Archive for the ‘terrorism’ Category


Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

When the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, Americans were given sequential reasons for that decision.  We were told that Iraq was full of Al Qaida terrorists, even though no such terrorist could conceivably have survived under Saddam Hussein.  We were told that Iraq was full of WMD.  There was poison gas and nuclear weapons.  None of this proved to be true.

What was never explicitly said at the time was that we were invading Iraq in order to turn it into a democracy.  That democracy would then be the model for the rest of Islam.  The flourishing of democracy in Islam would make the Middle East a safer place for Israel.  And that was the key reason behind the invasion – increasing Israel’s security.

This was not the first time that Americans had thought of the democratization of Islam.  Many knowledgeable US government experts on the region had seen it as worth consideration. However, in the end, based on the realities as they existed in Islam, that idea had been rejected.  Parenthetically, it is of minor historical interest to note that even when the idea was popular, Iraq was the last country in Islam thought by our experts to be susceptible to such democratization.

The lack of suitability of so many Islamic Middle East countries for democratization is part of the DNA of the region.  The issues that surround regional nationalism, tribalism and sectarianism are, at least for the foreseeable future, so great as to make democratization, at best, problematical.

Nevertheless, we did commit American troops to bringing down Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  In doing so, we precipitated a number of inevitabilities.  Saddam was not beloved by his people. When we removed him and his supporters, we created a situation in which our troops, the “foreign invaders”, became the surrogates for Saddam’s repressive troops.  American troops maintained the order.  Where we thought we were involved in a liberation, we soon found ourselves in an insurgency against our presence.

The same became true as we lingered on in Afghanistan.  Afghanis, who never loved the Taliban, retreated into their tribal mode and turned against us in an insurgency.  All of a sudden, in both Iraq         and Afghanistan, we were fighting insurgencies rather than hunting terrorists, primarily because we were the foreigners.  When an indigenous population has to choose between it’s own “bad guys” and foreign “bad guys”, even though they may not actively support their own, chances are they will not help the foreigners at all. A successful  counterinsurgency requires at least local passivity, and preferably some cooperation.

According to American counterinsurgency doctrine, in order to successfully deal with an insurgency, the counterinsurgents  (the USA) must commit 25 combat soldiers for every 1000 people in the local population.  That would have required around 850,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and an equal number in Iraq, an impossible commitment for us to seriously consider.

Most countries that have dealt with terrorism believe for the reasons outlined above that terrorists should never be confronted militarily, but rather should be dealt with as a criminal matter using police, intelligence and special forces.

The decision to use the term “War on Terror” was a major mistake as it misdirected most of our counterterrorism activities.

The first thing we need to do in the Middle East is decide precisely why we are there.  What is there in our national interest that should be driving our policies?    We are not in the process of installing democracy in that region.  The absolute best we can logically hope for is stability through self-determination.   Beyond that, it is reasonable to hope for a moderate Islam.  Only a tiny fraction of Muslims are fundamentalists.  With real self-determination, it is reasonable to hope that Muslims will elect moderates.  And that should be our goal – the election of moderate Muslim regimes.

After a dozen years of military activity, America has little credibility in the region.  Some of that credibility can be restored with the removal of our uniformed troops and the cessation of hostilities.  The simple absence of drone activity would be a tremendous help.

With our troops gone and our military activities ended, we will regain the opportunity to use all the other available foreign policy tools:  diplomacy, propaganda, covert action, police, liaison with indigenous organizations and economic activity.

We might even get back to the greater level of respect and admiration we enjoyed last century.


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Originally published in The Rutland Herald and the Barre Times Argus

Normally, an armed attack on an American diplomatic installation abroad and the death of four American officials in that attack would evoke unanimity in our domestic political structure. This time in Libya it has not.

But, wait, it’s election time, and anything that either party can do between now and the November elections to humiliate or undermine the opposition is fair game for the politicos.

When the matter of the anti-Muslim film produced in America and the general Arab and Muslim reaction to it hit the press, it was portrayed as exactly what it really was: a series of attacks on U.S. installations in the Middle East by a wide variety of angry Arab groupings unleashed by a nasty film in countries where such attacks would not have been permitted under the regimes in power prior to the Arab Spring.

A good starting point in trying to understand this issue comes with acknowledging what the Arabs/Muslims think of us. A Pew Research Center poll in July 2011 reported that “Muslim and Western publics continue to see relations between them as generally bad, with both sides holding negative stereotypes of the other. Many in the West see Muslims as fanatical and violent, while few say Muslims are tolerant or respectful of women. Meanwhile, Muslims in the Middle East and Asia generally see Westerners as selfish, immoral and greedy — as well as violent and fanatical.”

In short, Arabs/Muslims, because they are firsthand observers of more than a decade of U.S. foreign policy that has relied primarily on military intervention, have good reason to dislike Americans, if not for who we are, then certainly for what we have done to them.

Once American politicians had enough time to decide how to react to the attacks on our installations abroad, the political decision was apparently made by the Romney campaign to use it to attack the White House. And so they did. Where the White House had reacted initially by going after the filmmakers on the grounds of bad taste and bad ethics, the Romney campaign decided to castigate the White House for not dealing with the event as a terrorist attack.

