Saturday, August 12, 2006

The "War on Terror" is harming America, say experts

We've won the war on terror, according to an article by James Fallows in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, based on interviews with sixty terrorism experts. They told Fallows that basically we've broken al-Qaeda as an effective terrorist organization. But by continuing to engage in a "Global War on Terror," we are actually hurting only ourselves, while strengthening what remains of al-Qaeda and encouraging start-up wannbe groups around the world. We must stop now and dramatically change how we characterize and react to these groups. The biggest danger now in perpetuating this "War" is to ourselves.

The article is very long and only available online with a paid subscription, so I'll do my best to summarize Fallows' analysis below without quoting too much. I have posted a .pdf of the entire article here if you want to read the whole thing -- all 15 pages, and I strongly encourage everyone to do so. After reading this article, I can begin to see how the entire national conversation about Bush's "War on Terror" can be turned against him. My summary with extensive quotes and a few of my own thoughts below.

Fallows interviewed sixty experts ranging from the military and intelligence communities, as well as academics, members of think tanks and businesspeople, both American and foreign. They all told him basically the same thing.

In his overview, Fallows quotes David Kilcullen, an Australian military officer who commanded the counterinsurgency efforts in East Timor, and is now a senior counter terrorism advisor at the State Department. Kilcullen says that  al-Qaeda today is actually a lot like

European anarchists in the nineteenth century. "If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat." But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. "So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.

"It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat," he concluded. "Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It's al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger."

Since 9/11, this equation has worked in al-Qaeda's favor. That can be reversed.

The experts, both here and abroad, agree that al-Qaeda has essentially been neutered.

"Their command structure is gone, their Afghan sanctuary is gone, their ability to move around and hold meetings is gone, their financial and communications networks have been hit hard," says Seth Stodder, a former official in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Kilcullen says, "The al-Qaeda that existed in 2001 simply no longer exists. In 2001 it was a relatively centralized organization, with a planning hub, a propaganda hub, a leadership team, all within a narrow geographic area. All that is gone, because we destroyed it."

My own take on this: Yes we did that by going into Afganistan, a move that vritually everyone thought was the right move, including the first anti-war candidate, Howard Dean. The problem is that we left before the job was done to focus on Iraq. Many of Fallows experts say the same thing. Back to Fallows.

Although bin Laden has apparently been elevated to "Che Guevara-like symbolic status," he has become "a philosophy rather than an organization", according to Caleb Carr, author of the The Lessons of Terror. "It's like the difference between Marxism and Leninism, and they're back to just being Marx."

This is demonstrated by the shift to "self-starter groups," such as the ones responsible for the bombings in Madrid, Bali, London, and probably the latest group arrested in Britain. Many of the experts that Fallows interviewed said that

the shift to these successor groups has made it significantly harder for terrorists of any provenance to achieve what all of them would like: a "second 9/11," a large-scale attack on the U.S. mainland that would kill hundreds or thousands of people and terrorize hundreds of millions.

So we are all still in danger from these groups, but they are closer to Tim McVeigh than to bin Laden's al-Qaeda.

How much of this can the Department of Homeland Security take credit for. Not much as it turns out. According to Fallows,

The DHS now spends $42 billion a year on its vast range of activities, which include FEMA and other disaster-relief efforts, the Coast Guard, immigration, and border and customs operations. Of this, about $5 billion goes toward screening passengers at airports. The widely held view among security experts is that this airport spending is largely for show. Strengthened cockpit doors and a flying public that knows what happened on 9/11 mean that commercial airliners are highly unlikely to be used again as targeted flying bombs. "The inspection process is mostly security theater, to make people feel safe about flying,"says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State and the author of a forthcoming book about the security-industrial complex.

In order for continuing terrorism to be effective, each attack must be bigger and more terrifying than the last. Otherwise the public will become desensitized. But nothing short of a nuclear attack will top 9/11. Obviously, then we would all be much safer if the major thrust of our efforts was on countering and controlling nuclear threats. One of the biggest mistakes, however, that Islamic terrorists have been making is thinking like terrorists, strange as this seems.

What they have done is to follow the terrorist's logic of steadily escalating the degree of carnage and violence--which has meant violating the guerrilla warrior's logic of bringing the civilian population to your side. This trade-off has not been so visible to Americans, because most of the carnage is in Iraq. There, insurgents have slaughtered civilians daily, before and after the death this spring of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But since American troops are also assumed to be killing civilians, the anti-insurgent backlash is muddied.

