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On Point

Anatomy of an Ambush

by Austin Bay
June 25, 2003Syria the target? Or was it a belated "post-emptive" battle leading to the arrest of genocidal gangsters? And by the way, what actually happened?

Last week's U.S. attack on a convoy near the Iraqi-Syrian border (south of the Iraqi town of Qaim), a convoy possibly transporting "major figures" in Saddam's regime, supplies a quick military and political snapshot of the War on Terror.

It's a sketchy snapshot, one that catches the sharp high-technology angles, the murky targets and troubling international political grayness.

Here's what the Pentagon's said so far. Five Syrian border guards were wounded. Perhaps 20 Iraqis were arrested. One Iraqi vehicle was hit by fire from a U.S. helicopter after the vehicle entered Syria. Where was the helicopter? In Iraq or Syria? The snapshot gets fuzzy. In combat, pilots can easily stray across a desert border -- that's possible. The State Department says we're still trying to piece together the facts. With the digital electronics on special operations helicopters, however, somewhere there's a trail of bytes recording the chopper's path. We know where it was. Bet on Syria.

Task Force 20 (TF20), a special operations group organized to hunt Saddam, conducted the ambush. The outfit draws troops from the Green Berets, Seals and Delta Force. It's tied to every U.S. intelligence source, from orbiting satellites to Baghdad's back alleys. Built for speed and agility, TF20 is designed to respond quickly to "high priority level" targets as they emerge.

Military high-tech is America's ace when it can be brought to bear, and this ambush brought it. Predator unmanned aircraft had a role. Predators can shoot missiles and relay real-time video imagery to helicopters and to TF20 troops on the ground. U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships, electronics-packed turbo-prop aircraft capable putting a howitzer round through a basketball hoop from a mile in the air, supported the attack.

It's likely the United States will run DNA tests on individuals killed in the ambush, on the chance forensic hindsight will turn up a trace of Saddam.

See, we don't know. Here, the snapshot blots in a frustrating murk emblematic of the entire war.

There's the political graininess. This war escapes traditional political boundaries. Scholars argue "pre-emptive war" undermines the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), the ur-document of the nation-state system. Contemporary transnational terrorists, however, have already exploited the system's weaknesses. Failed states (e.g., Somalia) can't police themselves and thus cede sovereignty to terrorists; terror is their bane. Rogue states (e.g., Syria) support and promote terrorists; terror is their business.

Saddam isn't bin Laden, but cash, despotism and militant hatred of America are their common grease. The terror clans believe they can move in this borderless lubricant, and thus survive. In order to defeat them, America has to "move the war." "Transnational" (borderless) terror organizations use national borders as a defense, as they turn airplanes into ICBMs and acquire nuclear weapons for even more devastating attacks. The ambush at Qaim moved the war across a border, because that's how it had to be fought.

A tip led to the ambush. But was Saddam aboard? An intelligence tip led to the U.S. bombing in Baghdad on March 19, which apparently missed the brute. The War on Terror is first and foremost a spy war. 9-11 was an intelligence failure, following eight years of failing to take Al Qaeda's 1993 World Trade Center attack with the serious response it deserved. Tracking Al Qaeda is an intelligence nightmare, day in and day out.

In war, intelligence is a best assessment of what you know and what you think you know. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? The United Nations said Saddam had chemical and bio weapons and wouldn't account for them, as required by the resolutions that suspended Desert Storm. So far, the weapons haven't turned up.

TF20 thought the convoy intelligence was credible and took a chance. The results are murky.

Except its larger messages are fairly clear. Rogue states that aid and abet terrorists are erasing their own borders. After 9-11, incomplete intelligence won't stop a counter-attack. Dictators who play hide and seek with weapons of mass destruction won't stall one, either.

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