• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Secrets of September 11

Islamic fundamentalism and hostility toward the West did not begin with bin Laden, Gunaratna stresses, but it was his leadership which built the first broadly based Islamic terrorist organization with a global reach and ambition to match. Al-Qaeda, not some vague anti-American feeling among Muslims, destroyed the World Trade Center and aspires to do worse, and Western security cannot be assured until it is crushed. Gunaratna is blunt in saying that bin Laden is the problem and killing him the solution. “Just as Nazism effectively died with Hitler,” he writes, “Islamism of the Al Qaeda brand is likely to die with Osama. His death will break the momentum of the campaign.”

But America and its allies, Gunaratna argues, must not ignore the issues that arouse and anger the Muslim world, beginning with the fate of the West Bank Palestinians. He quotes a leading Islamic cleric, Sheikh Abdel Rahman al-Sudeis, who attacked “the state terrorism of international Zionism” in Mecca on the final Friday of Ramadan last December. “Are we incapable of finding just solutions to stop the flow of Muslim blood?” the Sheikh asked. It is the invitation to seek “just solutions” which America ought to heed and pursue, Gunaratna argues. “As long as Al Qaeda…can appeal to Muslims worldwide” on the unresolved disputes over Kashmir and Palestine, he argues, there will be a steady flow of new recruits for bin Laden’s jihad. “The key to strategically weakening [al-Qaeda] is to erode its fledgling support base—to wean away its supporters and potential supporters,” he writes. “The widespread support it enjoys today is driven by the strong belief among Muslims that the West has persistently wronged them….”

Gunaratna’s judgment on the war so far is mixed. Most of the physical assets of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—weapons stockpiles, training camps, offices, and laboratories—have been destroyed, he says, but the Americans erred badly in not giving Pakistan time to pressure Mullah Mohammad Omar and his government to cut free from bin Laden. The resulting alliance of necessity between Taliban and al-Qaeda forces has survived the first months of the war in Afghanistan, and their capacity to go on fighting should not be underestimated. The worldwide roundup of al-Qaeda activists has been broadly effective but Western intelligence services have had little luck in penetrating activist groups.

The biggest American success, in Gunaratna’s view, was “in creating a fragile international coalition…by painstakingly building an international consensus against a common threat.” But now, in his view, America risks shattering the alliance by a unilateral attack on Iraq—doubly foolish because, in his view, Iran is the real state sponsor of Islamic terrorism. Attacking Iraq would “create the conditions for a fresh wave of support for Islamists” and in the end “the victor will be Al Qaeda.” Americans have received and ignored this sort of advice before. The French, for example, warned the Americans not to plunge into Vietnam. But some people you can’t tell anything.

War to the knife with Iraq seems to be firmly placed on the White House agenda. At West Point in June President Bush said the United States was ready to launch preemptive strikes against hostile states developing weapons of mass destruction, and in July, speaking to units of the 10th Mountain Division freshly returned from Afghanistan, he said it again: “America must act against these terrible threats before they’re fully formed…. Some parts of the world, there will be no substitute for direct action by the United States. That is when we will send you, our military, to win the battles only you can win.”

Backing up these often repeated threats are plans on the drawing board in the Pentagon. Americans got their first look at what the US Army’s Central Command has in mind from a June 23 Los Angeles Times article by the military analyst and air-war expert William Arkin, who described “Polo Step,” a plan to invade Iraq with up to 250,000 troops on three fronts. When Eric Schmitt of The New York Times, using Arkin as a principal source, followed with a second, more detailed story on July 5, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denounced leakers of the plan and asked the Air Force Office of Special Investigations to track down the guilty party. “It is wrong,” he wrote in a memo. “It costs the lives of Americans. It diminishes our country’s chance for success.”

But the reason Arkin was given the story in the first place, and the reason he passed it on to Schmitt, was the widespread skepticism among high-ranking military officers that the plan took advantage of American strengths or was likely to work at an acceptable cost. It called for a large-scale war in the classic American style—a huge air campaign to destroy hundreds of targets in Iraq, army divisions crossing the border on three sides, and a march on Baghdad. “The Pentagon doesn’t go anywhere with light luggage,” Arkin told me recently. Munitions for the war have yet to be moved to the theater of operations, or even received from manufacturers, and no American ally in Europe or the Middle East has expressed support for an invasion of Iraq before giving him at least one chance to readmit UN weapons inspectors. In his speech before the United Nations on September 12 President Bush recited the ten-year history of Iraqi intransigence but also left the door about half open for a renewed Security Council effort to compel Saddam Hussein to abandon once and for all his efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Bush set no deadline for success or else, but the tone of his speech made it clear that he did not intend to wait long, and that “regime change” in Iraq remains central to his administration’s grand strategy for the war on terror.

