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Where to Now?

Phase One of the Terror War, the war against the al Qaeda--harboring Taliban regime of Afghanistan, has been a triumph of American arms. Kabul, the Afghan capital, fell on Veterans Day, and Kandahar, the Taliban spiritual center, fell on December 7, the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. (”Just coincidence,“ says a chuckling Pentagon source.) Not that it all started that well. America was caught flatfooted by the 21st-century Pearl Harbor of 911; we lacked even the most obvious plans for war against Osama bin Laden’s Afghan bases. But America‘s foreign-policy and military leaders made adjustments on the fly, in full scramble mode, and shattered the Taliban regime. However, taking down the Taliban regime and destroying al Qaeda’s headquarters could prove to be one of the more straightforward assignments in the ongoing Terror War. In many ways, the U.S. has simply succeeded to the extent it has by doing what it already knows how to do. Powerful air strikes -- albeit much more precise than in Kosovo and the Gulf War -- are the conventional staple of American war-fighting. Such attacks may not be appropriate in many of the literally dozens of countries from which al Qaeda must be uprooted and defeated.

In his prophetic 1991 book The Transformation of War, Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld predicted that ”War will not be waged by armies but by groups whom we today call terrorists, guerrillas, bandits and robbers, but who will undoubtedly hit on more formal titles to describe themselves. Their organizations are likely to be constructed on charismatic lines rather than institutional ones, and to be motivated less by professionalism than by fanatical, ideologically based, loyalties.“ Afghanistan is just one part of an anti-terrorist war that, in a way, must mirror that conducted by the terrorists themselves. It must focus not on occupying territory but on speedy movement and the capture or elimination of specific targets: members of the terrorist network and its supporting systems -- finance, communications, intelligence, weapons.

U.S. intelligence, special operations forces and diplomacy will have to be exquisitely coordinated. It will not be unlike the ”Battle of Europe,“ a bloody shadow war fought by Israel against the terror networks behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. And it is not at all clear that eliminating bin Laden, when he is found, and the Taliban leadership will fatally cripple the transnational theocratic terror network that attacked America on September 11.

This war is global in scope. The al Qaeda network and its allies are active throughout the Middle East, but their reach is much broader, encompassing much of Africa, Europe, Asia and North and South America. Attention is already turning to other countries -- among them Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Iraq.

Bin Laden may have fled to Pakistan, where CIA and Special Forces troops are searching now. Somalia, site of a U.S. humiliation in 1993 when 18 Rangers died in a botched raid (700 Somali fighters also died), has long been an al Qaeda hotbed. Germany‘s left-wing government is readying military forces to assist the U.S. in Somalia, where surviving al Qaeda leaders may regroup.

Prospects for U.S. action look most promising in the Philippines, a one-time American colony won in the Spanish-American War, lost to Japan early in World War II, then won back from the Japanese and granted independence in 1946. Generally a U.S. ally, the mostly Catholic Philippines have experienced an on-again, off-again Islamic insurgency for centuries. (Arab merchants and Islamic missionaries reached the islands 800 years ago, but lost out to the Spanish, who arrived several centuries later.) Islamic unrest particularly heated up during the Cold War, when Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas received backing from the Soviet bloc.

In recent years, this long-simmering cauldron has been a staging area for terrorist actions outside the Philippines. But the group allied to al Qaeda may be isolated now, easier pickings for U.S. intelligence and Special Forces; the main Islamic guerrilla movement is negotiating with the new Philippine government of President Gloria Arroyo and has denounced bin Laden’s call for jihad against the U.S. The Philippine government has offered the U.S. use of the massive former American naval and air bases, Subic Bay and Clark Field.

Things are less promising in Indonesia. The world‘s fourth most populous country, which has more Muslims than any other, spans some of the world’s most important shipping lanes. Its new, relatively pro-American woman president, Megawati Sukarnopoutri, has an anti-American Islamist vice president. The archipelago nation traded a pro-Soviet dictatorship for a pro-American dictatorship and only recently entered its democratic present. But the nation is teetering on the brink of chaos. Strikes against al Qaeda assets there could be very problematic.

Then there‘s Iraq, the notionally Islamic but fundamentally secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Many conservatives, regarding Bush the Elder’s decision not to press on to Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War as a major mistake, want to finish off the troublesome regime. Polls show most Americans agree. The elder Bush wanted an intact Iraq to serve as a regional counterweight to Iran, but the conservatives do have a point.

Saddam successfully manipulated the Clinton administration and the United Nations out of inspecting his programs for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. And there is considerable evidence that Iraq was involved in the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. When the Sandinistas were defeated in the 1990 election, it was discovered that thousands of Nicaraguan passports were unaccounted for. Many of these Nicaraguan passports, left behind by Iraqi forces in their haste to escape American forces at the end of the Gulf War, turned up in Kuwait in 1991. Five of the passports were on the person of one of the principal plotters when he was arrested in New York in 1993.

However, there is as yet little evidence that Iraq is involved in the present al Qaeda campaign against America. Unless it can be shown that Iraq is playing a central role, which it may be, taking on Saddam would be a distraction from the complex task of rolling up al Qaeda around the globe.

Former Senator Gary Hart, the pro-war chairman of the U.S. Commission on National Security, which predicted major terrorist attacks in America, notes, ”Those who advocate ‘going after’ Saddam never answer two vital questions: 1) how; 2) at what cost? If the commandoassassination option worked, the Mossad [Israeli intelligence] would have done it years ago; Iraq is not Afghanistan. Although there are military targets, the principal target is Hussein. Whereas there are mountain tunnels in Afghanistan, there are urban tunnels in Baghdad. Bombing could result in tens of thousands of civilian casualties without achieving the desired result.“


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