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Costs of War

'Tell me how this ends'

By Shaun Waterman, ISN Security Watch, August 19, 2008

John Lehman, the blunt former US Navy secretary who seemed to revel in his role as the in-house iconoclast of the September 11 Commission, was fond of ridiculing the notion of a war on terror.

In one speech, he likened the idea to describing World War II as "a war against kamikazes and blitzkrieg."

"Terrorism," he told the US Naval Academy, "is a method, a tool a weapon used against us."

But if terrorism is a weapon, one can no more win a war against it than one could win a war against rifles.

Billboard in NYC calculating cost of Iraq war (Nick J TaylorFlickr) One of the most debilitating characteristics of the US war on terror is that, as currently framed, it is almost by definition un-winnable, Shaun Waterman writes for ISN Security Watch.

When General David Petraeus demanded of a reporter in March 2003 "Tell me how this ends," he was referring to the war in Iraq - which senior US officers were then fretting might take months rather than weeks.

But, prescient as Petraeus' question might have been about Iraq, it is even more apposite in relation to the US war on terrorism as a whole.

Osama bin Laden is obviously not going to sign a surrender on the deck of a US battleship - what would a US victory look like?

Would morgue photos of bin Laden, a la Saddam Hussein's two sons, count? Perhaps it would require the more Grand Guignol promise made by then-chief of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, Cofer Black, who told US President George W Bush in 2001 he would have bin Laden's head delivered in a box. ("Well, we would need some DNA," he deadpanned to staff after the comment became public).

How about a dental exam video, like that of Saddam himself released by the US military after his capture?

Terrorism expert and CNN analyst Peter Bergen says that little planning has been done for the possibility of bin Laden's capture, but adds that it is unlikely he would allow himself to be taken alive. He adds that in the long term, the al-Qaida leader's death "would most likely give an enormous boost to the power of his ideas."

Hardly a victory, then.

Nearly four years ago, Bush - perhaps thinking uncharacteristically out loud - touched on the difficulty of conceptualizing a victory when he told US television broadcaster NBC of the war on terror, "I don't think you can win it." Instead, the president continued "You can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."

His aides immediately leapt to clarify his statement, with a spokesman telling reporters he had only been "talking about winning it in the conventional sense" with a formal surrender or a treaty.

But the truth is that a war on terror is, by definition, unwinnable.

John Lehman, the blunt former US Navy secretary who seemed to revel in his role as the in-house iconoclast of the September 11 Commission, was fond of ridiculing the notion of a war on terror.

In one speech, he likened the idea to describing World War II as "a war against kamikazes and blitzkrieg."

"Terrorism," he told the US Naval Academy, "is a method, a tool a weapon used against us."

But if terrorism is a weapon, one can no more win a war against it than one could win a war against rifles.

That is not to say that conflicts like the ones in Iraq or Afghanistan cannot be brought to a successful conclusion, or that individual terrorist groups cannot be defeated. It just means we need to re-think the way the conflict is framed.

A recent report from RAND Corp, a think tank with historic ties to the US military, looked in detail at how 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006 had ended.

The study found that most groups ended in one of two ways. In 43 percent of the cases studied - culled from a database maintained by RAND - the groups were drawn or allowed into a political process and abandoned terrorist tactics. In 40 percent of the cases, police and intelligence agencies were able to arrest or kill enough key members to render them ineffective.

While any kind of political accommodation with a group like al-Qaida is almost inconceivable, given the radical, sweeping nature of its goals and the non-negotiable nature of its ideology, the good news is that effective policing, good intelligence and smart political footwork can really make an impact.

The RAND researchers concluded that "Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al-Qaida in most of the world," and urged US officials to abandon the use of the phrase "war on terrorism."

RAND political scientists and author Seth Jones noted that most US allies had already dropped the term, preferring to describe what they did as "counterterrorism."

"The term we use to describe our strategy toward terrorists is important, because it affects what kinds of forces you use," Jones said. "Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism."

Indeed, military force was effective in only seven percent of the cases the study examined. "In most instances, military force is too blunt an instrument to be successful against terrorist groups," concluded the authors, although they added "it can be useful for quelling insurgencies in which the terrorist groups are large, well-armed and well-organized."

And in none of the cases studied did the defeat of the groups mean the end of terrorism per se.

Jones said the study has crucial implications for US strategy in dealing with al-Qaida, and he is right.

Somewhere while the war on terror was being conceived, a vital fact was forgotten - only one foreign terror group has ever struck the US homeland.

Other groups such as Hizbollah in Lebanon and November 17 in Greece have struck US targets in their own countries, but only al-Qaida ever attacked the United States at home.

Lumping all terrorist groups together might have seemed like a good idea at the time - but it made the conflict with al-Qaida seem a lot harder to win than it actually is.

Shaun Waterman is a national security reporter based in Washington DC. His column, "Costs of war," appears every other Tuesday.