Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Bush Strategy: Aiding and Abetting bin Laden

"Quagmire" is still an accurate word to describe the situation in Iraq and the state of the Global War on Terror in general, but it's been used so much by now that it's losing its contextual meaning. These days, I'm leaning toward the term "Gordian knot," which Merriam Webster Online defines as "an intricate problem; especially : a problem insoluble in its own terms."

In last Sunday's Washington Post, John Brennan, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, gave an interesting analysis on the size of the knot that currently binds us, and how we're approaching the "problem" on our enemy's terms .
Osama bin Laden's plan to use terrorism to trigger an Islamic reawakening that will challenge Western dominance of world events and assure the ascendancy of Sunni extremists is moving forward -- at an alarming rate.


Terrorism, in bin Laden's strategy, is only a tactic, a means to achieve what he believes is a providentially ordained objective -- global domination by an Islamic caliphate. Yet dangerously, the United States is focusing on countering that tactic, missing the growth of the extremist Islamic forest as we flounder among the terrorist trees.

I respect Brennan's opinions, but disagree with him on a couple of points. Like many analysts, he makes the mistake of dismissing terrorism as a "tactic." An act of terror is a tactic. Bin Laden's coordination of acts of terror to establish a regime of global terrorism was a strategic masterstroke. Quite arguably, his terrorism strategy has had more impact on the world political scene than all the armies, navies, and air forces in the history of humanity combined.

I also disagree that the United States is focusing on countering terrorism. Nearly everything we have done has distracted our efforts away from countering terrorism. In fact, our "war" on terrorism has only served to increase it, and our attempts to attrite terrorists have merely added to their number.

But Brennan and I are in accord on two points. Bin Laden's grand strategy is to use all instruments of power available to him to achieve the aim of establishing a pan-Islamic coalition of states that geographically resembles the old Ottoman Empire. And, as Brennan asserts, bin Laden's plan is progressing at an eye-watering pace.


The biggest hitch in our Gordian knot is the conflict in Iraq, a diversion that has turned into one of America's most complex entanglements. It's a counter-insurgency operation, a nation-building project, a massive economic drain, and yes, a civil war, all rolled into one untidy package.

Few things in warfare are black and white, or fit the neat categories that military scholars often try to shoehorn them into. But it is important that we recognize that a civil war--a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country--is underway in Iraq, and has been going on for some time. We need to accept that reality because it has critical importance to what our troops are doing in the middle of it, and how long we want to keep them there.

As with all wars, no two civil wars are identical, but they all have similarities. The Iraq civil war meets the common criteria of armed conflict between and among different factions within the country. Outside influences are involved in Iraq, directly or indirectly, and that too is common in civil wars. And as we see in Iraq, civil wars often involve guerilla forces, militias, insurgents, asymmetrical forces, terrorism, religious and cultural clashes, and struggles to establish fledgling governments.

The Iraq civil war is somewhat unique in several ways. It followed on the heels of an invasion that toppled the existing government. The new government, though popularly elected, is having trouble gaining the acceptance of the populace that elected it. Unlike the American Civil War, there is no clear "Union versus Confederate" delineation of belligerents. The main warring factions in Iraq are the Sunnis and the Shiites, but there are factions within factions. Both sides posses numerous militias loyal to religious leaders whose loyalty to the central government is tenuous at best. The government's army and police forces are largely made up of former militia members whose loyalties to the government are tenuous as well. To that mix, add Zarkawi's al Qaeda in Mespotamia, which brings the greater agenda of Sunni extremism to the conflict.

Add one more thing: the invading force that overthrew the old Iraqi government still occupies the country.


U.S. forces in Iraq have so many conflicting and shifting priorities they can hardly be expected to know which way to point their gun barrels. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the war chiefs may try to cast our trops in the role of "peacekeepers," but experience illustrates that peacekeeping efforts only work when all parties involved are genuinely committed to keeping the peace. At first blush, we might find reports of Sunni leaders' willingness to return to talks to form a new government to be a positive sign. I genuinely hope these overtures lead to a lasting stability, but I'm not about to bet a paycheck on it. We've seen this before. In the Iraqi version of Groundhog Day, there's no real progress. Every day is a near exact replica of the one before. Bill Murray will be knocking back martinis in the great beyond with W.C. Fields before he ever gets the girl.


"Inevitable" is a bad word in military scholarship circles. We don't want to assume that because "b" followed "a" in one historic case study, it's destined to happen this time. When dozens or hundreds of examples indicate a predominant trend, though, we need to make plans for the worst-case scenario to be the probable case.

