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Losing the War on Terror

Our Incompetent Commander-in-Chief

| Sun Jan. 8, 2006 4:00 AM EST

President 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 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.

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Consider, for a moment, the President's view of the global 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 United States for its perceived anti-Islamic behavior and to free the Middle East of Western influence through desperate acts of violence. These zealots -- or "jihadists" 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 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 President 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 like the Taliban in Afghanistan and, supposedly, Saddam Hussein 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 [9-11] attacks," 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 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 Hussein'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 9-11 have repeatedly demonstrated."

Far from impeding Al Qaeda and its offshoots, the overthrow of the Taliban and, especially, the Hussein regime have been a boon to their efforts. War and chaos in the Middle East, with American forces serving as an occupying power, have proved to be the ideal conditions in which to nurture a multinational jihadist movement aimed at punishing the West. As noted in a recent CIA report, would-be jihadists 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 American 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, Jordan 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, U.S. 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."

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