Saturday, September 02, 2006

Why It is Time for the Phrase Global War on Terror to Die

Whether or not this phrase had usefulness at the beginning of the conflict (invasion of Afghanistan), it does no longer.


War. First and most importantly war is traditionally considered to be fought by standing armies of a nation-states or groups within a state (civil war) AND a war metaphor evokes a martial response and an assumption that military force alone is sufficient to victory. But the real issue is the reliance on War as a mean to solve all problems.

Head of US Central Commond, Gen. John Abizaid has stated publicly that the military option in this Long War "can gain us time … but that is about it." Abizaid understands that this war--better to call it a Long one than one on Terror or Islamofascism--will be won by political manuevering, peacekeeping efforts, economic interdependence, and security/reconstruction. Globalization is coming to parts of the world not ready for its massive cultural-social-ethical shifts. This globalizing force puts pressure on traditional sovereign states allowing non-state actors to proliferate: private military contractors, guerrilla groups, int'l sex/drugs/weapons trade. In this scenario, our use of war-first, war-only mentality only helps these disintegrating forces.

Terror. Terror is a tactic and therefore will never be fully defeated. People are always going to be using terror in one form or another. More damaging, the word terror spreads fear which causes emtional not rational responses to threats/crises.

Projects like Homeland Security, airline regulations, have cost inordinate sums of money and have proved ineffective and wasteful, furthering a trend towards co-dependency to a easily corruptible federal institution. The 9/11 attacks cost roughly 1/2 million dollars. 90% of the people in the World Trade Centers escaped, 99.5% of those in the Pentagon did as well.

Consider the following from Bruce Schneier expert on security issues:

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act. And we're doing exactly what the terrorists want. Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we're terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists' actions, and increase the effects of their terror. (I am not saying that the politicians and press are terrorists, or that they share any of the blame for terrorist attacks. I'm not that stupid. But the subject of terrorism is more complex than it appears, and understanding its various causes and effects are vital for understanding how to best deal with it.) The implausible plots and false alarms actually hurt us in two ways. Not only do they increase the level of fear, but they also waste time and resources that could be better spent fighting the real threats and increasing actual security.

His example: the NSA Eavesdropping Program (Entire op-ed here) [emphasis mine].

Data mining works best when you're searching for a well-defined profile, a reasonable number of attacks per year, and a low cost of false alarms. Credit-card fraud is one of data mining's success stories: All credit-card companies mine their transaction databases for data for spending patterns that indicate a stolen card. Terrorist plots are different; there is no well-defined profile and attacks are very rare. This means that data-mining systems won't uncover any terrorist plots until they are very accurate, and then even very accurate systems will be so flooded with false alarms that they will be useless.

Just in the United States, there are trillions of connections between people and events -- things that the data-mining system will have to "look at" -- and very few plots. This rarity makes even accurate identification systems useless.

Let's look at some numbers. We'll be optimistic -- we'll assume the system has a one in 100 false-positive rate (99 percent accurate), and a one in 1,000 false-negative rate (99.9 percent accurate). Assume 1 trillion possible indicators to sift through: that's about 10 events -- e-mails, phone calls, purchases, Web destinations, whatever -- per person in the United States per day. Also assume that 10 of them actually indicate terrorists plotting.

This unrealistically accurate system will generate 1 billion false alarms for every real terrorist plot it uncovers. Every day, the police will have to investigate 27 million potential plots in order to find the one real terrorist plot per month.

This isn't anything new. In statistics, it's called the "base rate fallacy," and it applies in other domains as well. And this is exactly the sort of thing we saw with the National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdropping prcgram: The New York Times reported that the computers spat out thousands of tips per month. Every one of them turned out to be a false alarm, at enormous cost in money and civil liberties.

Recall that during the discussions on the program, the parties divided about whether the program was legal or not, whether FISA should be amended or not, etc. I don't remember any politician or pundit asking, "By the way does this thing actually work or is it a giant waste of time/resources?" Even civil libertarians who argued against the program, in my view, seemed to assume it was in fact effective, just that they felt it was a violation of privacy nonetheless.

