President George W Bush has lost the support of most Americans when it comes to the economy, the environment and the war in Iraq, but he continues to enjoy majority support in one key area: his handling of the “war on terrorism”. Indeed, many analysts believe that Bush won the 2004 election largely because swing voters concluded that he would do a better job at this than his Democratic challenger, John Kerry. In fact, with his overall opinion-poll approval ratings so low, Bush’s purported proficiency in fighting terror represents something close to his last claim to public legitimacy.
But has he truly been effective in combating terror? As the “war on terrorism” drags on – with no signs of victory in sight – there are good reasons to doubt his competency at this, the most critical of all his presidential responsibilities.
Consider, for a moment, the president’s view of the “war on terror”. While the White House keeps trying to stretch this term to include everything from the war in Iraq to the protection of oil pipelines in Colombia, most Americans wisely view it in more narrow terms, as a global struggle against Muslim zealots who seek to punish the US for its perceived anti-Islamic behavior and to free the Middle East of Western influence through desperate acts of violence.
These zealots – or jihadis as they are often termed – include the original members of al-Qaeda, along with other groups that claim allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s dogmas but are not necessarily in direct contact with his lieutenants. It is in fighting these adversaries that the public wants Bush to succeed, and it is in this contest that he is failing.
Why is this so? Consider the nature of the US commander-in-chief’s primary responsibilities in wartime. Surely, his overarching task is to devise (with the help of senior advisers) a winning strategy to defeat, or at least pummel, the enemy and to mobilize the forces and resources needed to successfully implement this framework.
Choosing the tactics of battle – the day-by-day management of combat operations – should not, on the other hand, fall under the commander-in-chief’s responsibility, but rather be delegated to professionals recruited for this purpose. Bush has failed on both counts, embracing a deeply flawed blueprint for the “war on terror” and then meddling disastrously in the tactics employed to carry it out.
Finding terrorism’s center of gravity
As all the great masters of strategy have taught us, devising a winning strategy requires, first and foremost, understanding one’s opponent and correctly identifying his strengths and weaknesses. Once that has been accomplished, it is necessary to craft a mode of attack that exploits the enemy’s weaknesses and undermines or overpowers his strengths.
In modern military parlance, this task is often described as locating and destroying the enemy’s “center of gravity”.
For example, in both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, American war planners correctly identified the Iraqi center of gravity as the highly centralized, top-down command structure of the Saddam Hussein regime; once this structure was crippled early in the fighting, the Iraqi combat units in the field – however capable and dedicated – were unable to perform effectively, and so were easily routed.
In the current war in Iraq, by contrast, American commanders have been unable to locate the enemy’s center of gravity, and so have been incapable of crafting an effective strategy for defeating the insurgents.
What, then, is the enemy’s center of gravity in the “war on terror”? This is the critical question that Bush and his top advisers have been unable to answer correctly. According to Bush, the terrorists’ center of gravity has been the support and sanctuary they receive from “rogue” regimes such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and, supposedly, Saddam in Iraq, as well as the mullahs in Iran. If these regimes were all swept away, the White House has long argued, the terrorists would find themselves weakened, isolated, and ultimately defeated.
“The very day of the [September 11] attacks,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later recalled, “[Bush] told us, his advisers, that the United States faced a new kind of war and that the strategy of our government would be to take the fight to the terrorists. That night, he announced to the world that the United States would make no distinction between the terrorists and the states that harbor them.” From this basic proposition, all else has followed: the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq and the current planning for a possible war in Iran.
The overthrow of the Taliban did eliminate an important sanctuary and training base for al-Qaeda. But were “rogue” regimes ever truly the center of gravity for the terrorist threat? The events of the past few years unequivocally demonstrate that such has not been the case, then or now. (In fact, we know that there were no links between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda.) The Taliban and the Hussein regime are, of course, long gone, but al-Qaeda continues to mount assaults on Western interests around the world and new manifestations of jihadism continue to erupt all the time.
“Al-Qaeda has clearly shown itself to be nimble, flexible and adaptive,” observed terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation in Current History magazine. “Because of the group’s remarkable durability, the loss of Afghanistan does not appear to have affected al-Qaeda’s ability to mount terrorist attacks to the extent that the United States hoped.”
Afghanistan did provide bin Laden with training facilities, supply dumps and the like, “but these camps and bases … are mostly irrelevant to the prosecution of an international terrorist campaign – as events since [September 11] have repeatedly demonstrated”.
Far from impeding al-Qaeda and its offshoots, the overthrow of the Taliban and, especially, the Hussein regime has been a boon to their efforts. War and chaos in the Middle East, with US forces serving as an occupying power, have proved to be the ideal conditions in which to nurture a multinational jihadi movement aimed at punishing the West.
As noted in a recent Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report, would-be jihadis from all over the world are flocking to Iraq to bloody the Americans and acquire critical combat skills that can later be applied in their own countries. According to a summary of a CIA report in the New York Times, the agency has concluded that “Iraq may prove to be an even more effective training ground for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan was in al-Qaeda’s early days, because it is serving as a real-world laboratory” for militants to improve their skills in urban combat.
It follows from this that the longer US troops remain in Iraq, the greater will be the potential advantage to international terrorism. Indeed, senior CIA officials have reportedly told congressional leaders that the war in Iraq is “likely to produce a dangerous legacy, by dispersing to other countries Iraqi and foreign combatants more adept and better organized than they were before the conflict”.
This prediction has been confirmed in recent months by terror attacks in Jordan and Afghanistan that bear the distinctive trademark of Iraqi-style combat, including the use of both suicide bombers in urban areas and improvised roadside explosive devices, or IEDs.
