Two Wars on Terror

Five years after September 11, it is possible to take stock of what parts of the battle against terrorism are succeeding and failing, and why. The thwarting of an elaborate terrorist plot against trans-Atlantic flights last week prevented what some maintain could have been a second September 11-style attack. Regardless of what the would-be perpetrators were actually capable of, credit goes to the intelligence, law enforcement and transportation security agencies that uncovered the plan, caught the culprits, and protected the public.

The rest of the picture is bleaker. The announcement that more than 3,400 Iraqi civilians died in unrest in the month of July is a shocking reminder that the world's most powerful military has, let's face it, failed in its chief aim of stabilizing Iraq. The Israel Defense Forces' inability to vanquish Hezbollah in a month-long fight further shows that when in on-the-ground combat, terrorist groups can stand up to the world's most advanced armies

It's clear that meticulous intelligence and collaborative criminal enforcement can curb terrorists' ability to carry out episodic headline-grabbing attacks. But when it comes to uprooting endemic terrorist schemers with roots in unstable societies, at least as a military matter, the task is virtually impossible. The war on terror is happening on two fronts, but headway is being made on only one.

The conclusion is not a surprise. During the last three decades, Israel, despite preventing targeted killings and kidnappings around the globe, never effectively clamped down on the intifada back home. The United States likewise had an easier time defending itself against hijackings and assassinations than it had fighting Viet Cong forces hidden in jungles.

The reasons for the disparity are clear. To succeed in sowing fear, terrorist attacks must be carried out in places and against people who are well-protected and feel safe. Grassroots terrorist activity targets vulnerable populations in already unstable situations. High-profile attacks require perpetrators to risk suicide, capture, or life on the run. Endemic terrorists can melt away anonymously. Whereas splashy international terrorists must plot with utmost secrecy and isolation, domestic terrorists can draw succor from supportive civilian populations.

These two faces of the war on terror prescribe radically different methods. Intelligence and law enforcement can prevent episodic hijackings or subway attacks. To root out terrorists enmeshed in a failed state is much more complicated. It requires not just extensive, on-the-ground intelligence, but also massive troop, diplomatic, and civilian support and logistics. Whereas urban terror efforts can be surgical in nature -- a sweep that picks up two dozen hijackers and a circle of abetters -- grassroots terrorist guerillas hide amid civilians, ensuring innocent casualties that raise the price of the fight.

The implications of this gap for the war on terror are becoming clear. Resources devoted to stanching the flow of terrorist funds, improved international intelligence collaboration, tight security at terrorist targets, and effective early warning and threat management systems seem to be largely well spent. As for the billions of dollars and thousands of lives dedicated to Iraq since the insurgency began, the value is much less clear.

Unfortunately, we do not get to choose whether to fight episodic or endemic terrorism. Terrorists who enjoy the resources and protection of a host country, as al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan, can plan for attacks that directly terrorize the West. Such terrorists are also well-placed to realize the ultimate doomsday scenario: acquiring nuclear weapons. Terrorist-infested territories destabilize their neighbors, as Lebanon has. For all these reasons, simply opting out of tackling the problem of entrenched terrorist organs like Hezbollah or al-Qaeda in Iraq is not an option

So, what can be done? While the Iraq operation was botched in obvious ways, it's easier to make retrospective arguments about how the United States might have prevented such a powerful insurgency from arising than to advise how to suppress it after the fact. Strategies like the "oil spot" concept, which involves stabilizing small patches of territory and then gradually expanding the occupied zone, seem logical but are mostly untested. The UN's experience in trying to stabilize Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon in the coming months may tell us something about what a well-planned, broadly supported mission can accomplish. But in the wake of Iraq, and three decades after the Vietnam War, it's hard to be optimistic about overcoming the advantages that well-organized terrorist groups enjoy on their home turf.

Thus the challenges of defeating endemic terrorist groups point to the importance of preventing such groups from taking root in failed states in the first place, and of minimizing the outside support they are able to draw on. Right now Afghanistan is teetering toward collapse. The Taliban is regrouping and Hamid Karzai's central government is barely holding power in Kabul. The problems stem in part from the United States and the West's focus being diverted to Iraq. Experience suggests that without forceful action to strengthen the Kabul government, build civil society, and dismantle the Taliban, the West may soon find itself in a deadly, losing battle in Afghanistan. The situation in Somalia is also comparable, and may have already passed the point of repair.

Another crucial facet of prevention is at risk of being overlooked in Lebanon right now. Poor, politically disenfranchised populations naturally feel loyalty to terrorist organs that provide social services and aid far more effectively than their corrupt and inept ruling governments. Looking backward, it is hard not to wonder whether, had it faced up to the reality of a Hamas alternative, the West could have done more to help the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority weed out graft and corruption and deliver on its political promises. Over the past few days in Lebanon, Hezbollah has positioned itself as the conduit for reconstruction and humanitarian aid sourced from Syria and Iran. Unless the UN and the international community help the Lebanese government compete in these areas, the war may occasion the very victory that Hezbollah now claims.

A related key to fighting endemic terrorists is limiting their ability to obtain arms and resources. Backing from Syria and Iran has been essential fuel to terrorists in Iraq and Lebanon. Stringent international penalties for abetting terrorist groups -- including broad economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation -- are needed to raise the price of suborning terror.

The fight against episodic terror looks very different than the battle against endemic terror. But to prevail in the long-term over either, we'll likely have to get both right.

Suzanne Nossel is a senior fellow at the Security and Peace Initiative, a joint project of The Century Foundation and Center for American Progress. She is the founder of the Democracy Arsenal weblog.

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