After the foiled terror plots in Toronto and London, President Bush said that those who wished to take away the eavesdropping program would have been aiding such plotters. Implying that NSA-like programs were the cause of intelligence successes in those two cases. A better analogy would have been the Patriot Act and its relationship to the British Home Security legislation. Parts of the Patriot Act I think should be amended--some bc they are ineffective, others too weighted to security over privacy--but overall yes we will as a society have to address what is the new equilibrium in security/privacy. The British cracked the recent terror plot by methods gained from its expertise dealing with the IRA---human intelligence, and following sources downline. Not data mining.

The Eavesdropping, airline hyper-responses (no liquids!!), Dept.HS, point more towards financial, resource, and possibly civil liberty losses due to irrational response mechanisms.

But in that general vein of courese, that is Fighting Terror, there has been the loss of American prestige and moral credibility by the declaration of terrorists (as non-regular army) enemy combatants not liable under the Geneva Conventions. Which one could make that argument theoretically I think, in a legal sense, but pratically-politically it has been catastrophic in its results. Abu Ghraid, rendition, detention facilities in E.Europe, Gitmo, Pres Bush signing an executive write-off on the McCain anti-torture legislation.

And agian, if the Israelis for God's sakes, who know about fighting terrorists, say that torture doesn't work--what are we doing it for? Khalid Sheik Mohammed the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks who was often used as an example of the "ticking timb bomb we need to torture someone to get the info" hypothetical, gave the entire description of the execution of the attacks on Al Jazeera television. On a televised interview. Did I mention he freely discussed the entire plot in a taped format? Osama bin Laden repeatedly statet that he was going to attack the US.

All such insurgent, Islamist, al-Qaeda, terrorists. etc have websites, chatrooms, forums. These groups only use the Internet as an attractor, like a commercial. They use other means to recruit/select from those who likely through the Internet come to know of, get attracted to these groups. Thees groups are much more based in open-source than our bureaucracies. There entire method is to hit certain small target attacks in order to spread fear throughout the whole system, causing massive over-reaction and concomitant financial loss.

Again trans-national al-Qaeda inspired terrorists. Groups that have absolutely no chance of realizing their political goals. Who basically have no political goals--how descriptive and detailed do you think Osama's vision of the Caliphate is? In fact bin Laden's proclivity for large scale attacks (10 planes at once) and his wanting to be in charge of decisions, to have attackers vetted through Pakistan, is over-loading AQ with too much hierarchy and makes them vulnerable to being caught.


This point follows precisely from the last one. The inclusion of local nationalist-religious groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Sunni and Shia Iraq sectarian squads with al-Qaeda is false. Hamas, Hezb., Iraqi sectarians, they have the possibility for actual political victories. They have something to lose as well as gain. Hence none have attacked the United States on our home soil. They've only attacked the US (and only certain of those groups have) due to its Iraqi occupation. Even the Taliban never officially attacked us, but their host parasite did. The Taliban groups fighting the Coalition forces in Afghanistan have not produced terrorist attacks on the US mainland.

Al-Qaeda is the only trans-national terrorist group of the ilk. AQ has reconstituted itself in Pakistan, which has become the new Afghanistan. The bombers in the recent London airline attempt went to Pakistan for operational planning.

So if we are talking a Global War on Terror, then there are only two (maybe 4) countries we should start bombing tomorrow: Britain and Pakistan. Those are the two countries that represent the biggest threat of trans-national terrorism to the United States currently. Of course we aren't actually going to bomb either of them---they're allies. How global is two? Or four? The other two would be Saudi Arabia and Egypt (where the 9/11 hijackers came from)--also allies of the US.

The London attempted attacks were carried by mostly Pakistani British Muslim extremists (plus 1 British Bangladeshi if I recall correctly). Their British passports give them easy access to the United States. What war is there against those groups? Counterintelligence, espionage, police action, integration of sub-cultures into society in a peaceful manner in the British case.

