War Without End
Local Middle East and military experts consider the strange war to come.
Thursday, September 27, 2001
Caught By Surprise: Amin Tarzi of MIIS points out the disparity between American military readiness and terrorist tactics. "We were preparing for weapons of mass destruction and they use our own airplanes," he says. "How much more asymmetric do you want it to get?"Imagine a boot. It''s a heavy combat boot with a chunky lug sole of deep Vibram-style treads for traction in any terrain.
Now picture an ant clinging to the hard rubber tread. To kill the ant, the soldier stomps his foot. The boot could kill an army of ants, but there is no army. There''s just one ant and it''s crafty, too small for the big weapon. It crawls up into the tread and hides as the soldier stomps and stomps.
There is only one way to get the ant.
"You have to go down and clean it out with a little piece of wood," says Amin Tarzi, a senior research associate and Middle East expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
America''s war machine is nearly as useless against a small, elusive foe like Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terror network as the boot is against the ant. Forced to recalibrate a bristling behemoth designed to fight another superpower-sized foe, the U.S. is now involved in what military theorists and generals call "asymmetric warfare," or war between wholly mismatched enemies. In such a scenario, the smaller, less powerful force develops methods to neutralize the overwhelming strength of the larger force and at the same time offers no target for retaliation.
Floating an explosives-laden raft up to the U.S.S. Cole is an easy example. Recent news stories about terrorist interest in crop dusters and hazardous materials transport are others. Raiding America by turning civilian airliners into cruise missiles is an unprecedented evolution of asymmetric warfare, effective not only in the staggering death toll but also in the brutal tattooing of the American mind.
"This is as asymmetric as it gets. We were preparing for weapons of mass destruction and they use our own airplanes," says Tarzi. "How much more asymmetric do you want it to get?"
In response, the U.S. can''t just stomp its boot. If it stomps in the wrong place and kicks over the whole anthill, it will be stomping into infinity.
Dan Smith is a retired Army intelligence colonel who is chief of research at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. The CDI is known for its independent thought on military affairs and enjoys the credibility of having retired officers on staff.
Like other analysts, Smith recognizes that this war will be fought using special operations forces--Rangers, Green Berets, Air Force gunship squadrons--guys who work in small, precision-oriented groups and who don''t invite a lot of publicity.
"This is going to go on for years," Smith says. "Even if we determine it was Osama bin Laden, and we''re able to get our hands on him, we''re only cutting off the head. The [terrorist] cells will continue to live and will be greater resolved to continue the struggle."
The cells themselves are tightly knit groups of a half dozen or less, sometimes comprising childhood friends and family. Totally insulated, their contact with the outside or other cells might be limited to one member. The only way to catch them is to catch them communicating.
"It''s going to be very hard to get inside these organizations," he says. "It will be hard to track them and thwart them if they try anything."
Even if the intelligence services can begin to locate terrorist cells linked to bin Laden in the U.S., that''s just the first battle. The groups are intertwined. A global war on terrorism means hunting down not just his Al Qaeda network but Egypt''s Islamic Jihad, the Irish Republican Army, the American right wing that spawned Timothy McVeigh, Islamic militants in the Philippines, the Basque separatist group ETA, and terrorists in South American countries like Colombia. The terror networks also help one another. As was reported widely in the press, a team of three suspected IRA bomb experts was caught in Colombia this summer, accused of making their way to kindred rebel groups bivouacked in the jungle.
Admiral Henry Mauz is the retired commander of the U.S. Navy''s Atlantic Fleet. He now lives in Pebble Beach. He makes no bones about how long such a war will take. Mauz believes the military is ready for Bush''s global war on terrorism.
"I think [Bush] does understand what a tall order it is," he says. "It may take a generation. It''s going to take a long time."
Vice Admiral Phil Quast of Carmel Valley is retired from the Navy, but he still does work with the Department of Defense. He was in the Pentagon--where he worked for six years--when it was struck on Sept. 11. Quast was 100 yards from the impact point and managed to make it to safety through thick black smoke.
Quast believes terrorism is a cancer on civilization that may never go away.
"I think we''ll always have terrorism, no matter how successful we are. Terrorism doesn''t require a great deal of effort or resources or organization, but any person who will risk his life and has a cause to do it--and he might seem to be an upstanding American citizen--may go off the deep end," he says. "This is a campaign. It may take an entire decade. It may take longer than that."
The military thinks in linear patterns. Schematics form and ideas evolve along straight lines. Quast says in the kind of conventional war-thinking America has used for years, "at least there was a pattern. In asymmetric warfare there is no pattern. Asymmetric warfare is what happened last week."
The question now is can America begin to think without patterns. In order to conquer terrorism, it may help to begin viewing the world and American civilization as the terrorist does.
"We''ve got to start thinking outside the box here," says Quast.