TCS Daily


Dead Men Walking?

By Thomas Lipscomb - November 19, 2001 12:00 AM

The Islamic world after the terrorist attack of September 11th is teetering on the edge of massive change with a global realignment as extensive as the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in 1989 possibly underway. In retrospect Osama bin Laden may be seen as the most effective terrorist since Gavrilo Princip killed the Hapsburg heir Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.

Young Princips goal was the removal of the Austro-Hungarian rule of Serbia, not the destruction of the entire structure of monarchic Europe that resulted. But Osama bin Laden should be credited with knowing exactly what he is trying to achieve. Bin Laden has exerted formidable pressure on the weak and unsteady tectonic political alliances that still hold the growing Islamist fundamentalist threat in check from Algeria to Indonesia. And the earthquake he wanted has begun. Whether the threat of change to regimes as varied as Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Iran and the like can be managed for or against his ultimate goals remains the key question.

But there is scandalously little understanding of the real Great Game bin Laden has set in play. Instead it is being covered like a glorified sports contest between the United States and the Taliban over Afghanistan. One of the major drawbacks of the 24/7 news environment endured by the West today is the blizzard of repetitious particularity that overwhelms the shape of events. Todays press is unrivaled in its ability to turn the most insignificant press conferences and press releases into instant news without any perspective on their relative importance.

What seems to be constantly overlooked is that in the Bush Administrations war against terrorism, the American coalition is confronted with the first major incident of fourth generation warfare (4GW). It is facing Al Qaeda, which has no status as a nation state and has no army, navy, or air force yet it effectively attacked the United States on its home territory at the World Trade Center leaving more casualties than Pearl Harbor. And Al Qaeda has nothing to lose and potentially the entire Islamic world to gain. Attacking the United States was a masterful way to turn smoldering Muslim resentment of the United States into a blazing fire of support.

The Bush Administrations initial response to this challenge was Clintonian -- a phony new cabinet position to oversee Homeland security. As Doug Bandow pointed out, the United States already has a cabinet position that has that responsibility: Secretary of Defense. And clearly no one understood the need to reconfigure his department to deal with the challenge of 4GW more than Donald Rumsfeld. He had already stirred up enough leaked wrath from Pentagon brass such as outgoing Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Henry Shelton, to occasion a premature obituary in Time magazine for his second tour as Defense Secretary just prior to 9/11.

A rogue nation-state, such as Serbia or Iraq, is like a fixed cancer that can be isolated and eliminated or controlled; but Al Qaeda is more like a virus that mutates when challenged and masks its presence through conflicting symptoms and locations. And worst of all, it also can be transmitted easily. It is spread by fundamentalist Islamists underwritten by the devils bargain made by the Saudi royal family who secure their regime by pouring millions of oil dollars into Wahhabi hands all over the world. So eliminating Osama bin Laden or the Taliban does not begin to solve the basic problem.

The problem is the virus has already spread all over Islam. Islamists have been cheated out of an election in Algeria; forcibly put down by a Turkish military dedicated to the secular principles of Ataturk; and bribed and sent elsewhere to do their dirty work in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They had already killed Egypts Anwar Sadat, when they were far weaker than they are now. The virus has been contained but it keeps changing and getting stronger. Who can doubt that to Al Qaeda supporters Hosni Mubarak, Pervez Musharaff, and the Saudi royals are dead men walking who will live only until the death sentences clearly implied by Ben Ladins Al Jazeera television appearance last week are carried out?

Will there be a coup against Musharaff? His army and his ISI are mainly Punjabi, but its officers aren't polo playing "whisky" Sandhurst graduates any longer. Their foreign duty is largely in Saudi Arabia and they are strongly Wahhabi and sympathetic to bin Laden. Musharaff's brave attempts to restructure his general staff and the ISI and contain Islamist radicals by placing the head of his nation's most important Islamic party under house arrest may be too little too late. One can sympathize with rumored discussions about moving Pakistan's nuclear weapons to China since it is not inconceivable that Musharraf's already shaky support may disappear and a fundamentalist government may come to power.

Just as ominously, in February the annual Hajj pilgrimage begins in Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslim pilgrims from all over the Islamic world will pour into Mecca. In total numbers they may make up almost 20% of the population of 15 million Saudi nationals. And those Saudi nationals have suffered a 50% drop in their standard of living in the past decade under the current corrupt regime. It is not impossible to believe that Al Qaeda will take advantage of this golden opportunity to raise the flag of jihad at Mecca and attempt to take over a virtually defenseless state that proclaims itself Islams protector and yet allies itself with the United States

In facing this complicated set of circumstances, the Bush Administration is doing its best to lower expectations while creating extraordinary historic breakthroughs in Americas alliances with Russian and the independent Islamic republics of central Asia. Given time, they should provide the basis for excellent new policy options in the future throughout the region. But bin Ladens earthquake has a momentum of its own. And now it is not only the expectations of Americans that have to be satisfied.

In the short run, while the inescapably slow American buildup in armed forces and basing is still underway, bin Laden has many more options than his enemies. The next three to four months are crucial. America should remember that in classic 4GW style, Osama bin Laden used American planes and American training to destroy the World Trade Center. Terrorists become extraordinarily resourceful playing weak hands against the strong and rich. So do revolutionaries. And it is time to realize bin Laden is both.

A revolutionary American naval hero, John Paul Jones, demonstrated one of bin Ladens most intriguing options. With his ship Bonnehomme Richard sinking under him, Jones, offered the opportunity to surrender, responded I have just begun to fight! Jones and his crew then conquered the British HMS Serapis and climbed on board to fight again from the deck of another nations ship, now his prize. What will it really matter if the American coalition conquers the rocky wasteland of Afghanistan only to find Al Qaeda in control of nuclear-armed Pakistan, or the oil riches of Saudi Arabiaand with strong popular support?
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