Center for American Progress, April 9 , 2004
Condoleezza Rice stated the obvious when she told the 9/11 Inquiry Commission, “there was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.” She is also right when she says that “America’s counterterrorism policy [has] to be connected to our regional strategies and to our overall foreign policy.” U.S. counterterrorism policy and the foreign policy to which it is connected are still flawed. That may be the reason why the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has actually increased, instead of decreasing, after the Bush administration launched the global war against terrorism.
According to Rice, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States opted to fight “a broad war against a global menace” instead of seeking “a narrow victory.” Under President Bush’s leadership, she claims, “the United States and our allies are disrupting terrorist operations, cutting off their funding, and hunting down terrorists, one by one. Their world is getting smaller.” But the post 9/11 world has witnessed terrorist attacks against Americans and their allies in places where there had been no such attacks before. Civilians in Spain, Indonesia, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey, to name a few countries, have been targeted by Islamist militants. U.S. officials have acknowledged the emergence of a new generation of previously untested terrorists. The deteriorating situation in Iraq also indicates that the war against terrorism is not going according to the administration’s plan.
In his book, “Against All Enemies,” Richard Clarke expressed regret that “America, alas, seems only to respond well to disasters, to be undistracted by warnings. Our country seems unable to do all that must be done until there has been some awful calamity that validates the importance of the threat.” The problem, if I understand Clarke right, is not always failure to obtain intelligence but rather hubris that leads to ignoring “minor” players. The U.S. national security and foreign policy establishment is geared towards dealing with the global system of states. Russia, China, Europe or even India occupies its attention rather than non-state actors such as al Qaeda or for that matter, the Al-Mahdi army of “minor” Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr in Iraq. Terrorists and militias, it is assumed, need state sponsors. Deal with the sponsors and you can bring terrorism or an insurgency under control.
But the 9/11 attacks, and now the challenge facing American troops in Iraq, proves that the threat to global security no longer comes exclusively from states or state sponsored terrorists. In fact, in case of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, it was a non-state actor (al Qaeda) that was sponsoring the government of a failed state, turning the concept of state sponsored terrorism on its head. The village mullahs running the Taliban regime most likely had no clue about al Qaeda’s global plans, including the 9/11 attacks.
Any strategy to deal with this new threat should have had at least three crucial components. First, it should have focused on concerted efforts to locate and liquidate terrorist cells about which intelligence could be obtained. Second, funding and recruitment for terrorist organizations should have been choked off. And third, the ideology and hatred that attracted members to the terrorist groups should have been neutralized.
The war in Afghanistan was meant to eliminate al Qaeda but instead it dispersed several hundred, if not thousands, of its members to Pakistan and Iran, and from there to several other countries. In recent testimony before Congress, the state department’s counterterrorism coordinator, J. Cofer Black, spoke of anti-terrorist operations in 84 countries and admitted that there were “thousands of Jihadists” in the world. This dispersal of al Qaeda after the war in Afghanistan was made possible by the small number of U.S. troops committed to that theater of operation. Even before the war in Afghanistan was over, the administration was planning the much larger military operation in Iraq. The war of choice was receiving more attention than the war of necessity.
The hunt for al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden was delegated to unreliable Afghan warlords and later to Pakistani paramilitaries. The performance of the relatively small U.S. contingent in Afghanistan (10,000 troops and Special Forces, recently augmented by 3,000 Marines) was influenced by political decisions. USA Today reported on March 29 that the 5th Special Forces group, which specializes in the Middle East, was pulled out of Afghanistan in 2002, to be replaced by soldiers with expertise in Spanish cultures. That explains the discovery by National Geographic Adventure magazine’s Robert Young Pelton of resentment against Americans among Pashtun tribesmen along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for “disrespecting” their culture.
Despite the toppling of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan remains unstable, controlled largely by warlords and drug traffickers. Its remote provinces are still a safe haven for Taliban and al Qaeda remnants. Admittedly many of these terrorists are restricted by their lack of access to modern means of communications and have only limited opportunity of travel but they cannot be counted out until they are either detained or eliminated. The flourishing heroin trade in al Qaeda’s regions of influence means that terrorists are unlikely to run out of money any time soon. Bank accounts frozen so far for links to terrorists account for only $130 million and probably include some wrong leads. Afghanistan’s heroin trade yielded an estimated $2.3 billion last year.
In addition to according a relatively lesser priority to the hunt for bin Laden and al Qaeda members dispersing out of the camps in Afghanistan, the march to war in Iraq has also had the effect of replenishing the ranks of terrorists. The sentiment that the Bush administration is waging war against the world’s over one billion Muslims seems to be growing. The latest poll by the Pew Research Center in several Muslim countries indicates that Osama bin Laden’s favorable ratings are on the rise. This figure is high even in countries whose governments are allied to the United States. Sixty-five percent of Pakistanis, 55 percent of Jordanians and 45 percent of Moroccans view bin Laden favorably. Disapproval of the United States is increasing.
International relations might not be a popularity contest but hatred for the United States feeds into terrorist recruitment and in that sense is a security issue that must be resolved. But the current U.S. administration’s unilateralism, and its refusal to take opinions in other countries into account, is probably aggravating the global threat of terrorism instead of mitigating it. Even if people hated the United States for no fault, addressing that hatred should have been an important component of U.S. policy.
The administration’s proclaimed intention of promoting democracy in the Arab and Muslim world could have helped in dealing with the ideological dimension of terrorism had it not been tied to the war in Iraq. Part of the reason for Muslim anger against the United States is the perception that U.S. support maintains authoritarian Muslim rulers in power. President Bush and his ideological supporters have made the case that by toppling one of the Middle East’s worst dictators, Saddam Hussein, and by establishing democracy in Iraq they would change the region. The argument, however, has not been bought in the region. Critics ask, “Why did the United States choose an oil-rich country with a regime that had defied America as its model for Arab democracy? Why were regimes in Egypt, Uzbekistan or Pakistan not earmarked for transformation into democracies?” The lack of progress in reform in several countries allied to the United States erodes Washington’s credibility as a promoter of democracy.
Muslim moderates, who have been working on their own for political reform and religious reformation in the Muslim world, have also suffered a setback in credibility due to the impression that changing the direction of the Muslim world is now an American project.
As the 9/11 Commission of Inquiry investigates what went wrong prior to that tragic incident, the American people must start examining the mistakes that are currently being committed. The attacks on the United States were made possible by policy failures and not just the failure of intelligence.