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The News and Observer, a daily newspaper in Raleigh, NC, recently in interview posed the question “who’s winning?” in the war on terror to two distinguished scholars of international affairs, both based at Duke University, Durham, NC. Their responses, as published in the newspaper’s edition of September 7, 2003, follow. — Ed.

— Ole Holsti

THE N & O: On balance, are we winning the war or losing the war on terror?

OLE HOLSTI: It is a standoff. We have removed the Taliban regime, and we have arrested some of the al-Qaeda leaders, but there are serious concerns. The Taliban appear to be making a comeback in Afghanistan. Almost every day we read about a lot of firefights where they are creating a lot of problems.We betrayed Afghanistan in the first Bush administration, when they threw the Soviets out and we lost interest. Then the Taliban created one of the most repressive Islamic regimes and invited al-Qaeda in. We’re in danger of doing it again.


Who’s Winning?

— Peter D. Feaver

The N & O: In this war on terror, what will victory be?

Peter D. Feaver: Victory will be when the terrorists who are seeking to destroy the United States find no haven anywhere and when the infrastructure that supports them is dismantled. Victory is when the folks who inevitably want to do us harm have their capacity reduced to the level of the kinds of dangers that we as a society accept — for instance, we have some level of robbery, some level of car accidents — risks of living in a modern society that at some level are tolerable. Victory cannot be when no one wants to do us any harm ever again, because we’ll never get there.


Professor Feaver is Professor of Political Science at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Feaver ContinuedLike the Cold War, it’s likely to have long, long periods of relative quiet when the contest is more a contest of wills and trying to checkmate each other on diplomatic and intelligence chess boards rather than engaging in pitched, armed conflict.

THE N & O: On balance, are we winning or losing?

FEAVER: We’re clearly winning. It’s really not a war on terror; what we really mean is a war on those groups of terrorists that are loosely affiliated but share a common goal of seeking to destroy the United States and its friends and allies. At-Qaeda is the most prominent focal point, but even it is a network, and there are networks of networks, others that are loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, and even within al-Qaeda, there are subgroups. It’s a war on those guys, not all terror everywhere. It’s been remarkably tailored. The idea that the U.S. is thrashing about like a wounded rogue elephant running amok destroying everything anywhere is not in accord with reality. The U.S. is going after particular types of terrorist groups, and the groups themselves know it.

Terrorists need recruits, and they need to be able to weaponize recruits. My hunch is that the real pool of useful recruits — those motivated purely by resentment who become a serious threat— has neither decreased nor increased substantially. I talk to intelligence officers who say the Iraq conflict has increased the pool of resentment against the United States in the short run. I’m sure it has increased the number of walk-ins who hate the United States, but I’m not sure it has increased the pool in a way that materially makes terrorist groups more capable than they were prior to 9/11. So the resentment pool is a wash, with maybe some negative developments since the war on Iraq.

What they resent is the U.S. being the United States, so the U.S. pursuing its interests in a sensible way would produce resentment. We cannot eliminate all of the sources of resentment unless we stop being the United States and become an al-Qaeda or Taliban-like society. Some resentment is inevitable. Success can’t be measured purely by opinion polls that show, “Golly, they hate us more than last year. We must be losing the war.” It’s a measure, but not the only or most important one.

Most important is their ability to weaponize, and there we’ve made substantial, dramatic progress. On Sept. 10, they had a safe haven in Afghanistan that was ideally suited for what they wanted to do — a place to send the walk-ins, winnow them down, find out who’s really capable of doing terrorist activities, train them and send them out. They were doing it essentially with impunity. And that’s all gone. There are fallback places, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and in the Caucasus, where we believe al-Qaeda escapees have tried to set up something, but it is not on a scale they had. They’re on the run.

A significant fraction of al-Qaeda’s mid-level management and senior leadership has been killed or captured, so we know a lot more about the way they function, we have better intelligence and they have many fewer of the kinds of leaders that it takes to run the complicated missions they ran before. That’s really crucial. It’s one thing to watch Al-Jazeera four days in a row and decide you hate America and another thing to pull off a complicated task Iike 9/11. Without the middle managers, it’s harder for for them to weaponize as they had done.

THE N & O: So are we safer?

