Five years into the war on terror, bin Laden is still at large, the insurgency rages in Iraq, and the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan.
Are we losing this war? Should we just pack up and go home as some people seem to be suggesting and then wait until we are hit again before we try to confront this scourge?
In the April/May issue of Policy Review, Christopher C. Harmon, Kim T. Anderson Chair of Insurgency and Terrorism at the Marine Corps University, suggests perhaps we shouldn't give up, at least not just yet.
"There are good reasons to judge that we are winning this global war against terrorists," he writes, "because terror groups all have vulnerabilities."
Here are some of the vulnerabilities he talks about in his article (which you really should read in full):
Terror group leaders have large egos, as they must to order the deaths of multitudes who are innocent and whom they have never met....Ego may prevent such leaders from mentoring successors. And, struggle being as it is, when the leader and his cult of personality succumb to arrest or death, the entire organization may collapse.The bad news is Harmon doesn't think a "decapitation strategy" would necessarily work with al Qaeda. Bin Laden has already appointed his successor, the Egyptian, Ayman al Zawahiri, and if these two were both taken out, Harmon thinks Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader would likely take the leadership position.
But al Qaeda may be vulnerable to something called "terrorist fatigue." As Harmon writes:
Underground life has unattractive qualities, and some brutish ones. Terrorism means years on the run, eating poor food, and enduing primitive medical care, with all the stresses of campaigning and doubts about one’s family back home. There is, as well, for at least some, the problem of conscience over the horrific things the group is doing to innocent people. It adds up to immense stress and strain. I once had an opportunity to ask Oxford historian Michael Howard how it is that terrorist groups end. “Fatigue,” he replied.To take advantage of this vulnerability, Harmon says "counterterrorists must have well-evolved methods for encouraging defections" as "a defector does not just reject something, he affirms something" and constitutes a "body blow to the particular political cause the terrorist once represented."
"Internal strife" could be another factor that could contribute to al Qaeda's demise. As Harmon writes:
The grounds for terror group strife may be political, financial, personal, or other. Bloody and sometimes large-scale battles and purges have sometimes gripped the guts of a terrorist organization or larger insurgency.Then there is, as Harmon writes, that "weakness in personnel matters" namely, "personal foibles and corruption."
Cowardice is an underused but potent charge. “Commanders” of terror groups often stash themselves in safety for years in comfortable villas in states such as Syria and Iran, while their troops get fired upon or die in distant operations. [Think bin Laden and Zawahiri - even Mullah Omar.]
...A senior officer may be an abuser; a mid-level commander of an insurgency may be one of those who takes virtual sex slaves. [Think Zarqawi - and I'm sure the girls in the Islamic State of Iraq must have their share of stories to tell.]There there are the terrorists' technical and tactical weaknesses, says Harmon.
Insurgents frequently use terrorism but also irregular combat forces. When they do, they must master the difficult problem of when to risk forces in positional fighting against better-prepared and better-armed government forces.Bin Laden, as Harmon points out, famously miscalculated the impact the 9/11 attacks would have on his organization:
Bin Laden, normally self-controlled, crowed visibly on videotape over the extent of damage he did to the Twin Towers, saying that as an engineer he could not have hoped for both to tumble down after the planes hit. But he did no crowing on camera about the arrival of American forces in Afghanistan in October and November of 2001. It had been his prized sanctuary. He clearly believed in the myths ofguerrillaism. He was wrong. The White House was determined to oust the regime in Afghanistan, a country that has always been a candidate for the most remote and unappealing in the world. No fear, no legacy of Red Army defeat, no terror of further suicide bombings, kept President Bush from ordering the action. The U.S. worked well with Afghan allies, central to the larger coalition. Bin Laden, vaunted “guerrilla” leader, must have aged notably seeing his men and Taliban troopers dying in masses in static trenches while unseen American guerrillas with radios directed the fall of aerial bombs. Instead of extending the Afghans’ legacy of victory over conventional force, the Arabs of al Qaeda and the Pakistanis and Afghans of the Taliban were smashed and driven from Afghanistan in one of modern history’s fastest campaigns. It took years, and foreign refuge and Pakistani help, for the Taliban to recover. Al Qaeda has not recovered; it is running on half-power.As Harmon points out:
Terrorism is a sword with two cutting edges. While it frightens, it may frighten the wrong people. When it frightens, it risks cutting into the group’s popular support. Terrorist acts may prove political potency, or they can appear nihilistic.Harmon cites a recent example to illustrate his point:
Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was enormously successful with terrorism while in Iraq. There he was a hero, capitalizing on Iraqi troubles and divisions, fears for the future, and the unwelcome coalition presence. If Jordanians next door were troubled by his massacres, they did not loudly say so. But then Zarqawi dared to strike his native Jordan. He blew up tourist hotels, killing many Muslims and creating horrors and problems for the authorities. His “poll numbers” dropped dramatically. He angered Jordan. Jordanian intelligence agents reportedly did the work that allowed the precision air strike that killed Zarqawi in June 2006.As he points out:
U.S. strategy for public diplomacy should combat the strategy of terrorism by throwing light (and statistics) on the realities of terrorism: (1) Muslim terrorists have usually killed more Muslims than Jews or Christians. (2) The prime reason for Shiite deaths in Iraq today is terrorism by Sunni minorities, not the U.S. occupation. (3) When al Qaeda “struck at America” in 1998, its two embassy bombs killed and wounded thousands of East Africans while killing exactly 12 Americans. Such “targeting” is morally sick; it can only damage al Qaeda’s image in Africa — if the truth is well-told and the good arguments are well-marshaled by skilled officers of public affairs and public diplomacy.As Harmon goes on to conclude:
It is a simple truth — not a simplistic one — that in most matters of terrorism, U.S. counterterrorists are far more on the side of virtue than of vice. Set aside Abu Ghraib for a moment and the several military scandals in Iraq. In the overall global war on terrorism, during the past five years, and in far larger matters of political philosophy and our role in the world, democracy does not have much to apologize for. Terrorism does. So if we use the right arguments abroad we will have some political effect.