TCS Daily


Where's the Real Center of the War on Terror?

By Melana Zyla Vickers - October 6, 2004 12:00 AM

For my upcoming birthday, I know exactly what I want: A little hardware contraption like a stud-finder, one that I can point at a map to learn the real center of the war on terror. If they're out of stock, I'll guess I'll settle for a printout of Al Qaeda's address on Mapquest.

According to John Kerry in the Miami debate, "the center of the focus of the war on terror" is Afghanistan. According to President George Bush, "Iraq is a central part in the war on terror." And back in June, 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean said the terrorists had more active contacts "with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq."

So which is it? Just like a bunch of men not to ask for directions.

Or rather, just like me, an average solution-oriented person, to want certainty on an almost-impossible question.

If I can't have certainty, I do want the presidential candidates as close to the mark as they can get. But candidate Kerry, and even candidate Bush at times, are aiming incorrectly.

This isn't a war against an enemy with a traditional "center of gravity," the term that classical military strategist Carl von Clausewitz gave to an enemy's source of strength, the "hub of all power and movement," and the correct place to focus one's attack. A conventional adversary's center of gravity might be his army, his capital, or his alliances. This terrorist adversary, meanwhile, has at least four "hubs of all power and movement" that need to be attacked. And unfortunately, the hubs can't always be found on a map. They are:

The terrorist organization and its leadership: Al Qaeda and its subcontractors are active in 60 countries. The 9/11 attacks were planned in Germany. This summer's foiled plot against Washington and New York office buildings was planned in Britain and Pakistan. Since 9/11, the terrorists have attacked successfully in at least 10 countries, including Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Spain. Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri may be in Pakistan, venturing occasionally into Afghanistan, or they may be somewhere else entirely, including the seventh circle of hell. And his terrorist confrere Abu-Musab Al-Zarqawi is in Iraq, for now. The U.S. has to go after the organization and its leaders in all these spots.

Terrorist sanctuaries: Before 9/11, Al Qaeda operated with impunity out of Afghanistan, planning attacks and training new recruits. The Clinton administration knew this and allowed them to stay. Before Afghanistan, Sudan was a sanctuary for the terrorists, and then, too, candidate Kerry's foreign-policy brains trust did nothing. After 9/11, troops led by George W. Bush largely eliminated the enemy in Afghanistan, doing work that was left recklessly undone by the Clinton foreign-policy team. Nowhere on the globe can the U.S. allow Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers to find sanctuary, or find a failed state in which to headquarter a caliphate, as they did in Afghanistan.

To be sure, important elements of Al Qaeda remain in the lawless mountain passes of Pakistan near the Afghan border. But the U.S., Pakistani, and Afghan governments are working to flush them out. The work isn't done, but the Al Qaeda hub there is nothing like it used to be. So when John Kerry says with such uncharacteristic firmness that the center of the war is Afghanistan, he's drawing his conclusion at least four years too late. Either that, or he's one "stan" too far to the left on a map.

Terrorists' popular appeal: In one important respect, terrorists are like insurgents or guerrilla warriors -- they draw strength, in other words they have a center of gravity, among the masses that support them. The danger of not attacking this strength (in the case of insurgencies) was well described by Andrew Krepinevich in his book The Army and Vietnam, where he writes that the U.S. military's failures in Vietnam came in part from focusing conventional attacks on the main-force enemy instead of attacking the enemy's base of popular support.

How does Al Qaeda attract popular support? It packages a message of militant, violent, Islam and sells it to disgruntled, impressionable young Muslims as the path to heaven. It places itself squarely on this path, arguing that divine salvation and a Godly life comes through allegiance to Al Qaeda. It positions the U.S. as the principal enemy of God, and pits its young adherents against that enemy. In this manner, Al Qaeda and its subcontractors attract a plethora of potential recruits and collaborators.

