by Austin Bay
These three words provide a succinct guide to America's strategy
for waging a "global counter terror war" -- a struggle that may well be the
most intricate and nuanced conflict the planet has ever witnessed.
Nuanced, however, does not necessarily mean "new," so beware of
TV squawk show chatter about a "new kind of warfare."
Every war is complex, chaotic, physically and emotionally
debilitating and -- no matter how right the cause -- at some point morally
compromised. This war will be no different.
America's biggest strategic challenge will be one as old as war
itself: maintaining the will to persevere and pursue the task of victory
despite understandable fears, gnawing doubts, the occasional coward and
inevitable body bags.
With that as a grounding given, the terror war presents numerous
political and military challenges, and the biggest of these is "targeting."
"Knowing" who and where the enemy's located is, of course,
fundamental to any kind of effective military operation or diplomatic
initiative. My first company commander wasn't a particularly eloquent man,
but he knew the soldier's business. "Reconnaissance, Bay, is worth its
weight in gold" -- he burned that mantra into my brain. Map study, spot
reports from recon teams and analyzing what I saw through my own binoculars
preceded putting the tanks in gear.
When combating terrorists, the same principle applies.
Terrorists, however, are tougher to detect than enemy tanks.
Terror organizations resemble crime syndicates. Think niches, nodes and
networks. Since a visible terrorist is usually a dead terrorist, they must
inhabit hidden "niches." While often operating as individuals and dispersed
cells, to sustain operations they require supporting "nodes" (of resources)
and networks (for facilitating operations and distributing resources).
Afghanistan has a million difficult-to-find "niches," but so
does Chicago -- and Chicago cops do catch crooks. Identifying terrorist
niches creates an immense demand for detailed information, but the United
States and its allies have the resources for this intelligence effort. The
missing element has been the political will to focus those resources. That
will is now present. Intelligence agencies will leverage high-tech assets to
identify terrorist hideouts and safe-houses, but "gumshoe detectives" (human
spies) will play a major role. The political focus will allow intelligence
agencies to cooperate more closely. Restrictions on developing sources will
However, attempting to destroy each niche wastes assets. The
terrorists' supporting "nodes" are fewer in number and easier to spot. These
nodes include states that harbor terrorists, banks that protect terrorist
financial assets, and other organizations that provide training, supplies
and political support.
Enter "besiege." If you visualize a medieval castle, that's
appropriate, since the banks, parliaments and intelligence agencies
supporting terrorists have definite medieval mindsets. The United States has
already launched a "squeeze" on terrorist finances, with legal and political
power "besieging" the banks. At a strategic level, Secretary of State Colin
Powell is orchestrating a political siege of the Taliban and Iraq by forming
an "anti-terror" coalition. "Besieging" the Taliban also takes the form of
providing anti-Taliban Afghanis with aid and intelligence. Economic embargo,
a form of political siege, coerces other rogue states.
Legally, financially and politically crushing these "nodes" not
only deprives the terrorists of material and psychological resources, but
provides more detailed intelligence, often in the form of defectors spilling
This leads to "strike." Strike in the counter-terror war will
take several forms. Certain support nodes won't succumb to aggressive
diplomacy. "Strike" in the case of an Iraq will entail more classic
conventional combat, with ground divisions supported by air and sea.
"Strike" in the case of specific terror networks will take the form of
special-forces operations, police raids and pinpoint air strikes with smart
In fact, many American operations in this war will be
essentially large-scale, long-range raiding expeditions. America doesn't
want to permanently hold any territory, only use territory to facilitate
Siege warfare, however, is slow warfare. The logistical
preparation for even the quickest raid is a laborious process. Operations in
Central Asia make logistics even more time-consuming.
Political preparation for counter-terror war must be delicate
and detailed. Even successful military strikes risk international backlash
unless Powell's diplomatic effort is thorough.
At times, the American public will grow impatient. At the
superficial level of headline news, it will appear as if nothing is
happening. Then hell will break loose in a spasm of violence. Immediate
effects may be uncertain.
As the dreary process begins again, America's collective will to
persevere will be tested. New warfare? Perhaps, but at its core we face the
same old challenge.