Skip to main content

The author’s insightful survey of the state of play in the U. S. efforts in the War on Terrorism (written, it happens, before the bombing attack in Madrid) notes that the American people are becoming aware, as they did decades ago with respect to the Cold War, that it will be long, drawn-out affair. Dr. Sicherman cites four areas in which better efforts are needed.— Ed.

Observations on the War

The War on Terrorism is now two-and-a-half years old. As the candidates prepare for the 2004 Presidential election, the fog of partisanship will soon obscure much of what has been done, and not done. That in mind, a few observations may be made about the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and homeland security aspects of the struggle.

Recent changes in military technology, on ample view in both Afghanistan and Iraq, seem to have a very clear implication: less can be more. Fewer forces, acting through combined air and ground units, more accurate and lethal, can equal or exceed the firepower previously available only in much larger units. We should be wary of drawing too neat a conclusion, however, given Afghan and Iraqi deficiencies in training, air power, and equipment. Still, it is safe to say that the American “new way of war” dominates most of the “conflict spectrum.”

Most, but not all. Three divisions were enough to defeat Saddam just as the rented infantry of the Northern Front, joined to Special Forces and air power, broke the Taliban. But neither sufficed to harness the military victory to the political objectives which, in both countries, demanded a security available only through a full military occupation. New technology notwithstanding, sometimes there can be no substitute for “boots on the ground” to succeed. And the outcome reflected an old American problem, the perils of the end game, when the military strategy does not entirely support the post-war political objectives. Thus the lessons: more firepower for fewer forces to defeat the enemy; more forces with different skills to secure the victory once the enemy is defeated. The Pentagon has acknowledged this obliquely by boosting its end strengths 30,000 beyond those authorized in order to ease the strain on both regular forces and the Reserves — both much stressed by shortages, especially in the “post combat,” political reconstruction skills. Clearly, the United State must adapt its military to “nation-building” if the war on terrorism is to leave in its wake decent government instead of a new chaos.

Both Prime Minister Blair and President Bush have lost some public confidence in their leadership because of intelligence controversies. Blair was cleared of the “sexing up” charge but not before considerable damage was done. Bush has now undergone a similar trial following the Kay Report that the CIA had erred about Saddam’s WMD stockpiles. Alongside the error, however, stand these correct judgments: Saddam wanted such weapons; he retained a residual capability to make them, more so in biological and chemical than nuclear; and he had already obtained a new missile system to deliver them.

These conclusions should be put in the perspective of the “Saddam watch” over the past two decades. Saddam had been seriously underestimated before 1991 on his nuclear efforts, and before 1995 on his biological program, when his defecting son-in-law spilled the goods. More recently, he seems to have been seriously overestimated on his residual weapons stocks.

This record does not inspire much confidence in the accuracy of either the intelligence agencies or the international inspectors. Bush’s description of Saddam as a “grave and gathering danger” reflected the consensus of the record already available to his predecessor who, in 1999, used it to justify a brief bombing campaign when the U.N. inspectors were forced to leave. The only thing standing between Saddam and a fuller rearmament was the increasingly shaky international sanctions regime already widely violated and denounced for impoverishing Iraq’s citizens. The issue therefore is not whether the President lied or exaggerated the intelligence; he did not. The question should be whether the CIA’s longstanding lack of human sources of intelligence — a point Kay emphasized — made a difference to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate of “high confidence” that Iraq had WMD.

An intelligence agency that errs is not necessarily inept or corrupted by politics. Sergei Khrushchev relates that at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, his father, Premier Nikita Khrushchev, revealed that the United States had grossly overestimated Soviet ICBMs. “We have nothing to hide,” Khrushchev said, “We have nothing. And we must hide it.” (Sheldon M. Stern, “Averting the Final Failure,” Stanford University Press, 2003, pp. 28-29). This hardly meant that Kennedy’s CIA was incompetent, only that the Soviets had successfully concealed the truth for awhile. That the U.K., French, German (and Israeli) intelligence joined the U.N. inspectors in concluding that Saddam had WMDs in larger stocks than discovered may mean simply that he had less and disposed of it, or was running a bluff that he himself may not have realized given the lies characterizing the regime.

