Fighting Terrorism with the Wrong Weapons

Just over a year ago, we began our war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, in order to effect regime change in Kabul and eradicate the al-Qaida terrorist movement. In a couple of months, the Taliban were deposed from power, and several leaders of al-Qaida were killed or captured. The war against terrorism looked like it had been won.

However, it is now clear that neither the Taliban nor al-Qaida have been eliminated. The battle at Tora Bora was a failure. The terrorists escaped into the remotest parts of Afghanistan and the rugged tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. Arguably, we are no safer from terrorist attacks on US soil than we were a year ago, even though billions have been spent on the war in Afghanistan and on beefing up homeland security.

Stating that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction that may be transferred to al-Qaida operatives, we are about to launch another military strike designed to effect regime change in Baghdad. Prior to the vote in Congress, the president spoke in Cincinnati. He said that no definitive proof of Iraq’s intentions is needed, since the only “smoking gun” we may live to see is a mushroom cloud over a US city. The most likely cost of a war against Iraq is a hundred billion dollars, but it is likely to be no less than fifty billion dollars and may well end up being two hundred billion dollars.

Can the American economy afford such a hike in defense spending at a time when our budget surplus of $127 billion has been turned into a budget deficit of $160 billion? Federal revenues have dropped by $130 billion in a single year, the sharpest decline in 56 years, mainly because of the weakening economy. The much talked about $5.6 trillion surplus, that was going to enrich us over the next decade, has completely evaporated from political discourse in Washington.

There is no doubt that the US has the military muscle and political will to carry out regime change in Iraq. But we are unlikely to stop with Iraq, since we are sure to find that the threat of a terrorist attack will not disappear with the removal of Saddam Hussain and his cronies from power. We will have to deal with Israeli intelligence reports that another member of the axis of evil, Iran, has been supplying arms to various terrorist groups in the Middle East, has to be disarmed. Even though Iran provides one of the few examples of a democratic government in the Muslim world, and even though it has not used biological or chemical weapons either against its own people or attacked any of its neighbors, we will soon convince ourselves that it poses a grave threat to American national security. People will remind us that the Ayatollah’s government seized the American embassy twenty years ago, and held American citizens as hostages for a year. We will hear from the Shah’s son, Cyrus Reza, who has since the revolution lived in exile in the US, that he is ready to take over the throne of the Pahlavi dynasty.

After we have effected regime change in Tehran, we may feel compelled to go after other “rogue” states that harbor terrorists, such as Syria and Libya. North Korea, another member of the axis of evil, that has provided ballistic missile technology to states that harbor terrorists, may also invite American military action, even though its natural enemy, South Korea, has already begun to heal its divisions with it.

For the past decade, several of our opinion leaders have been writing about the coming war with China. Chinese military spending continues to be the subject of much controversy, but according to most estimates China is spending more on its military than any other country save us. It is the only country with enough demographic, political and economic mass to pose a credible threat to our economic and military interests. Its navy has posted a fifty-year plan on its web site, and its continued modernization represents a challenge to our supremacy of the Pacific. If we continue down this path of global military dominance, we may well find our selves engaged in hostilities with the Chinese navy at some point in the not too-distant future. That would indeed be a far cry from our initial charter, on which we have a global consensus, of eliminating terrorism.

Over the long haul, will a strategy of military confrontation that spans sixty countries improve our national security? The renowned British historian of war, Sir Michael Howard, writes in The Times that the rhetoric and expectations of ‘war’ are counter-productive and much military experience is irrelevant when dealing with transnational terrorism. What is required is skillful political management and patient police-work, backed up where necessary by military force in aid of the civil power.

However, such a nuanced approach cannot be found anywhere in the document on the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, which has been issued by the White House. This document is the clearest statement yet of the Bush Doctrine, and implements the vision that was presented during the presidential elections of 2000 by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Written for former secretary of defense and now vice president Dick Cheney and current secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, the PNAC document described American armed forces abroad as “the cavalry on the new American frontier.” Its emphasis on harnessing military force has resulted in the militarization of our foreign policy by the Bush administration.

The Bush Doctrine singles out the Muslim world as an incubator of terrorism, and pledges to support “moderate and modern government, especially in the Muslim world, to ensure that the conditions and ideologies that promote terrorism do not find fertile ground in any nation.” The message is very clear. Muslim governments that do not comply with our dictates will be forced out. While we have not established colonies in the traditional sense of the term, our military has bases and storage depots that can be accessed in wartime throughout the globe. Our military presence is a perceptible indicator of our intent and will to force a regime change.