Is this a good idea? That’s a question which requires intelligence in the classic sense, not just information. American leaders have been convinced before that the nation’s safety required them to go to war—against Cuba in 1961, when a not-so-secret rebel army trained and equipped by the CIA got no further than the beach at the Bay of Pigs; and against North Vietnam in 1965, when the prospect of an imminent Vietcong defeat in the South prompted President Lyndon Johnson to launch an air campaign to force Hanoi to the negotiating table. The CIA was full of doubt the second time around, but there is no stopping a president and his advisers once they have talked themselves into certainty. At that point the agency begins to shorten its reporting focus until nothing is visible but the details.

How this works was explained to me more than twenty years ago by a former high CIA official who attended many White House and Pentagon briefings on the “progress” of Operation Rolling Thunder to punish Vietnam from the air. The President, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff beginning in February 1965 were for several years convinced that steadily intensifying American bombing raids on North Vietnam and on the supply routes south through Laos called the Ho Chi Minh Trail would eventually convince Hanoi that the war could not be won. At that point the North would come to the bargaining table and the United States in some meaningful sense would “win” the war in Vietnam.

High American officials didn’t simply believe this; they had staked their careers, their reputations, and their place in history on it, and the ante on the table was the blood of American boys. Briefing the principals on the “progress” of the bombing presented an awkward challenge for the CIA because the agency never collected any information from any source that said or suggested the strategy might be working—no reports from highly placed agents in Hanoi, no whispers from Soviet or Chinese officials that General Vo Nguyen Giap was losing heart, no overhead reconnaissance suggesting that the North Vietnamese truck fleet was tending toward zero, or the bridges weren’t being fixed, or less was going in at the top end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and days were stretching to weeks and months when nothing came out the bottom end. That was the reality of the matter, I was told, but you can’t tell them if they won’t listen.

So, lacking good news, the CIA narrowed its focus. It painted no rosy pictures and disseminated no false figures. It simply said that the capacity of North Vietnam to ship supplies south was X, that American bombings raids at level Y would on average interrupt Q percentage of the truck traffic; that a P level of warfare in the South required T tons of supplies from the North, and so on for as long as high American officials were willing to sit while CIA briefers flipped through visuals droning numbers. The closest the CIA ever came to saying that the emperor had no clothes was to say that the level of bombing we have achieved has not ended the capacity of the North to wage war, if they choose to go on. The numbers in the CIA studies were information; the intelligence—the judgments that mattered—had to be read between the lines.

The invasion of Iraq is not imminent. Centcom’s plan is still on the drawing board. There is plenty of time for wise heads to have second thoughts about widening the war on terror in order to win it. In mid-August senior figures from the Republican establishment, including the first President Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and retiring House minority leader Dick Armey, all counseled caution. President Bush has since promised to seek authority for military action from Congress, and a full-scale debate has been joined. Somewhere along about now would be a good moment for American intelligence organizations to contribute their thoughts on the wisdom of an Iraqi campaign, but that is not what presidents traditionally want from the secret arm of government.

More than a decade ago Robert Gates, the only CIA intelligence analyst ever promoted to run the agency, remarked in an article that directors of central intelligence rarely showed up on center stage when presidents were hammering out big foreign policy decisions. When it comes to war with Iraq, what the White House will want from the CIA is detail—target coordinates for Scud missiles, where Saddam Hussein is sleeping nights, the agency’s best estimate of the L level of bombing required to knock out P percentage of Iraqi tanks before Hussein can make use of his weapons of mass destruction, designated U for Unknown. Nothing the CIA is likely to say will cast doubt on the American ability to win such a war. But will a bloody, humiliating defeat of Iraq make us safer in the long run, or instead only fan the flames of hatred for America on which terror feeds? For the answer to the big questions of that sort presidents and their advisers often feel they have done enough when they have consulted each other.

—September 12, 2002;
this is the second of two articles.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print