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Ivan Eland: Are We Fighting a Real War?

Are We Fighting a Real War on Terror at All?

By Ivan Eland*
February 4, 2004

The Bush administration recently made it known that a major offensive against al Qaeda would be launched in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the spring. It was even hinted that Osama bin Laden might be caught this year.

To the average Super Bowl-watching American, it might seem strange to warn dangerous and already elusive foes that you are coming to get them. Conspiracy theorists among us (who occasionally prove to be right) would conclude that the Bush administration already knows Osama’s location and, to have the maximum political impact, is just waiting to round him up shortly before the election. Of course, this conclusion would be a very cynical interpretation of the Bush administration’s actions—which, given the administration’s secrecy and twisting of intelligence to hype the Iraqi threat, may not be entirely unwarranted. Under that scenario, however, the risk for President Bush and his minions is that Osama would once again manage to disappear before they could capture him—leaving them empty-handed before the election.

A more sympathetic line of reasoning might conclude that publicity for the new offensive is an attempt to scare bin Laden into doing something rash in order to smoke him out and capture him. But spring is a still long way away and bin Laden would have plenty of time, without panicking, to adjust his own strategy for avoiding capture. Besides, if bin Laden is somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, he has had, and will continue to have advantages, that Saddam Hussein never did: remote, rugged terrain and a very sympathetic population to shelter him.

And that population is likely to become more loyal. The Pakistani government, under U.S. pressure, is now employing aggressive tactics—learned from the Israelis, who learned them from the British—against people in the Pakistani tribal areas close to the border who are associated with al Qaeda fighters. For example, Pakistani authorities are bulldozing houses of the family members of those fighters. This wrong-headed strategy violates the doctrine of individual rights and responsibilities that is a cornerstone of American beliefs and will backfire among the heavily fundamentalist populations of the tribal areas, which already hate the Pakistani and U.S. governments. Like the use of aggressive tactics by Israel against Palestinian fundamentalists and radicals, short-term gains can be achieved but in the long run will fuel more support for the extremist cause. Playing hardball in Pakistan’s tribal areas will only increase support for bin Laden and al Qaeda in the long-term.

It is curious, however, that the administration is only now getting ambitious about rounding up terrorists, when it has seemed lukewarm to the idea ever since the September 11 attacks. During the war in Afghanistan, the United States concentrated less on neutralizing al Qaeda fighters than on removing the unfriendly Taliban regime from a country perceived to be strategic and installing a more compliant, hand-picked government. On two important occasions in the war, the administration refused to risk U.S. casualties by committing U.S. forces to fight al Qaeda in the Afghan mountains—relying instead on Afghan allies that were ultimately paid off to let the terrorists escape.

Moreover, for similar geo-strategic reasons and seemingly to divert attention from its failure to neutralize bin Laden, the administration chose to change the subject to Saddam Hussein and Iraq. This shift in attention and intelligence and military efforts from Afghanistan to Iraq took resources away from hunting down people who had actually orchestrated attacks on the United States. In fact, the war in Iraq was actually counterproductive to the war on terrorism because it inflamed Islamic populations everywhere and caused radical elements to volunteer people and money to the terrorist cause. The rash of recent terrorist attacks around the world—including in Iraq—is evidence of the effect. Moreover, shaky governments in many Islamic countries have been more reluctant to be seen as helping the United States round up terrorists.

Given the administration’s past tepid and even counterproductive efforts to fight al Qaeda, one can correctly examine its new advertising for a spring offensive in the context of the election year back home. Since Iraq policy is in shambles and President Bush wants to burnish national security credentials against any Democratic challenger, the administration has suddenly become more energetic in promoting its efforts against al Qaeda. This illustrates that a never-ending war on terrorism is ideal for an incumbent president. It’s just surprising that we didn’t see ads during the Super Bowl telecast.


*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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