By now you have no doubt seen the most important news story of the week, yesterday’s front-pager in the Washington Post reporting the debate among the U.S. military between those who believe that recent, dramatic successes against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQIZ) represent a decisive and irreversible turning point, especially given the newfound cooperation in Sunni areas alienated by AQIZ, and those who caution that AQIZ might yet regenerate itself again as it did after its leadership was decimated by the series of raids beginning with the decaptitation strike that killed AQIZ’s notorious leader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, in June 2006.
That debate is itself important, as are the collateral domestic political questions that follow from it. But perhaps the most intriguing line in the WaPo piece is this one:
The flow of foreign fighters through Syria into Iraq has also diminished, although officials are unsure of the reason and are concerned that the broader al-Qaeda network may be diverting new recruits to Afghanistan and elsewhere.
This raises a question I have addressed before: whether the United States is doing enough to expand the battlefield on which we take the fight to the enemy.
You see, regardless of the precise nature of the organizational charts of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, the basic fact remains: we are facing an enemy that operates across national borders, mostly shares common goals and common religious and poilitical ideology, and draws from the same pools of resources. Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers operate in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, even in New Jersey and North Carolina.
Like any adversary in war, especially an asymmetrical war such as this one, the jihadist enemy has some advantages over us: fanatical foot soldiers willing to engage in suicide attacks, superior ability to manipulate the media, an absence of moral restraint, little or no territory to protect, an ability to blend in with the population, and patience to take the long view against a nation famous for its impatience. Their goal is to make maximum use of those advantages, while nullifying ours.
But it should not be a given that the U.S. lets the enemy dictate the terms of engagement – and indeed, that is precisely what the Iraq War has been all about. It is a basic rule of any form of conflict – from wars to political campaigns to sporting events to litigation to business competition – that you force the enemy to react to your strengths, rather than let him dictate that the battle be fought on the ground of your weaknesses. It’s a dictum as old as Sun Tzu. You don’t win wars by hunkering down to figure out how to stop what the other guy does best; you win wars by making the other guy wake up every morning wondering what you are going to do to him.
My concern is that, while the Iraq War has succeeded in occupying much of the enemy’s attention, U.S. policy has let the enemy too often off the hook by allowing them to fight only in Iraq. Remember, with no disrespect to our fighting men, America has won wars in the past (hot and Cold) not so much by having more or braver men than the enemy but in large part by forcing the enemy to compete on multiple fronts in ways that allow us to leverage our huge advantages in producing armaments and supplies and in moving men, materiel and information from place to place while interdicting the enemy’s ability to do so. Indeed, those are advantages being deployed now by Gen. Petraeus:
Captures and interrogations of AQI leaders over the summer had what a senior military intelligence official called a “cascade effect,” leading to other killings and captures. . . .
The deployment of more U.S. and Iraqi forces into AQI strongholds in Anbar province and the Baghdad area, as well as the recruitment of Sunni tribal fighters to combat AQI operatives in those locations, has helped to deprive the militants of a secure base of operations, U.S. military officials said. “They are less and less coordinated, more and more fragmented,” Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, said recently. Describing frayed support structures and supply lines, Odierno estimated that the group’s capabilities have been “degraded” by 60 to 70 percent since the beginning of the year.
There remains a debate about precisely how much manpower the jihadists can call upon, and thus whether a strategy of manpower attrition (i.e., killing terrorists) is likely to get us anywhere on a global basis any time soon:
Despite the increased killings and captures of AQI members, Odierno said, “it only takes three people” to construct and detonate a suicide car bomb that can “kill thousands.” The goal, he said, is to make each attack less effective and lengthen the periods between them.
But even terrorist groups don’t just run on warm bodies; they need money, leadership, experience and expertise (e.g., in building IEDs), munitions, and communications. All of these are finite resources, and the United States and its allies can reproduce them, move them, coordinate them and interdict them far better and on a far larger scale than the enemy can. We need them to be fighting on more fronts than they can logistically handle. And unless there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than we can guess, I’m not convinced that we are doing nearly enough of that. The Iranians, for example, appear to have a very free hand to stoke the violence in Iraq and Lebanon and support the jihadis (even the Sunni jihadis who represent Iran’s ancient enemies, but who are fighting us now) with minimal consequences for themselves, and little taxation of resources they would have difficulty replenishing. Ditto the Syrians.
The prescription to expand the battlefield is easier said than done, of course; we don’t really need to be invading countries willy-nilly, nor am I suggesting we do so. As the Cold War experience – against a much vaster and better-funded enemy – shows, there are a variety of ways to engage the enemy in combat without committing large numbers of our own troops (although we had a much larger and better-funded military then, as we probably should today). And there is a counter-argument, which is in essence that our main priority needs to be consolidating gains of fragile democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, to a much more tenuous extent, in Lebanon, where the democrats still have a fighting chance against difficult odds) rather than opening new fronts. But the longstanding logic of war, together with the political reality of a restive U.S. populace, counsels daring rather than caution. As a guiding principle, whenever and wherever U.S. policymakers have the opportunity to engage the jihadist enemy in ways that further tax its finite resources, we should be doing so.