The fight against terrorism could go on indefinitely unless the U.S. adopts imaginative new strategies

John Arquilla

Sunday, January 9, 2005


Will the war on terror last forever, or can the terrorists be beaten decisively, and beaten sooner rather than later?

During the last half century, the conflicts that continued for decades have outnumbered those that lasted just months or a few years. Colombia and Sudan feature civil wars that have dragged on since the 1950s. The "troubles" in Northern Ireland and the Palestinian uprising have been under way since the late 1960s. Afghanistan has seen constant warfare since 1979, with no end in sight. There are many more, including Sri Lanka and Kashmir.

All these conflicts have two things in common: combatants on each side unwilling to compromise and unable to land knockout blows.

Now comes our self-styled war on terror, which snugly fits this pattern. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are full of zealots dedicated to eliminating the shadow cast by American power over the Muslim world. But they cannot hope to defeat American military forces in the field.

For our part, we believe that by conquering and democratizing rogue nations we can somehow defeat the terrorist networks arrayed against us. Yet we can't ever find enough of their fighters to stage a decisive battle, nor can we stem the tide of their recruitment. Isn't this the definition of stalemate -- a recipe for war that goes on year after year after year?

During last autumn's presidential campaign, both candidates answered this question in ways that demonstrated their shared belief that the war on terror would continue to continue.

In an introspective moment, President Bush told NBC's Matt Lauer it was possible the war could never be won. He later backtracked, but the damage was done. Victory, it was clear to many people, not only wasn't at hand but perhaps wasn't attainable.

John Kerry said he thought terror could never be done away with, but that it might be reduced to a "nuisance" rather than an all-consuming threat. Vice President Dick Cheney dined out on this for the rest of the campaign.

Bush's statement, coming from a self-described "war leader," was most disturbing. Why are we spending more than $1 billion per day of taxpayers' money on the military if there's no hope of winning the war?

Kerry's more complex formulation is equally unsatisfying. Terrorists potent enough to be a nuisance are still a threat to wreak havoc. Just look at Sept. 11, when 19 fanatics armed with box cutters killed 3,000 people and caused hundreds of billions of dollars of economic damage.

So, whatever the ramblings of presidential candidates, it seems likely we are in for a long struggle, something like the increasingly pointless, unending strife that science fiction writer (and Vietnam veteran) Joe Haldeman described in his classic novel, "The Forever War."

But perhaps there is a way out. Or, in this case, two ways to end the terror war. First, one side might make a stunning military breakthrough. Or second, both sides could agree to a negotiated settlement. Neither outcome is very likely, but both are worth examining.

The terrorists will win if they develop or obtain nuclear or biological weapons because we cannot effectively threaten their stateless networks with retaliation. We just wouldn't know what to hit.

Although we have spent every effort to stop the spread of such weaponry, and once again are busily scooping up loose nukes in Russia, this eventuality is a real risk. Donald Rumsfeld put it quite succinctly in his congressional testimony in May 2002: "It is inevitable that terrorists will obtain weapons of mass destruction, and that they will use them against us."

Yet we do have a chance of winning outright before terrorists can acquire weapons of mass destruction. If we ever decided to wage "netwar" (i.e., network-style conflict) against the terrorists with smaller, more nimble, more flexible forces, we would have a real capability to rip al Qaeda apart, cell by cell.

Unfortunately, for more than three years our primary concept of operations has been to rely on heavy mechanized forces augmented with strategic bombing. "Shock and awe." We have kept taking a sledgehammer to a ball of quicksilver. And all the signs are that the U.S. military remains staunchly resistant to creating the networked strike forces needed to win this war in the field. The recent flattening of Fallujah is proof the military is sticking to old-style warfare.

Our reluctance to wage netwar and the enemy's difficulty in obtaining and deploying weapons of mass destruction anytime soon mean that neither side has a great chance of winning outright, yet both will continue to face a small but real chance of decisive defeat.

Facing a chance of losing may encourage negotiation.

In his recent videotapes, Osama bin Laden has used a fair amount of conciliatory language. In one he promised not to attack European countries as long as they stayed out of or withdrew from the U.S.-led coalition. In his October message he went further, taking the position that al Qaeda would not strike again if attacks on Muslims ceased.

Bush has also shown a surprisingly deft diplomatic touch on occasion. He reeled in Moammar Khadafy with the promise of restoring normal relations in return for Libya's renunciation of all illicit weapons development activities. Our increasing reliance on diplomacy in dealing with two other state sponsors of terror, Iran and North Korea, shows a rising awareness of the likely limits of military-only solutions.

All this suggests we face some important choices in the main battlefield in the war on terror. We must either start fighting in new ways against al Qaeda, or else commence some form of diplomatic negotiations with them. Perhaps we should do both at once. But we must do something.

Bush has a real opportunity at the start of his second term to strike out in bold new directions. His margin of victory and his party's control of Congress make it possible to act in ways less influenced by the push and pull of politics. Charting a new course designed to curtail the "forever war" against terrorists might even reduce the gaping partisan rift in Washington.

In practical military terms, this means undertaking a thorough organizational redesign of the armed forces. The biggest part of the problem is that our senior officers think only in terms of the 33 brigades that make up the Army. Most of these are tied down in or committed to going to Iraq, severely limiting our ability to mount a broad, networked offensive against al Qaeda cells around the world.

We must shift to smaller "units of action," the term Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker uses when he thinks of creating a more nimble force. He was brought back from retirement to undertake a real transformation of the military, but both he and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have faced bitter bureaucratic resistance from traditionalists.

As commander in chief, Bush should intervene in favor of reorganizing the force in ways that give it a far greater capacity for effective action.

In doing so, he would be following in the footsteps of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who involved himself directly in overcoming Army resistance to reorganizing Union forces and modifying battle doctrine in a way that finally made it possible to defeat the Confederacy.

On the diplomatic front, the challenges are even more daunting. First, there is the problem of our policy of no negotiations with terrorists. This hurdle can be cleared by noting that we already deal openly with Khadafy, a terrorist with a rap sheet as long as his forearm.

Some will say we can negotiate with a nation, even a roguish one, but not with a terrorist network. Why? Because networks don't have embassies or formal legal status. Yet, negotiation is more important with the networks because they are harder for us to fight. Doing battle with them requires inventing new tactics that radically differ from those we traditionally employ against national armies.

Of course, negotiating with networks will require a similar amount of innovation. For example, we must accept that there might never be a treaty signed. But there could be a tacit agreement among the combatants, after which terrorist attacks almost entirely cease and U.S. forces begin an exodus from Muslim countries. Both sides have been saying they want the latter anyway.

At his best, Bush has shown his steadiness and resolve. But if we are to have any hope of ending this forever war, it is time for him to show intellectual suppleness and imagination as well. If he doesn't exhibit these traits, we are in for an endless slog.

John Arquilla is a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. His views do not represent official Defense Department policy.

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