Nonetheless, it must be dismaying to learn that the CIA is still struggling with the lack of “people on the ground.” The Agency has not overcome its infatuation with technical means rather than human intelligence, including specialists in Arabic, Persian, Pashto, and Urdu (the Joint Congressional Committee established last year that U.S. spy agencies had only 30% of the capacity needed in these languages). Yet, before the investigatory commissions warn once more about these deficiencies, including lack of operatives, the Congress should recall its own history on this score. The likely sources for CIA spies — indeed the spies themselves — are not likely to be of spotless character. Unless the agency is freed of fears that lawyers and committee hearings will expose the seamy side as they did in the 1970’s, recruitment and sources will be scarce.

The United States is now reaping diplomatic benefits from the Afghan and Iraqi operations. The so-called rogue states are reappraising the risks they run in either sponsoring terrorism or seeking WMD. Libya wants out of the risks; Iran wants to reduce them; so does Syria. No doubt fears of American action stimulated this new willingness to negotiate. But fear will wear off, possibly sooner rather than later, especially if it looks like a new President will ease the pressure. Even so, all of the WMD-terrorist states will try to negotiate some variation of the excruciatingly difficult North Korean deal. They will offer to give up, or freeze, weapons the United States does not like; in return, they want Washington to assure their survival. The United States may be asked to choose between the elimination of weapons and “regime change.”

This issue overhangs the political part of the war on terrorism. The short-term objectives of preventing or containing proliferation must somehow be accommodated to the longer-term objective of ridding the world of dictatorships dangerous to their own people and others.

The war on terrorism is also forcing decisions by American allies with dubious records. President Bush’s argument that “you’re either with us or against us” omitted important governments that are simultaneously with us AND against us. Two of these — Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — have now decided that the previously tolerated Jihadists threaten their survival. Should the Saudi princes and the Pakistani general prevail over their enemies, their countries will cease to be centers for the religious propaganda and technological leakage that, together, offer such devastating potential for terrorists.

Another set of much closer allies also changing course can be found in Europe. Despite the heated quarrel at the U.N. over Iraq, both France and, especially Germany, facilitated the movement of coalition forces to the battlefield. This was quite unlike earlier crises over the Middle East when, for example, overflight rights were denied to the U.S. and arms embargoes enforced, not to speak of the still remembered 1956 Suez disaster. The Schroeder government, in particular, wants out of any long-term quarrel with the Americans. Berlin (and Paris) are trying to mend the rift whether through NATO, the U.N., or the “Group of Seven” industrialized nations (G-7). There are opportunities here, too, for a reconciling American diplomacy. Together, the allies must find a formula that moves the Middle East out of its current violence and economic stagnation without harming necessary U.S. allies in the process.

All plans to change the Middle East for the better will necessarily involve a fresh effort to ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the very same conflict that was supposed to be the major beneficiary of the Iraq war. Thus far, however, the harvest has been bitter. The June 2003 Aqaba Summit, where Bush embraced then-Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen as the alternative to Arafat, proved premature. Palestinian security forces were still largely in Arafat’s hands, ultimately making it impossible to crack down on terrorism. The President had moved too quickly; Israeli Prime Minister Sharon then moved too slowly, helping Abu Mazen only grudgingly. Ultimately, Abu Mazen proved unable to act at all. Arafat quickly exploited these blunders and by Fall had regained much of his authority.

This offered no way out. Both Israel and the United States regarded the Palestinian leader as an incorrigible terrorist unwilling or unable to act as partner for peace. But the Israeli public, fed up with three years of terrorism and no change in sight, suddenly seemed to lose patience with Sharon’s policy. The Prime Minister, already in political trouble over scandal, detected a seismic political shift and promptly took the initiative. Borrowing some Labour Party ideas, the veteran former general declared that better short-term security against suicide attacks and long-term security against the Palestinian birthrate could be achieved if Israel withdrew settlements and soldiers from much (or all of) Gaza, and some from the West Bank, too. Meanwhile, the construction of Israel’s controversial barrier, some of it lying beyond the pre-1967 War “green line,” would be rushed to completion. This new deal could only be executed with U.S. support and some local Palestinian cooperation if it was not to make Gaza a province of Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group. Bush’s vision of a democratic Palestinian state at peace with Israel still seemed a mirage.

Meanwhile, in Iraq itself the Americans were also discovering the pitfalls between democratic rhetoric and less than democratic reality. The Shiite Grand Ayatollah Sistani, heretofore not distinguished for his interest in political philosophy, demanded direct elections to a new Iraqi government in opposition to Washington’s plan for self-selecting caucuses. The embarrassed American occupiers retreated under cover of the U.N. to allow a postponement of this transparent attempt to put Iraq at the behest of a Shiite majority.

