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On Point

On to Baghdad or Somalia or Yemen or ...


by Austin Bay

The forward deployment of U.S. Third Army headquarters to Kuwait marks the beginning of "Military Phase Two" in America's Millennial War.

Third Army, also referred to as ARCENT, is the U.S. Army ground-force component of Central Command.

The real estate agent's adage, "Location is everything," must come to mind. With a major U.S. headquarters in Kuwait, the obvious first, second and third thought is "on to Iraq."

But don't bet on it. Kuwait offers a politically secure, pro-American command site in a volatile region -- at the moment that's the emirate's primary appeal.

Afghanistan isn't over. For that and several other reasons, Somalia and eastern Yemen, two anarchic terror-havens, make more sense as near-term military and diplomatic targets.

Thus the drop in "on to Baghdad" decibels from Bush administration officials.

Certainly, Saddam Hussein's execrable regime is on America's hit list. It has to be, and credit Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz with having the spine to insist on it. Though Saddam's direct connections to Al Qaeda remain murky, global terrorism has a home and hub in Baghdad.

Even before Sept. 11, the United States had ample reason to topple the wretch. Saddam's violated every post-Desert Storm agreement.

That being said, American diplomacy needs time to create the conditions for military action against Iraq. The Clinton administration's August 1996 disaster still cripples U.S. efforts. That's when Saddam used an internecine Kurd struggle to attack and destroy the CIA-backed dissident base in northern Iraq. Credible reports suggest scores of anti-Saddam Iraqis were captured and executed.

The Middle East is far too complex and paradoxical a place to say one mistake or one provident act is a turning point. Yet the Gulf War political coalition truly began to fray in the wake of that U.S. failure to blunt Saddam's 1996 assault. The resulting fiasco seeded long-term doubts about American commitment and reliability.

While U.S. actions since Sept. 11 have helped erase those doubts, solidifying Iraqi dissidents and configuring Kurd guerrillas as an anti-Saddam army aren't the only issues. Shaky sheiks, rattled by Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists, are another time-demanding problem.

Yet U.S. successes in Afghanistan have produced political momentum. New information sources (particularly information gleaned from defecting Taliban and captured Al Qaeda fighters) have increased what the spy crowd calls "the granularity" of American intelligence. Though the "clean-up phase" of military operations in Afghanistan will be difficult, the pay-off is already evident.

In particular, the roots of Al Qaeda's African and Arabian peninsula networks are showing. Western press sources report that other Somali groups are ready to rat out al-Ittihad al-Islamiya (Islamic Unity), an armed radical faction linked to bin Laden. Al Qaeda has other supporters in Somalia and is closely tied to Islamist leaders in the Somali "transitional government." The Somali Rahanwein Resistance Army (RRA, headquartered in the town of Baydhabo) has already offered troops as well as a base for U.S. operations against Al Qaeda sites and support nodes in Somalia.

Yes, that's a dicey offer, though as Somali factions go, the RRA has little truck with Islamists. In fact, the RRA is allied with Ethiopia.

True, no hardcore Taliban-type group controls Somalia. Frankly, in Somalia, no one is in control. Clans, like gangs, control street corners and swaths of countryside. However, anarchy attracts terror cadres. U.S. diplomats note the rampant anarchy in Somalia means the country can't "be left to its own devices."

U.S. anti-terror operations in Somalia would leverage the political and military presence of opposition factions (like the RRA). However, the ability to use airbases under RRA control and the close proximity of the Indian Ocean (the U.S. Navy is just offshore) mean "quick strikes" from U.S. Army and Marine forces are a real option. The logistics tail for U.S. ground operations in Somalia is much shorter and more flexible than that in Afghanistan. A mix of airstrikes and coordinated raids would destroy Al Qaeda material assets in Somalia. Bounties (in euros or U.S. dollars) would induce Somali clansmen to turn in Al Qaeda operatives.

The destruction of Al Qaeda supporters and assets in Somalia and eastern Yemen would maintain the Afghan momentum. Kicking off operations in these areas sooner rather than later would re-emphasize the Bush administration's key point that this is a war against global terrorism, not simply a war with Osama bin Laden. Success in Somalia buys time to strengthen the anti-terror coalition and prepare for the showdown with Saddam.

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