infidels to the “foundation of cripples and corpses” predicted by the late ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, bin Laden’s spiritual mentor. Its core membership forms an apocalyptic group that did not expect to survive the immediate fallout from 9/11. The elimination of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri would help bring the WOT out of the shadows and enable the West to deal more realistically with the threat of terrorism and the complexities of international relations.