FEAVER: All of these things make us safer, and then, of course, we’re much more alert, much more on guard. We have closed up stupid vulnerabilities, and we have taken prudent correctives to law enforcement procedures that had hampered us before, all of which has made it harder for them to do what was easier before 9/11.

Put it altogether and that explains why there has not been another terrorist attack. There have been numerous attempts, but they were stopped at varying stages. Our success rate has gone up from where it was before 9/11, so all of that makes me think we’re winning and better off today than before 9/11.

There can be a reasonable debate about whether the U.S. is better off in September 2003 that in September 2002. The war on Iraq is the big question mark. The benefits from a security standpoint of the war on Iraq are sort of in the mid- to longer-term. That means removal of someone, Saddam Hussein, who wished to do us harm but was probably not likely to in the short nun, but in the medium term was. We don’t see the benefits right away. However, if Iraq is rebuilt and forms some kind of representative government that is exemplary by Middle Eastern standards, that will dramatically improve American security. But thats probably five years from now.

In the meantime, we have to deal with the negative consequences, and those are felt in the short run. I could see someone saying we were safer in 2002 than now, but the real measure of whether the Iraq war is worth it is the judgment [of] are we safer in 2006 than in 2002? And we have to wait and see on that one.

THE N & O: How important Is it to get Osama bin Laden?

FEAVER: Psychologically, it is important. It’s not necessary to be winning, but it’s probably necessary that either he is is killed or dies, or we get him. He could pass away of natural causes; for that matter, so could Saddam Hussein. Both of these things are important for ultimate victory but not necessary in the short run. It’s a mistake to focus on that to the exclusion of other things, and to divert resources to what, particularly in bin Laden’s case, may not be the most important thing to do.

THE N & O: Any concerns?

FEAVER: The U.S. has clearly expended a lot of treasure, and so you wonder, does the nation have the long-term stomach for this? I think it does, but it’s not guaranteed and depends a lot on the quality of political leadership we have going forward. We have shown resolve thus far in part because this administration has a real focus and resolve, but if a new administration gets elected because people perceive this administration as being too focused on the war on terrorism and not on the economy, resolve at the leadership level could be a concern, and that could undermine public support for the war on terrorists.

Another concern is the extraordinary vilification of [Attorney General John] Ashcroft, which is out of proportion to what the government is actually doing. It’s pretty clear that prior to 9/11, law enforcement had tilted too far in the direction of interpreting rules in ways that gave terrorists an edge in the United States. It happened in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. Government as an establishment had sacrificed security for the sake of civil liberties, so some corrective was needed. The civil libertarians are telling us we over-corrected. In isolated incidents and in certain narrow technical issues, they may be right, but as a whole, the evidence doesn’t seem to justify the worst fears of the anti-Ashcroft crowd. Still, they seem to be gaining momentum. Although what is needed is tweaking at the margins, the backlash may administer a dose of corrective medicine that will debilitate the ability of law enforcement and intelligence to fight organizations that are clever in exploiting our laws and liberties. So I would flag that as a concern.

The other worry is that the rest of the world agenda isn’t on hold while we deal with terrorists. So the North Korea challenge, Colombia, global warming, the weak economy are all important problems that the administration has to address, and every administration is finite in its ability to address multiple problems. Any of these could become more urgent and maybe even more important in the short to medium term. It’s not accurate to call them a distraction, but they might be an interruption that delays progress in the war on terrorists.

Reprinted with permission of The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina.

Professor Holsti is George V. Allen Professor of Political Science at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Holsti Continuation—Just one example will illustrate this. Some time ago, we assigned a private defense contractor in the Washington area, Dynacorp, the job of protecting our one great hope in Afghanistan, who is President [Hamid] Karzai. Given a similar assignment in Bosnia, some people from Dynacorp had a little business on the side creating brothels. The whistleblower was fired. These are the people we’ve assigned to protect Karzai. It looks as if the Afghan government is able to control the area around the capital, Kabul, but not much else. An unraveled Afghanistan could become home for other terrorists.

