Scoring The War On Terror and The War In Iraq

On December 3, 2003, a meeting was held at The Nixon Center on the topic, "Scoring the War on Terror and the War in Iraq.

On December 3, 2003, a meeting was held at The Nixon Center on the topic, "Scoring the War on Terror and the War in Iraq."  The discussion revolved around two articles - one by Daniel Byman, "Scoring the War on Terrorism", which appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of The National Interest, and one by Michael O'Hanlon and Adriana Lins de Albuquerque, "Scoring the Iraq Aftermath", that will appear in the Winter 2003/04 issue of the magazine.  Dr. Byman, Assistant Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, and Dr. Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at The Nixon Center and editor of In the National Interest, led a roundtable discussion on whether we can develop objective criteria to assess the success or failure of U.S. policies in combating international terrorism and in successfully rebuilding Iraq.

Dr. Byman began his remarks by noting that in the immediate post 9/11 phase, U.S. policy was reactive, actively searching out for perpetrators of the attacks.  Now, we have moved beyond that approach to try and prevent future attacks.

He warned that we cannot fall into a "body count" approach, where success or failure is defined by the number of terrorists killed or arrested.  A "body count" measure is not helpful when we have no clear picture as to the number of our adversaries.  Is every person who has been to a camp in Afghanistan a member of Al-Qaeda? Or is the measure anyone who supports Osama bin Laden? Or should only those who have sworn bayan (personal loyalty) to bin Laden be reckoned as an Al-Qaeda soldier?

We also have no picture of Al-Qaeda recruitment.  If the United States disables 300 Al-Qaeda operatives per month, but Al-Qaeda recruits 500 new soldiers in that same period, then the U.S. is losing the battle.

Byman likened Al-Qaeda to an "organization of leaders" rather than a single integrated organization, one where if the "colonels" are killed or captured, then there are "lieutenant colonels" and "majors" waiting to take their place.

However, there have been some notable successes.

The first has been the effort to deprive Al-Qaeda of sanctuaries that give it the freedom to operate.  Yes, Al-Qaeda can function as a "virtual" organization but it is much less effective without a haven that allows it to train and equip new recruits.  The overthrow of the Taliban deprived Al-Qaeda of its principal base, but increased vigilance after 9/11 brought a number of groups that hitherto had been cloaked in the West due to privacy concerns onto the radar screen.

The second is that there is strong public support here and in other countries for pursuing the war on terror; this long-term support is critical for sustaining the effort to root out terrorist organizations.

Finally, the intelligence war has been going well, with some notable captures of leading operatives, as well as successful operations to disrupt planned attacks.

However, Dr. Byman pointed to one front that needs buttressing: the war of ideas.  Al-Qaeda has spread three ideas throughout the international Islamic community: the need for individuals to act, for them to act violently and to direct this violence against the United States and its interests.  In this sense, the war against Iraq has hurt the war on terrorism, because it has energized people to act.  Although there is no hard evidence, anecdotal reports indicate that Al-Qaeda recruitment has increased since the war in Iraq.  The U.S. runs the risk of losing friends in the Muslim world and so proving Al-Qaeda's contention that the West is hostile to Islam.

Finally, Dr. Byman laid out some concerns.  The first is that as long as bin Laden and his second in command, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large, they have won a type of victory, for survival in the face of a sustained U.S. manhunt is successful defiance which enhances their stature.  The second is that the number of attacks is up.  Since 9/11, relatively few Americans have been killed, and there have been no "spectacular" attacks like 9/11, but Al-Qaeda and related groups have been very active. In 1999 standards, there has been a great deal of more activity.

However, Al-Qaeda has chosen to shift its emphasis from attacks that require long-term, complicated planning - in part because it has been deprived of havens and sanctuaries - to focus on easy targets of opportunity.  This, however, raises the problem of "mega-terrorism" - where even if the scale and size of attacks are small, the continuing incidents disrupt people's lives on a daily basis and contribute to a psychological sense of insecurity that leads to major societal and institutional changes.

Dr. Gvosdev summarized some of the key points made by Michael O'Hanlon and Adriana Lins de Albuquerque.  Currently, we are seeing "the war of the factoids" over Iraq, with supporters and opponents of the Bush policies able to point to developments that support their interpretation of events.  While both the positive and negative reports are accurate, we still lack of framework in which we can assess trends over time in order to monitor progress.  This requires us to track all relevant data, regardless of whether one wants to sell optimism or pessimism.

And here, the indicators are mixed.  Several thousand small businesses have opened, but there has been no marked increased in employment levels.  Water and phone services are about 80 percent of prewar levels, but, significantly, while electricity production for the country as a whole now exceeds prewar levels (3900 megawatts in October 2003 as opposed to 3300 megawatts prewar), electricity in Baghdad by October 2003 was approximately half the prewar level (1250 megawatts as opposed to 2500 prewar).  One's sense of perspective is thus conditioned by where one happens to be.