Seeking to deflect criticism that the Bush Doctrine espoused American global domination, Ari Fleischer said that the US had consistently worked for the advancement of good over evil during the 20th century. He must not realize that during the second half of the past century, it was our neo-imperialistic policies that made “Yankee Go Home” a household phrase throughout the third world. They also produced a best selling book and movie about The Ugly American. Not much else could have been expected, given that we chose to install tyrants such as Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Kemusu Suharto in Indonesia, and Mohammad Reza Shah in Iran. To add insult to injury, we got involved in a civil war in Vietnam that resulted in 58,000 American casualties and hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese casualties. Our Central Intelligence Agency indulged in a rogue campaign of botched up assassinations around the globe, resulting in a presidential order that banned such attempts on foreign heads of state.

In the Bush Doctrine, while the US will seek allies in the battle against terrorism, it will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary. That includes “convincing or compelling states to accept their sovereign responsibilities” not to aid terrorists. As evidence of civilian casualties in Afghanistan mounted, American historian Howard Zinn noted that fighting terrorism was a just cause, but the White House had confused a just cause with a just war. A war that killed thousands of innocent people, and drives hundreds of thousands from their homes could not be a just war, regardless of the provocation. It was likely to alienate large numbers of people in the Muslim world, and lead to more terrorist attacks being carried out against us.

We are the leading military power in the globe, and spend more on our military than the next nine nations combined. Our five naval fleets are located strategically across the globe in the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Middle East and Europe. Our navy is equipped with twelve carrier battle groups that are without equal. We can launch 1,040 strike aircraft from these carriers against any nation in the world within a few days notice. Our stealth aircraft can take out enemy air defenses within the first 24 hours of a war, and we can dispatch B-2 stealth bombers to any location in the world from their base in Missouri. We are proud of our laser guided technology that allows a few special operations forces on the ground to bring in B-52s armed with satellite guided bombs and “destroy three thousand Taliban in an afternoon”, as we did near the Bagram airbase north of Kabul.

Yet this overwhelming military supremacy is of limited application when fighting a war among the shadows. Observes Yale historian Paul Kennedy, “In today’s fractured, war-torn, neo-medieval world, it is quite inadequate to guarantee lasting peace and security, even in the American homeland itself, let alone in the protection of US interests abroad.”

We need to rethink the premises of our policy against terrorism. Like other criminal problems, terrorism has a supply side and a demand side. We have focused exclusively on the supply side, and deployed military force to eliminate the existing terrorist networks. This is an incomplete cure at best. As Israel has found out over the past three decades, killing terrorists will not eliminate terrorism. For every terrorist that is killed, another one is created.

This is not to say that we should condone murder by terrorists. We should continue to prosecute terrorists to the fullest extent of the law. However, without condoning terrorism or letting terrorists go free, we should also focus our energies on preventing future terrorists from being created. We should seek to understand the political problems that are leading large numbers of young people throughout the Muslim world to become terrorists. We should find a way to communicate with these people. We may never be able to convince the likes of Osama bin Laden, but may be able to reach large numbers of their existing and future followers. Then we would be able to develop political solutions that will draw people away from a path where they are willing to sacrifice their lives, in order to take other lives. Only then will the demand for terrorism diminish.

In some ways, the problem of fighting terrorism is analogous to that of fighting narcotics trafficking. If all we do is go after the sources of narcotics, we will fail because the users will find other sources. We also need to go after the users, their family and friends, and educate them about the harmful effects of using narcotics. We will never get all users to quit, but we may be able to deter a large number from using drugs. In other words, we have to focus on the demand for narcotics, and not just on the supply. The same applies to terrorism.

In this vein, we should take the time to listen to a key ally in the fight against terrorism, President Musharraf of Pakistan. Speaking last October at a globally televised press conference at the beginning of the war against Afghanistan, Musharraf offered “unstinted cooperation” to the US in its fight against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In the months that followed, he delivered on this promise to such an extent that several of his countrymen named him “Busharraf.”

Yet Musharraf has never advocated a military solution for dealing with terrorism. In the same press conference, the general compared terrorism to a tree. One can pluck off its leaves, or even cut off its branches, but the tree will grow them back again unless one cuts off its roots. The root causes of terrorism have to be tackled, and they are more often then not political. They cannot be solved through military means, but require deft political maneuvering.

As we gear up to engage in a war with Iraq that is designed to diminish the supply of terrorists, we should consider the probability that this war would enhance rather than diminish the demand for terrorists, thereby defeating the very objectives for which it is about to be fought.

AHMAD FARUQUI, an economist, is a fellow with the American Institute of International Studies and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan. He can be reached at