The reality is that the new Iraq can only be built on three fundamental negatives. (1) the Shiites and Kurds do not want Sunni rule; (2) the Kurds and Sunnis do not want Shiite rule; and (3) the Sunnis and Shiites do not want an independent Kurdistan. Any constitution that reflects these “red lines” will have grudging acceptance. Anything else will threaten civil strife, a point that seems to have registered with Sistani himself in the argument over the interim Iraqi Basic Law. The longer-term will then depend upon sharing the oil wealth and an army determined to preserve the agreed upon constitution as the only antidote to disastrous civil war. Until then coalition forces will have to provide the backbone. Not an easy formula but a workable one.

In America, homeland defense is the necessary partner to a forward deployed war against the terrorists. Indeed, the more effective the United States and its allies become in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, the more attractive “soft targets” may become in the United States. A large action that seriously disrupts the United States, especially its economy, tells the world that the terrorists are still in business notwithstanding all of the Bush Administration’s efforts.

Nothing on this scale has happened since 9/11, although the accidental blackout of 2003 illustrated that essential U.S. infrastructure remains highly vulnerable. The public does not know how many attempts have been frustrated, making an overall evaluation of the homeland defense effort very difficult. We do know, however, that a year after the Department of Homeland Defense was established, the JRIES Program (Joint Regional Information Exchange System) for sharing intelligence at local, state, and national levels has just been adopted; that many holes remain in the immigration procedures; and that the legalities of the war on terrorism are receiving their first tests in the courts. Progress, such as it is, seems very slow.

To this incomplete picture we must add another feature. Homeland security in the United States is determined more by state, local, and private entities than the Federal government. Electricity, power plants, chemical factories, mines, railroads, supply chains, communications, etc. are owned, run, or regulated by those entities. But few of them can evaluate threats or gauge when and how to spend their money on meeting them. Thus, homeland defense for many has become an extra ambulance or better training for “first responders” to an incident rather than a defense against an incident in the first place.

Moreover, two-and-a-half years after the event, the war itself has not led to significant change in American domestic life save perhaps for airport security procedures and security checks on certain public or private sites. The American people have had little mobilization to match past national emergencies and almost no outlet for patriotic energies.

Certainly, the war against terrorism is a different kind of struggle, one that does not require “a nation in arms” to pursue successfully. “Act normal but keep your eyes open” would seem good advice — yet it does not go far enough. For the war to succeed abroad, there must be arrangements on the home front to protect vital facilities; education about the struggle; and a sustained effort to stay alert. Some new balance must be found between peacetime liberties and wartime restrictions.

The American people are on the edge of understanding, as they did in 1951, that this conflict, like the Cold War, will be protracted. Costs, burdens, and sacrifices are here to stay. It will be an immense disservice if the election campaign leaves the impression in America and abroad that the war on terrorism is a short-term affair that can be quickly concluded. Many things can soon go wrong. The United States could suffer another attack at home on the scale of the Madrid massacre or larger. American reinforcements patrolling the Iraqi borders could clash with Syrian and Iranian infiltrators. The Saudi government might be crippled by a terrorist strike. All of this or any of it might try an American public misled by expectations of swift victory. Woe to the politician thought to be concealing the costs and duration of the war.

After September 11, 2001, the obvious question was whether the United States had the skill and persistence to defeat the terrorists, even if it meant taking on the states that helped or harbored them. The answer must be “yes” in the most egregious cases: both al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Saddam’s Iraq were poster examples of violent action and violent ambition. But in the wake of those campaigns the job remains incomplete. Four areas demand movement:

(1) reform of the military and intelligence to prosecute the war;
(2) exploitation of U.S. military victories to win lasting change from the WMD states while reconciling allies;
(3) stimulating beneficial political and economic change in the Middle East; and
(4) creating at home a private-public partnership that protects vital facilities while a legal balance is established that protects security and liberty.
These are big and lasting demands on the American people and their leadership. The War on Terrorism, like the Cold War, will test America’s capacity to persist until victory.

March 12, 2004

Republished from E-Notes by permission of FPRI, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684 (


Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). A former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state, he is co-editor, with John Lehman, of “America the Vulnerable” (2002).


Comments are closed.