TCS Daily

'Slow Drips of Death'

By Brian E. Finch - March 27, 2002 12:00 AM

Six months after one of the most devastating terrorist attacks in modern history, the reality of the length and costs of the struggle against terrorism still seems to have eluded many. Time magazine for instance described the recent offensive against a massive pocket of Taliban and al-Qaeda soldiers ("Operation Anaconda") as a fight where U.S. troops suddenly found themselves in a "fight for their lives." Meanwhile, the Washington Post details living conditions for U.S. troops in Afghanistan as though it were doing an expose on slumlord tenants, focusing on how the troops are not afforded the same luxuries as their counterparts in Bosnia and Kosovo like pizza and cappuccino.

By obsessively focusing on the relatively small (yet heartbreaking) U.S. casualties and the lack of amenities afforded to U.S. soldiers in a combat zone, the media is doing the public a disservice by creating the impression that the U.S. mission to destroy al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups is intolerably violent and difficult. We must recognize the U.S. campaign for what it is: a war against terror. This means that our soldiers will be uncomfortable, lonely, and fighting for their lives at any given moment. Yet, press accounts of the war make it seem shocking that the U.S. has to put lives at risk in order to protect itself, and in doing so the media will inaccurately score the ongoing conflict.

The war against terrorism will contain many subtle victories, and thus what constitutes a victory for the U.S. must first be understood. The current conflict in many ways defies our preconceived notions of military victory. We are not involved in a war where there will be opportunities for grand battles like D-Day. Our foes are simply not that large, nor are they interested in seizing territory like our previous enemies. Instead, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda are focused on spreading global violence and mayhem in order to achieve a political goal - allegedly here the removal of the U.S. and Israeli presence in the Middle East.

In order to achieve that goal, the terrorist (much like a virus) must find a host in which it can safely lodge and replicate itself. The host here was Afghanistan, and as the New York Times reported recently, al-Qaeda was able to develop in Afghanistan a "two-tiered university for waging Islamic war." On one tier, al-Qaeda trained thousands in relatively sophisticated military techniques, while the other tier trained individuals to become the terrorists America has come to fear. The reason al-Qaeda was able to establish those training programs and run them so effectively was because for years no one disrupted those activities. The end result was the uninterrupted production of literally thousands of fighters for al-Qaeda's own holy war.

Enter 9/11 and the U.S. response: when the attacks on Afghanistan commenced, so too began the demise of al-Qaeda's sanctuary. The U.S., by virtue of its massive air and land campaign, took away the ability of al-Qaeda to conduct its training regime unmolested. Now instead of training new recruits in military and terrorist tactics, al-Qaeda is forced to put that schooling to use against the best militaries on the globe.

And that represents a critical victory in the war on terror - the U.S. and its coalition allies have put al-Qaeda on the run and the defensive. Al-Qaeda has been denied access to its major sanctuaries and training centers, and instead of planning new attacks it is fighting to survive. The constant harassment of al-Qaeda forces also effectively precludes it from training a new generation of recruits. While undoubtedly other al-Qaeda operatives are being trained in heretofore undiscovered bases, the number of such operatives will be far less than it was prior to 9/11. Precluding al-Qaeda from running its operations unhindered is a significant victory as it means that the U.S. and other nations can seek out current al-Qaeda operatives with relative assurance that they will not simply be replaced.

That is the type of subtle victory that the media overlooks when it focuses on "missed opportunities" at Tora Bora and Shah-i-Kot. While it is undoubtedly true that a number of al-Qaeda fighters escaped from those battles, it is not as though at the next battle the U.S. will be facing an enemy of the same strength. It will be one that is drawing on fixed supplies and manpower pools. It is an enemy that will be tired from being on the run constantly. The U.S. does not lose if al-Qaeda fighters slip into "lawless tribal areas" - it loses if al-Qaeda fighters withdraw into power centers where they can regroup and bring their units up to previous strengths. The continued prosecution of the fight ensures that that will not happen.

This also means that the discussion about the war entering a "guerilla" phase is actually a good sign. Al-Qaeda can no longer roam Afghanistan unchallenged: it can only strike out in limited circumstances and on a much smaller scale. Similarly, it has no real sanctuary to which it can retreat. The U.S. has smartly allied itself with almost all of Afghanistan's neighbors in order to make sure al-Qaeda fighters are harassed wherever they trek. As for the hostile neighbors (i.e. Iran), the U.S. has made clear that lending al-Qaeda assistance will not go unpunished. There will be no Ho Chi Minh trail this time.

The recent stories by the media, however, ignore those positives. Instead, media reports unnecessarily dramatize the battles being fought and the conditions our soldiers are fighting in. Time reporter Michael Elliott for instance opines in his article on the Shah-i-Kot battle that perhaps one day "Americans will tire of the slow drip of deaths - three here, five there - of the sort that old colonial powers like France and Britain once learned to endure." While Elliott is careful to note that that "hasn't happened yet" and that America is standing resolute, that whole premise is wrong. The Afghan conflict is not being fought to secure a trade route or colonial possession -- it is being fought to disrupt ongoing terrorist operations across the globe and to secure the safety of America. Thus, while we will no doubt see in the future "slow drips of death", Americans will mourn those lives while recognizing that they were given for a truly noble purpose.

That is why we need to remember that this is not an outing, it is a war. And as unfortunate the conditions of our soldiers are, they are much worse for al-Qaeda fighters. While fighting this war like any war is unpleasant, the "slow drip" we face is much more preferable to another torrent of grief like 9/11.

Brian E. Finch is an attorney in Washington, D.C.


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