Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.

Freedom's Fidelity

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Flypaper or Roach Breeding?

There has been some chatter that the bombings in London lay waste to the flypaper strategy and that rather than, on net, destroying terrorists, we are only breeding more of the roaches. Apparently, the assumption driving this line of thought is that a strategy whose results are short of perfection is a failure. That might be useful for scoring some partisan political points, but in reality, it is nothing more than an impossibly high (and useless) metric for success (not to mention what it says about our pre-9/11 policy of ignoring Islamic radicals). Newsflash! In a war the bad guys do shoot back, and as we like to say in the blogoshpere, the standard is not perfection, it's the alternative.

The question is then, what is the alternative, how do we quantify the effectiveness of our strategy at this point? Lets recognize that whenever an attack occurs on Western soil, the rhetoric can easily go both ways. Supporters of the war would use those attacks as evidence that we must fight back against a very determined and dangerous enemy, while opponents of the war will/are arguing that the London attacks represent proof that the prosecution of this war is a failure. What we are looking for is causation, which side of the above two arguments does the evidence support?

Wretchard discusses the one theoretically definitive way to answer this question:
The underlying idea is that Iraq is not Al Qaeda's unwanted 'second front' but its Fort Benning. The logical extension of the argument is that without Iraq Islamism would produce fewer or possibly less capable cadres. It's possible isn't it, Belton asks? So then how do we know which interpretation is correct. The definitive way to answer Belton's question would be to present numbers, a balance sheet so to speak, of that movement's assets and liabilities. It would be even better if we could construct some kind of 'income statement', which showed the delta in the movements value over a period. But I don't have that data and assert that in all probability, neither does Osama Bin Laden or any mortal man. It's hard enough to create an honest management information system for companies that deal in dollars and cents. The set of books which could answer Mr. Belton's valid question probably does not exist.

This is further complicated by the organizational changes Al-Qaeda has been forced through over the past few years. Rather than a top down hierarchal organization, it is now more of an ideology that franchises out to smaller cells. Who counts as Al-Qaeda? Do you want kill infidels? Are you willing to strap on a bomb vest and detonate it in a crowd of decadant Westerners? (Iraqi school children are legitimate substitute if Westerners cannot be reached.) If you answered yes to the above, and can find a couple of friends to go along with it, then you can call yourself an Al-Qaeda cell! That's pretty much how it is these days, which means these are numbers that are impossible to calculate, so we must do the next best thing and find a proxy variable. This is something that I have been thinking about and arguing for a couple of years now. We can debate the fine points of how this war has been prosecuted, but the fact is that there has been zero attacks on US soil since 9/11, something that was unfathomable on 9/12 and even 9/11/02. If the war has been prosecuted so miserably, how does one explain the lack of attacks at home, especially when we have been hearing promises that they will happen? I'm going to quote Wretchard at length here because what he says is not only important, but also a very thorough parsing of this question.
So we must do the next best thing. We must measure Al Qaeda's strength by the perturbation it creates; by the power it exercises; by the strength and capability it displays. Absent the books, we measure what we can measure by proxy. One way to do this is to create a column of countries: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Indonesia, etc. and ask ourselves whether the fortunes of Islamism in general and Al Qaeda in particular have prospered in these places since September 11 and especially after OIF. My personal subjective judgment is that Islamism has weakened across the board in nearly all of these places even after OIF. If we consider the nearest thing to referendums on Al Qaeda (as a component of the general question) available in the Islamic world -- the Iraqi, Afghan and Lebanese elections -- it is safe to assert that they are not ringing endorsements of radical Islamism, but rather reflect its relative decline. Bin Laden was, until the London bombings, almost a forgotten man in comparison to his celebrity in 2001. The wisdom of the Western 'crowds' with respect to trends in the War on Terror was measured in the Australian, US and British elections. The proposition that Iraq was Islamism's Fort Benning, its recruiting station and training ground, was articulated with all the considerable fluency that its proponents could muster. Yet Howard, Bush and Blair were re-elected. If the proposition was true the electorate was not convinced.

From a technical point of view the London bombings, when compared to their counterparts in Iraq, the West Bank or Beirut, have the look of marked poverty. The quantity of explosives employed was in the tens of kilos max. This is far less than the Canary Wharf bomb employed by the IRA which was rated at 500 kg. For that matter, it was much less powerful that Timothy McVeigh's device at Oklahoma city. It was nothing compared to what blew Hariri sky-high in Beirut. The weapon of choice in Iraq, the trademark of Zaraqawi, is the car bomb. If we had seen a car bomb used in London, then we might say, 'aha! An Iraqi insurgent has come to mentor the British Al Qaeda cell'. That might still be true; but there is no obvious way one can get from Iraq to the London operation. Occam's Razor urges a simpler conclusion: that Al Qaeda's British minions either didn't have enough explosive to do worse or they didn't have the know-how to assemble a bigger bomb. It might still be argued that Al Qaeda is 'holding back' -- that it "reserved its best operatives for attacks against Europe and the United States while sending its foot soldiers into the trenches in Iraq" -- toying with the West really, teasing it with these tiny little bombs when it was capable of much more. Mark Steyn in the Telegraph argued that this self-restraint theory made no sense. The London attack was as deadly as Al Qaeda could make it. They would have blown up 30 trains if they had the means. Certainly it was not the milk of human kindness that stayed their hand.

...The inevitable question then is 'why could Bin Laden not find the means to attack 30 trains?' The answer it seems to me, must be Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and hundred other places where he is engaged without quarter by US forces. Resources, whether Jihadi or no are not infinite. They do not have some magical machine that allows them to be everywhere at once, to sustain losses yet grow. There's no free lunch, not even, and especially not for Bin Laden. If it were true that Islamism would shrivel faster were it pursued more passively, then pre-911 policy should have finished it by now. But what we empirically observe is that ignoring them allowed them to mount 911-scale attack. Hit them continuously and in four years they could scrape together enough to blow up a London bus and some subway trains.

I realize that this is not the unassailable proof that Patrick Belton seeks. I cannot provide that. But the practice of engaging an enemy on one front to weaken him on another has been tested from antiquity and is more natural than the alternative. The idea that fighting the enemy makes him stronger everywhere is a curious one and I've often wondered about the battlefield arithmetic that would make it possible. There are many who accept without question the proposition that the US Armed forces are being 'bled dry' in Iraq; that it has become over extended. They would accept, without reservation, the idea that using the US Army in Iraq would weaken it with respect to Korea. One Swedish researcher kept writing to me privately, 'proving' from all kinds of weird arithmetic that the USMC had been annihilated in Fallujah. Yet the very same persons will vehemently reject the idea that Al Qaeda can also be spread thin; that its cadres are subject to death as wastage; it is as if one set of natural laws operated for the Jihad and another for the blundering Americans. But mental honesty will compel us to accept that this can't be true: that the sun rises and sets on one man as for another: that if we thought about it really hard, everyone who lives peacefully in a Western city owes it to the men out on patrol tonight

So true. We want you on those walls. We need you on those walls.


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