We don't have an ability to send our military into Pakistan. Even Bush realizes that Paistani President Musharraf is walking the thinnest of lines: balancing anti-Indian sentiment (support for Kashmiri terrorists?), military class, economic barons, the West, Pashtun (Taliban support?) Islamists at home. He has managed to work out a de facto policy on AQ---he arrests mid/low level operatives as a sort of gift to the US, prove he's still on the level, while leaving the big boys alone in Wazirstan which his army/government has no real practical influence over anyway.

Pakistan recall was one of only 3 nations on earth to give full diplomatic status to the Taliban. Another one being Saudi Arabia. [Hint hint: Wahabism anyone?]. Pakistan by the way does have a nuclear weapon, if you're keeping score at home. Other than North Korea the largest single x-factor is the fall of the Pakistani government.

For better or worse we destroyed the two biggest Sunni powers in Asia--Hussein and Taliban. There has never been an Arab Shia government since the inception of Islam. Iranians are Persian not Arab. Our actions, unintentionally I'm sure, overturned about 1400 years of Sunni dominance. There is only one option then left: make a deal with the Shia (that is Iran). They run Iran, Southern Lebanon, have influence in Syria, and will be running Iraq. Or the province of Shia Iraq once the country based on the British colonial lines disintegrates.

Secretary Rice was correct that the US for too long gave an authoritarian get of jail free card to Sunni autocrats. But minus a strategic bargain with Iran (and then Syria) our plans for the transformation of Sunni ME go nowhere. Minus a Palestine/Israel agreement too, but I'm focusing on the Shia buy-in for the moment.

But that transformation of the Sunni heartland was not to come by democracy and a gun. It was to come by economic/political infrastructure building, the marginalizing of the most extreme Islamist groups (either affiliated or not with AQ), the co-option of moderate Islamist governance and containment where needed during the chaos of the interim period. All the while totally isolating al-Qaeda itself, though impossible to get rid of its viral influence as an ideology.

And then learning to respond, when the few and tragic attacks that will occur do, with rational courage. Such monstrous acts do not deserve the kind of publicity we continue to give them.

What this all points to is the question of sovereignty and security in the 21st century. Not terrorism per se, not Islamofascism, but sovereignty, structural government and military integrity amidst the simlutaneously integrating/disintegrating forces of globalization (add in environmental/scarce natural resources/oil and look out).

We need to be thining about sovereignty.

The civil rights/security issue, humanitarian intervention versus occupation model, realism veruss idealism (or realism plus idealism)--all of those I see as different inflection points on this same grid.


At 3:28 AM, Blogger ~C4Chaos said...

another excellent post bro. thanks for sharing this.

serendipitously, this NYTimes headline just landed on my inbox. so it begs a similar question: "why it is time for the phrase war on drugs to die?"

so, maybe instead of just focusing on physiological effects of drugs (e.g. this is your brain on drugs) then something like "the money that you used to buy drugs funds the terrorists too.") this way, maybe Hollywood would ease up on its use of "party" drugs ;)

i'd love to hear your thoughts on this. on your future blog posts.

here's the excerpt.

Opium Harvest at Record Level in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 2 — Afghanistan’s opium harvest this year has reached the highest levels ever recorded, showing an increase of almost 50 percent from last year, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said Saturday in Kabul.

He described the figures as “alarming” and “very bad news” for the Afghan government and international donors who have poured millions of dollars into programs to reduce the poppy crop since 2001.

He said the increase in cultivation was significantly fueled by the resurgence of Taliban rebels in the south, the country’s prime opium growing region. As the insurgents have stepped up attacks, they have also encouraged and profited from the drug trade, promising protection to growers if they expanded their opium operations.

“This year’s harvest will be around 6,100 metric tons of opium — a staggering 92 percent of total world supply. It exceeds global consumption by 30 percent,” Mr. Costa said at a news briefing.

He said the harvest increased by 49 percent from the year before, and it drastically outpaced the previous record of 4,600 metric tons, set in 1999 while the Taliban governed the country. The area cultivated increased by 59 percent, with more than 400,000 acres planted with poppies in 2006 compared with less than 260,000 in 2005.

“It is indeed very bad, you can say it is out of control,” Mr. Costa said Friday in an interview before the announcement.

read more.


Post a Comment

<< Home