In the Iraq scenario, the probable case is that this next round of talks between the Sunnis and the Shiites will produce a peaceful solution that lasts for weeks at best before the country erupts into yet another round of violence. At some point, our troops will be forced to take a side, and it will almost certainly be the side of the Shiite majority.

And we'll continue to pursue an unattainable resolution of an insoluble problem, fight bin Laden on his terms, and fuel his grand vision of establishing a Neo-Ottoman Empire.


  1. Anonymous12:04 AM

    Or Bush could have adopted the Clinton strategy of ignoring the terrorists, letting them run free around the world, ultimately planning and pulling off the attacks on 9/11. I hate to break this to you, but the strategy of doing nothing creates many more terrorists than does killing them by the truckload in Iraq.

    Since 9/11 the United States has delt terrorists world wide some serious setbacks and I hope we keep it up. Two good things came out of the terrorist attacks of 9/11; the United States finally started to fight back in the war that Bin Laden started nearly a decade before. And the Western World woke up to the fact that Islam is an evil religion with only one goal - World Domination and subjugation.

  2. William Bollinger8:19 AM

    It's idiots like this that make me feel that this country no longer deserves freedom.

    1) Clinton didn't ignore terrorism. He launched attacks against potential terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, and was developing attack plans against bin Laden when bush took over the country.

    2) bush did. He came into office with an agenda to push, and only concidered terrorism important after 9/11, when it became a tool he could use to push that agenda.

    3) We are mainly killing innocent civilians in Iraq, not terrorists. Killing, torturing, or oppressing people's relatives for nothing makes them angry, and more likely to become terrorists.

    4) If we are dealing them some serious setbacks, why are terrorist attacks growing? All we are doing is fanning the fire.

    5) America was fighting back in ways that made sense until bush came into office with his Iraq obsession.

    6) Osama bin Laden and the terrorists have as much to do with Islam as a religeon as Eric Rudolph and Tim McVey do with Christianity. They all practice a perversion of an otherwise peaceful set of beliefs.

    7) No wonder you post anonymously, I sure wouldn't want my name connected to nonsense like that.

  3. Meribeth8:54 AM

    Great answer, William. And don't forget that Clinton also bombed Iraq and was soundly criticized by the Republican hill.

    9/11 is a lousy excuse for hypocracy.

    They said they will run this country like a large corporation. And they have, unfortunately, because people have bought into the advertising and Madison Ave. hype. Pathetic.

  4. Thank goodness for brave Americans like Anonymous.

  5. Hey, lay off Anonymous, I'm sure he's about to enlist or re-enlist, all the better to deal "terrorists world wide some serious setbacks".

  6. William, as to your points:

    1) I disagree. I don't think Clinton did much of anything on terrorism. He may have taken a fwe token actions when it was politically expedient, but I don't think there was anything of value to show for his efforts against terrorism at the end of 2 terms in office (including not taking bin laden for political reasons, from what I gather);

    2) agreed

    3) agreed

    4) agreed in part. I think we've dealt some serious setback to certain terrorist groups or cells since 9/11, as have some of our allies. But at the same time new groups seems to be springing up and because of the decentralized nature of al qaeda and other groups, I'm not sure whether we've achieved a net positive or not in terms of hurting these groups.

    5) disagree, for reasons stated in #1. I don't think we were doing much of anything of note on terrorism in the 1990s.

    6) agreed

    7) no comment ;)

  7. Scott,

    We were doing a LOT of counterterror ops on Clinton's watch that you don't know about.

  8. Jeff:

    I concede that you may well be right about that. I don't know about a lot that we did back then, but that doesn't mean we didn't. Good point. I'll defer to people in the know, of which you are one given your background and expertise.

  9. William Bollinger11:36 PM

    Actually I don't think that Clinton did enough either Scott, but he did a hell of a lot more than the "ignoring the terrorists, letting them run free around the world" that anonymous mentioned.

    Part of that may be the 20/20 hindsight that we have post 9/11. In the '90s, it may not have looked like all that much needed to be done yet, so there was some behind the scene stuff, like Jeff mentioned, but back then bin Laden was just some criminal that might eventually present a problem, or may have faded away before he could do anything. With his growing scandal and attacks from the right, playing politics probably looked like sufficient reason for Clinton to back off.

    As to #4, setbacks to individuals yes, but we're currently crippling our economy and our military, while gaining next to nothing. Fundamentalist Islamic groups are actively and successfully recruiting and fundraising, largely due to the hostility created by our actions. From that point of view, we're losing.