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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Zarqawi's Gone, Who's Next?

Officials from Iraq, the US military and the Bush Administration all communicated the correct message this week regarding the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Specifically,

  • one very destructive piece of the security problem in Iraq has been eliminated

  • teamwork and intelligence sharing between Iraq, Jordon, the US and probably others helped

  • availability of low-flying, relatively cheap Predator spy planes helped tremendously

  • Zarqawi's elimination provides opportunities for toning down Sunni / Shia sectarian fighting that is jeopardizing security and stability within Iraq

  • Zarqawi's elimination does not guarantee any improvement in security within Iraq or by itself improve timetables for reducing American troop levels

The coverage of Zarqawi's killing has NOT really done much to tie together other pieces of the puzzle, some involving good lessons, some involving dangers still not being addressed.


The most important positive news from Zarqawi's elimination is the degree of cooperation involved between Jordon, Iraq and the United States. His location was eventually determined after Jordanian sources confirmed the identity of a man who was providing "spiritual guidance" to Zarqawi. Identifying this contact allowed local Iraqi intelligence sources to start monitoring the "advisor's" movements, eventually tracking him back to Zarqawi like ants back to the nest. Once a definite time and place were confirmed, there's not much that's going to prevent an F-16 and a bomb from doing what they do best.

As various press reports pointed out, following these "ant trails" is likely to be the undoing of Osama bin Laden and the other nut jobs we are fighting. Though they've made a name for themselves with their terrorist acts so far, they feel compelled to occasionally publicize their actions or confirm their existence and relevance by audio and video recordings which HAVE to get to media outlets somehow. We're surely developing wider and wider nets on people who have acted as couriers between the terrorists and the media outlets and web sites that will allow us trace the couriers back to the source and destroy the nest.


Technology and Terrorism

What level of technology and expense is really most appropriate for fighting an asymmetric war with terrorists on a worldwide scale? Zarqawi was killed by a combination of

  • basic human intelligence - one name of someone visiting Zarqawi

  • reconnaissance collected by a relatively cheap, "throw-away" Predator spy plane

  • a conventional bomb delivered by a 30-year old fighter design (F-16)

A 30-year old F-16 is still very sophisticated technology in the absolute sense but is ancient by current military standards and dirt cheap compared to current fighter and bomber designs. The success of the "ixne Zarqawi" mission brings up an important question: Who in the world poses a material military challenge to America that requires anything more sophisticated than stuff we've had for 30 years?

Donald Rumsfeld's much talked about "transformation" strategy for the military is intended to provide a more flexible, responsive, agile military force by taking advantage of information technology, imaging technology, and better real-time sharing of information about conventional enemy forces. Transformation works great when we are battling anti-aircraft missiles, fighter jets, columns of tanks and platoons of troops in rows of trucks driving down a highway, etc. No one stands a chance fighting the United States military on those terms. That is probably why no one will ever try. The terrorists certainly aren't.

Our experience in Iraq points out a fundamental danger of a "transformed" military out of sync with larger political strategies. Fundamentally, we looked at Iraq, categorized its government as a threat, and decided to solve that part of the problem by toppling Saddam with an amazingly small military force (by historical standards). However, we didn't develop an appropriate strategy for the aftermath. The topple part of the plan worked as well or better than we thought but produced after-effects a transformed military is POWERLESS to address. You still need large numbers of "boots on the ground" to physically control territory, provide some semblance of security and protect basic public infrastructure required to transition back to peaceful civilian control. All of the Predator spy planes in the world won't be able to track thousands of roadside bombs and suicide bombers.

A transformed military has essentially given the United States a "universal house key" capable of easily opening the door to the home of any potential "bad guy" we face. However, any police officer or DEA agent will tell you that getting in the house is one thing, eliminating the threat and getting out safely is another. The countries we have targeted with our "universal house key" have turned out to be booby-trapped in both the actual and political sense.

Who's Next?

Grab the keys to the wayback machine and think back to July 2003. Osama was at the top of the bad-guy list and virtually no one paid attention to Zarqawi. Other than a reference in Colin Powell's infamous speech to the UN, try finding any news story involving Zarqawi dated prior to August 2003. As far as Iraq and the United States were concerned, he arrived FROM NOWHERE and was completely off our radar before he began publicly taking credit for terrorist attacks in August of 2003.

In reality, he didn't arrive from nowhere. He grew up immersed in a climate of militant Islam, made contacts with other militants in the waning days of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and was further radicalized by a 7-year prison term served in Jordan for attempting to topple the Jordanian monarchy. In other words, he spent years honing his terrorist strategies and irrational justifications in the chaos produced by a war and associated civil strife.

Is it any wonder that chaos and strife are exactly what he worked to produce in Iraq? The same forces that warped him have now warped another generation of teenagers who are likely to make up meaning in an Islamic jihad out of the otherwise meaningless chaos and destruction they deal with every day. Within two days of Zarqawi's death, there are already reports of beheadings performed by another batch of terrorists operating within Iraq.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

The fixation first on bin Laden then Zarqawi needs serious review. Though bin Laden and Zarqawi have garnered the most attention, the record of actual and thwarted attacks throughout the world really points to a more un-coordinated, un-centralized terrorist campaign. Those planning attacks may claim similar (or identical) motives but the effort involved in the attacks really does not require much coordination or money. Anyone with access to high-explosives (we left TONS unguarded within Iraq in our rush to "capture" Baghdad), timer devices or cell phones and warped teenagers or twenty-somethings dumb enough to die can pull off an attack.

This is not the type of organization that will collapse and disappear if you eliminate the head. The ideas on which the hatred is based are too simple, too wrong, and too easy to reproduce and regenerate for the hatred to be eliminated with three or four big hits. You have to "drain the swamp" instead of trying to kill the mosquitoes in small groups.

What SHOULD We Teach in War College?

The same question has been occurring to me as I read stories about the latest class of West Point graduates, the latest round of roadside bombings and new training techniques for recruits sent to Iraq and elsewhere: What kind of curriculum do you teach to recruits about "war?"

War used to involve large numbers of organized, uniformed troops engaging each other in specific locations and using increasingly lethal technologies to kill the people wearing the other uniform. As war tactics "progressed" (or maybe regressed), certain rules of thumb evolved about

  • protecting high ground that provided visibility into the opponent's position and movement

  • properly staffing and protecting supply chains

  • organizing intelligence and battlefield communication

  • designing combat training to habitualize behavior that can keep you alive amidst the organized chaos

  • later strategies for air and naval attacks and defenses

Have we had a war that meets this description since Korea? The evolution of mass-scale killing technology hasn't eliminated war, but it has virtually eliminated the concept of a traditional "front" between easily (willingly?) identifiable warring combatants. Instead, war has "devolved" into one of two patterns:

  1. asymmetric warfare between a super-power level force and underground terrorist forces

  2. macabre, genocidal attacks between similar third-world level powers or factions doing battle in places about which the super-powers care little

CBS ran a story on the Evening News this week about a new program the Army has developed that trains forces on response tactics for roadside bombings. One person commented it was the most effective, realistic training one could possibly get for a bombing.


How does it help you prevent the bombing? How does it help you eliminate the supply chain that is producing the bomb? How does it help you tap into the communications that are planning the placement of the bombs?

It seems the REAL training needs to take place higher up the chain. Our civilian leaders need training on creating a long-term strategy in better sync with the short-term attack capabilities available to a "transformed" military. Instead, our government is picking poorly defined battles, using tactics for initial attacks that destabilize far more territory than we are committing to control and secure, then training our troops on being better cannon fodder amidst the chaos.

That's some curriculum.