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On Point

Target. Besiege. Strike.


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 ease.

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 secrets.

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 munitions.

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 further raids.

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.

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