For example, the deadly bombings in Amman on November 9 have been described by American intelligence officials as representing an effort by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the self-styled al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, to apply combat techniques perfected in Iraq to other countries led by pro-American regimes.
Likewise, in Afghanistan, US officials have told reporters that “militants are increasingly taking a page from the insurgent playbook in Iraq and using more roadside bombs and suicide attacks”.
European officials are particularly worried by this phenomenon, fearing the return to Europe of Islamic militants who have slipped off to Iraq for first-hand combat experience. “We consider these people dangerous because those who go will come back once their mission is accomplished,” said a senior French intelligence officer in late 2004. “Then they can use the knowledge gained there in France, Europe or the United States. It’s the same as those who went to Afghanistan or Chechnya.”
Botching the ‘war on terror’
Clearly, Bush’s identification of rogue regimes as the center of gravity of the terrorist enemy has proved faulty; nor, in light of this failure, has he been able to correctly identify the true center. As suggested by most serious scholars of Islamic extremism, the real crux of the jihadis’ strength lies in their ability to articulate and propagate a message of radical struggle that inspires and activates thousands of disaffected young Muslims around the world.
As summarized by Hoffman of RAND, al-Qaeda has evolved into “an amorphous movement tenuously held together by a loosely networked constituency rather than a monolithic, international organization with an identifiable command and control apparatus … It has become a vast enterprise – an international movement or franchise operation with like-minded local representatives, loosely connected to a central ideological or motivational base but advancing its goals independently.”
Obviously, defeating this “movement” requires a very different strategy than the one now employed by the US. Instead of military assaults on rogue states, it requires a capacity to identify and apprehend the often self-appointed “local representatives” of al-Qaeda, to disable the movement’s propaganda apparatus, and, most of all, to discredit its prime messages.
On a grand scale, this requires positioning the US with progressive forces in the Middle East, withdrawing from Iraq and ending US support for repressive, regressive regimes like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. On a purely tactical level, it means developing harmonious relations with professional intelligence officials in other countries and developing a communications strategy aimed at delegitimizing the jihadis’ violent appeals within the Islamic world – an effort that can only be successful if it enjoys the assistance of moderate Muslims willing to cooperate with the US.
The need for a strategy of this sort has been voiced by at least some terrorism experts in the US and by many officials in Europe. But even those American experts who have advocated such an approach have been repeatedly stymied by the president’s unswerving commitment to his own, demonstrably failed approach. No divergence from the official White House blueprint has been permitted. To make matters worse, Bush and his top advisers have insisted on micro-managing the “war on terror”, choosing tactics that amplify the damage caused by their defective strategy.
The greatest damage has been caused by decisions made by top administration officials, including the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, regarding the methods used to apprehend, confine, and extract information from terrorist suspects and those associated with them.
Most significantly, this includes decisions to permit the abduction of suspects on the territory of friendly nations, to use Europe as a stopover point for the transport or “rendition” of suspects to Asian and Middle Eastern countries where torture is routinely employed to extract confessions, to allow US interrogators to use methods that by any reasonable definition constitute torture, and to tolerate the mistreatment of Muslim prisoners in US custody (whether at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay or in secret CIA-run prisons in Afghanistan, Europe and elsewhere).
Separately and together, these decisions have severely alienated the very governments and religious figures whose assistance is desperately needed to mount an effective campaign against al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
To give just one example of the problems this has caused the US: On December 24, an Italian judge issued arrest warrants for 22 purported CIA operatives who abducted an Egyptian cleric in Milan in 2003 and “rendered” him to Egypt, where he was subsequently tortured by Egyptian security officers. This case has caused a major uproar in Italy, forcing even Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, normally a reliable White House ally, to distance himself from US policies – hardly the way to hold on to, no less gain, allies in the “war on terror”.
Equally worrisome is the growing anti-Americanism espoused by supposedly “mainstream” Islamic clerics in Europe. Prompted by what they view as an unrelenting US campaign against the Islamic world – the abuses uncovered at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere providing but the most recent confirmations of this outlook – these clerics are promulgating a militant message that, European intelligence officers contend, is inspiring young Muslim men to volunteer for combat in Iraq or to form their own, home-grown al-Qaeda-type organizations. It was a group of this sort, experts believe, that staged the bombings in the London Underground last July 7 that killed 52 people.
It is impossible to exaggerate the damage caused by the US president’s improvident decisions. Yes, these tactics are immoral. Yes, they violate US norms and values. Yes, they are in many respects illegal. All this, by itself, is enough to warrant condemnation by Congress and the public. But it is the lethal effect of these decisions on America’s capacity for success in the “war on terror” that most concerns us here.
By employing tactics that only serve to heighten the destructive consequences of a failing strategy, Bush has in essence guaranteed America’s failure. In the final analysis, the president’s incompetent management of the “war on terror” has helped the jihadis take better advantage of their strengths while exploiting America’s weaknesses. This does not bode well for the future of global peace and stability.
For too long, the American public has accepted the myth of presidential effectiveness in the “war on terror”. But as the practical implications of Bush’s incompetence become ever more apparent – lamentably, through the continued spread and potency of radical jihadism – this last, crucial prop of the president’s support could soon fall away. As 2005 was the year in which Bush’s fatal incompetence in domestic affairs was revealed to all through the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, 2006 could prove to be the year in which his failed leadership in the “war on terror” finally comes back to haunt him.
Michael T Klare is the professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Owl Books) as well as Resource Wars, The New Landscape of Global Conflict.