If the U.S. is to destroy this center of gravity, it has to discredit Al Qaeda and the messages it uses to make itself popular. This it can do by exposing the terrorist tactics as un-Islamic, which they are, pitting Muslims against terrorism by showing that Muslims themselves are victims of the terror, and exposing the terrorist leadership as dishonorable, murderous, corrupt -- all of the above. Ideally, the U.S. would also succeed in making counterbalances to Al Qaeda -- legitimate Arab, South and Southeast Asian, and Central Asian governments, non-violent religious figures, the U.S. itself -- strong, good, and worthy in the eyes of Al Qaeda's prospective recruits. This hearts-and-minds-campaign is in no way easy, not least because of the cultural divide between the U.S. and the Islamic world.

Terrorists' transnational network: Al Qaeda draws its recruits, its funding, weapons expertise, and alliances from across the globe. This transnational or global identity is a strength that needs to be targeted. For example, the U.S. should seek to sow discord among the various nationalities within Al Qaeda. Such discord was already evident some years ago, when, according to a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, Egyptian adherents were angry that Al Qaeda was focusing too much on U.S. targets and not enough on the fight against the Egyptian government. The more familiar network is the financial one, and the U.S. needs to continue disrupting the flow of money across borders to Al Qaeda's coffers.

To take a popular expression and use it in the geographical sense, these four terrorist "hubs of all power and movement" don't have a lot of "there," there. They offer few geographical spots that one could pin-point with a thug-finder. But rare though the geographical hubs may be, war-on-terror strategists have to identify them as best they can.

Afghanistan was a center during the Clinton presidency, when all the terrorists were being trained in the camps. It isn't any longer. Nor is the center Iraq, though part of the terrorist organization needs to be crushed there. Iraq is also a locus of a hearts-and-minds campaign: The U.S. and new Iraqi government must prevail in convincing Iraqis and Arabs in general of the legitimacy of the new government over the legitimacy of the anti-occupation insurgents and terrorists.

These days, the most important hubs are in Pakistan, where mountainous tribal regions and teeming cities do indeed house a critical portion of the enemy. Pakistan is also the only Islamic state with nuclear weapons, and thus would be a clear source of enemy strength should the country ever fall to Al Qaeda or radical Islamists and become the caliphate headquarters that they want to build.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia with its sources of funds for terrorism and its oil wealth, as well as its Islamic holy sites, would be a center of gravity for the enemy if it were to fall to terrorists, or to ally with them. It would provide both sources of capital and critical religious rallying points for popular support. The U.S. can't afford to lose either Pakistan or Saudi Arabia's cooperation in this war. Possession of these states would greatly strengthen the enemy, and they would be immensely hard to take back if they were lost.

Yet there's regular talk in Democratic circles about Pakistan being an unworthy partner in this war on terror, because Pervez Musharraf lacks democratic legitimacy. There's similar talk from Democratic deep thinker Michael Moore about Saudi Arabia, whose ruling House of Saud is painted as a dark force conspiring with American oil companies to wreak havoc on the region. Legitimate though criticism of these two governments may be, it should be put aside for a time when American lives and deaths don't hang in the balance.

Iran is another geographically identifiable hub for the terrorists. Iran's regime has a record of giving 9/11 terrorists safe passage, is suspected of assisting current Al Qaeda leaders, has a nuclear program, and expresses deep and violent animosity toward the U.S. Arguably, Iran is at this time a more formidable and powerful center than any of the others.

Yet John Kerry would have the U.S. negotiate with the mullahs there. Several of his foreign-policy luminaries would even like to see a kind of detente with that radical Islamic regime.

And President Bush, for his part, has so deeply committed the U.S. military in Iraq, and his administration has so badly fumbled the process of moving responsibility for Iraq security onto the shoulders of Iraqis, that it's hard to see how the U.S. military could, in the coming months or even year, have the manpower and resources needed to do more than strike some Iranian targets with air power if it had to.

If the U.S. is to find the centers of this war on terror and eliminate them, it must maintain a flexible military, strengthen its intelligence and special operations capabilities, and hone its ability to focus on several fronts at once. On balance, then, President Bush's recognition that there are several "centers of the war" on terror, is more accurate than Kerry's Afghan myopia. But neither candidate -- in words or deeds -- is properly on the mark.


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