Another cause for concern is the war on Iraq. It’s good to be rid of Saddam Hussein, but Iraq seems to be becoming a magnet rather than a deterrent to terrorists. We’ve seen the evidence in the bombing of U.N.. headquarters, the Jordanian embassy and the terrible bombing of the mosque in Najat which killed the moderate clerical leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim. Operations of that kind don’t have the fingerprints of just casual groups, dissidents or leftovers from the old regime. These appear to be fairly well orchestrated operations, and for a number of people in the Middle East, we, the United States, are now the problem.

Surveys by the Pew Research Center in 2002 and 2003 show cause for concern. Asked whether they favor or oppose the U.S.-led fight on terrorism, figures from countries we consider our friends are alarming. In Pakistan, 74 percent oppose us; Indonesia, 72 percent; South Korea, 71 percent. These are not traditional American opponents. These countries have been beneficiaries of U.S. aid. In Jordan, 97 percent oppose the U.S. effort to fight terrorism; in Turkey, 71 percent do. The common denominator is that all but South Korea are Islamic states, but some are secular. Turkey is a member of NATO, a loyal ally going back to the Korean War. When you have almost three quarters of Turkey’s population opposing the U.S. effort, we need worried. I don’t want to overplay the impact of public opinion, but that kind of environment provides a breeding ground for people who for one reason or another are prepared to attack the U.S.

The N & O: Are we doing better in the domestic war on terrorism?

HOLSTI: In some ways we are, but I don’t. think it’s ever going to be possible to secure the country 100 percent; to do that would turn the United States into a concentration camp. Nobody really wants that kind of security. I just came back from Philadelphia and am impressed at much better security at airports than before.

Being able to coordinate intelligence is crucial, and whether we are going to be able to get the FBI and CIA to work better together on intelligence is a critical question. I’m not sure the answer is clear yet. It’s not only those agencies; there are lots of major organizations, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State and Treasury departments, looking at everything from the flow of money to terrorists to a variety of other things.

One area that worries me is that everyday almost every one of us leaves an electronic trail. We do e-mail, buy things with credit cards and we have computers that can do a trillion calculations a second. Once you have those capabilities, you should be able to better track people who come from abroad who may seek training here to learn how to take off in a plane but not to land. On the other hand, it opens up the immense possibility of each one of us being thrown into a databank. We have the proposal by the now departed Admiral [John] Poindexter to do a thorough full-scale investigation on everybody. Security is important, but this is something we need to watch very, very closely.

THE N&O: Is the war on terror winnable?

HOLSTI: Winning, I think, is minimizing the opportunities and undertakings of these organizations. It’s conceivable that you could eventually destroy al-Qaeda, although if it is operating in 60 different countries, give.or take 10, it’s going to be difficult. What’s worrisome is that some of these organizations may be state-sponsored. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is properly coming under increased scrutiny. The Saudis become upset when the suggestion is made that they might have been funding al-Qaeda. You can’t overlook that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, but it doesn’t mean they were sponsored by the government. But when governments in places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan support schools that have the most anti-Western, anti-modern kind of agenda and where children are taught a particularly violent form of the Quran, there is a problem. That’s why the problem is likely to persist.

Victory will be survival on a year to year basis, minimizing what can be done, trying to anticipate as best as possible.

THE N.O: Are resources adequate?

HOLSTI: We’re beginning to pay a price for a lack of effective diplomacy before the war in Iraq. We have people like [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld saying the three least helpful countries in the war on terrorism are Cuba, Libya and Germany. When you say that publicly, why would you be surprised the Germans are offended? The administration has done other things publicly, saying you’re either with us or with the terrorists, do it our way or you’re the enemy. Now we’re finding that the 140,000 troops in Iraq are probably not sufficient and hoping that some of the countries that we alienated — Turkey, Germany, France, India and a number of others —
will send troops and resources. We’re saying, “You guys take out your checkbooks, but we’re going to call all the shots.” That’s hard for other countries to swallow. We vastly underestimated the postwar problems, and now we’re finding we’re not getting the kind of support we need.

Terrorism is going to be with us for a long time, and its going to take more resources. We have budget figures coming out now estimating the deficit at a half-trillion dollars a year —not counting Iraq. A couple years ago, we were worried about surpluses so big there would be no government bond market. Now we’re talking about unprecedented deficits. At some point, we have to come to grips with what it’s going to cost and who’s going to pay for it.

Reprinted with permission of The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina.


Professor Holsti is George V. Allen Professor of Political Science at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.


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