My thoughts again: A damn good reason to bring our troops home as soon as we can. Fallows gives examples of this principle in action. The bombing in Jordan of three hotels killed sixty civilians -- Muslims, including 38 at a wedding. The result was to turn the Jordanian population and government against al-Qaeda and al-Zarqawi. Polls in Muslim countries show that while the majority are anti-American, there is little support for "al-Qaeda's advocacy of a puritanical Islamic state."

The greatest threat from terrorists now is the damage that they can cause us to inflict upon ourselves. Fallows says

most people I spoke with said that three kinds of American reaction--the war in Iraq, the economic consequences of willy-nilly spending on security, and the erosion of America's moral authority--were responsible for such strength as al-Qaeda now maintained.

Me again. In other words, the ongoing "War on Terror" is far more damaging to the United States than al-Qaeda could ever be. Our military is bogged down in an unending/unendable war. Vast amounts of money have been squandered, wasted, and outright stolen by companies with no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq (which they haven't done), as well as by the Dept. of Homeland Security which is incapable of doing anything in an emergency (Katrina) except hold press conferences. In fact Fallows says that, "nearly all (experts) emphasized the haphazard, wasteful, and sometimes self-defeating nature of the DHS's approach." But the worst is that we have lost our moral authority in the world.

The United States is so powerful militarily that by its very nature it represents a threat to every other nation on earth. The only country that could theoretically destroy every single other country is the United States. The only way we can say that the U.S. is not a threat is by looking at intent, and that depends on moral authority. If you're not sure the United States is going to do the right thing, you can't trust it with that power, so you begin thinking, How can I balance it off and find other alliances to protect myself?

Every time we overreact, we strengthen the terrorists. Although the article was written before the latest arrests in Britain, our government's reaction is exactly what bin Laden hopes for. Mindless and meaningless increases in airport security costing more money and further undermining our ability to move freely and easily.

Four analysts--Mueller, of Ohio State; Lustick, of the University of Pennsylvania; plus Veronique de Rugy, of the American Enterprise Institute; and Benjamin Friedman, of MIT--have written extensively about the mindlessness and perverse effects of much homeland-security spending. In most cases, they argue, money dabbed out for a security fence here and a screening machine there would be far better spent on robust emergency-response systems. No matter how much they spend, state and federal authorities cannot possibly protect every place from every threat. But they could come close to ensuring that if things were to go wrong, relief and repair would be there fast.

Fallows talks about the effects of the perpetuation of a constant state of war to create a constant level of fear. Mueller writes that "the creation of insecurity, fear, anxiety, hysteria, and overreaction is central for terrorists."

We will probably always be the target of attacks, attacks on the scale of Oklahoma City, the Unabomer, the Tylenol poisonings, the D.C. area snipers, the anthrax mailing, school shootings, and so on. But we need to stop looking at attacks by Islamic al-Qaeda wannabes as part of a "global war" and start dealing with them like we dealt with the above. When we link every attack or attempted attack or plotted attack as stemming from al-Qaeda, we only strengthen bin Laden's reputation.

Every parent knows that sometimes the best way to deal with misbehavior is to ignore it. Fallows suggests something similar. Not that we should ignore the al-Qaeda wannabes, but neither should we overreact. Overreacting just gives the terrorists what they want.

Instead we should declare victory in the War on Terror, and start implementing strategies that will actually make us all safer. Such as focusing on the threat of loose nukes. Such as resuming our search for bin Laden. Such as focusing more resources on securing Afghanistan. Such as doing what we can to improve our image in the Muslim world.

After American troops brought ships, cargo planes, and helicopters loaded with supplies for tsunami victims, the overall Indonesian attitude toward the United States was still negative, but some 79 percent of Indonesians said that their opinion of America had improved because of the relief effort. There was a similar turnaround in Pakistan after U.S. troops helped feed and rescue villagers affected by a major earthquake. But in most of the Muslim world, the image of American troops is that of soldiers or marines manning counterinsurgency patrols, not delivering food and water. "The diplomatic component of the war on terror has been neglected so long, it's practically vestigial," a Marine officer told me. "It needs to be regrown."

Mostly, however, Fallows believes that we need a leader who will "keep the dangers in perspective." Unlike the ones we have now, who use every incident really or manufactured, as an excuse to spend more money, increase the level of fear, and undermine our basic rights and freedoms.

And my final thoughts: Of course they use every incident to try to increase the level of fear, since that is how they hope to stay in power. We must find a simple way to explain all this and to make it clear that Bush's "War on Terror" is not only being used as political manipulation, but it is actually increasing our danger from terrorists. Or so it seems to me.