To the amazement of some, the White House immediately reversed course and bought into the “terrorist” appellation. All this really did was to take off the table an examination of who really profited from the event and could therefore have had reason to precipitate it.

Much has been made of the premise that the attackers were affiliated with al-Qaida or that they were members of some other jihadi group wishing to attack U.S. interests. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant.

The only thing that is relevant is that the United States and its Western allies are now in a position in the Middle East where the local population can be provoked against us at will and on a moment’s notice. That means that when such a provocation exists, whether in the form of a film of highly dubious origin, a Salman Rushdie “Satanic Verses” or a Danish newspaper cartoon, we can logically expect retaliation.

Whether that retaliation comes in the form of peaceful demonstrations or violent attacks, we can and must be sure that we are prepared for the kind of focused violence that we experienced in Benghazi from jihadis who are not given to peaceful activities.

It is a simple fact that given the sort of cover provided by the recent demonstrations over the American film or any other activity deemed sacrilegious under the Quran, violent, fundamentalist jihadi groups will be prepared to take advantage of the situation with the most violent tactics they can think up. The simple fact of suddenly calling them “terrorists,” however that may resonate with a terrorist-punch-drunk America, will change nothing.

This situation will not change until we find a way to change our foreign policy for the area in a way that makes us far less concerned with pre-emptive war and far less threatening to Muslims in general. Only under those circumstances will truly radical Muslim jihadis lose what little support they have in Islam and moderate Muslims find the active support they will need to govern in their countries.

Absent that change, we can look forward to a period where the hostility felt by Muslims against America and the West will cause continuing problems of the kind we have just witnessed in Benghazi. And starting them up will be a simple matter for the jihadis or anyone else who believes they will profit from fanning hatred between Muslims and the West.


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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

  Barely a week into what is becoming Islam-wide rioting against America, we have learned that the authors of the film that started the troubles are: Egyptian Coptic Christians, fundamentalist American Christians, an Israeli-American, assorted Israelis, fundamentalist Muslim terrorists and God knows what else. The fact remains that we have no idea of the true origins of this provocative film. Any of the purported authors could be guilty. Any real author could be well hidden behind a wall of obfuscation.

Yet we are faced with the issue of increasing attacks on our embassies in the Muslim world. Worst of all, we have seen the deaths of our ambassador and three other staff members in Libya. To understand what has happened, we need to identify the results of the event and determine who gains from it.

We have a dead American ambassador, an initially unrepentant Egyptian leader, ambivalent Libyan and Yemeni leadership and wildly anti-American mobs throughout the region. Who gains from that?

The United States, despite the periodic resistance of both Palestinian and Israeli leaders, has consistently sought a peaceful, two-state solution to the now more than 60-year-old struggle over Palestine. We have almost always been castigated by Arabs for our positions, however, only in the recent past, under Israel’s Likud leadership, have we seen the Israelis ramp up their rhetoric and their pressure on the U.S. government. Most recently, this has peaked over the reluctance of the Obama administration to succumb to Israeli pressure to join in an attack on Iran.

And this has not been a problem for the Likud only in America, where the vast majority of Americans have no interest in a further military involvement in the Middle East. It is also a problem in Israel, where important past and present Israeli leaders have shown no interest in or seen no reason for attacking Iran, a view shared by a healthy portion of the Israeli Jewish population.

The attacks in Egypt and Libya were provoked by a nasty amateur film portraying Muhammad in a most incredibly unfavorable light. Media outlets reported that a man calling himself Sam Bacile claimed he was the film’s director and producer, that he was an Israeli American real estate developer and that 100 Jewish businessmen had backed the venture.

The results of the showing of that film, which was translated into Arabic for local television, were riots and death. Who openly promotes that? Muslim fundamentalists who seek to stay in permanent conflict with America.

Who can benefit from that is a far more complicated matter. Clearly, Muslim fundamentalists benefit, but so do those Israelis who have struggled against Palestinian interests and for American support for an attack on Iran. Anything they can do to turn America against Palestine, against Arabs and Muslims in general, and against a two-state solution, as well as toward stronger support of their causes is, by definition, a good thing. In that context, a Muslim attack on U.S. interests abroad might be just the thing to move U.S. public opinion further toward the more extreme Israeli positions that we have so far managed to avoid, such as a military attack on Iran.

It is painfully clear that there are groups of people in the Arab world that are eager to commit violence against American interests. The provocative and negative actions of anti-Muslim individuals and groups here in America play right into their hands. Such Americans, whether they commit spontaneous acts or are motivated and guided by foreign influence, can precipitate anti-American violence at will through their anti-Muslim provocations. This simply creates more anti-Muslim Americans, which happens to be a good thing in the eyes of not only fundamentalist Muslims, but the Likud as well.

The frightening fact is that anyone who wishes to enrage the “Arab street” can do so with ease and great effect. That fact remains a thorn in the side of any person, group or country that would like to see peace and quiet in the area. This will always be a potential trigger for trouble, a trigger that can be directly and openly pulled or that can hide and obfuscate the identity and motives of the hunter.

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Reasonably careful attention to the news media, shows that writers and talking heads are increasingly surprised that things are not going our way in the Middle East. Recently a number of commentators have expressed surprise that Iraq looks to be sliding toward chaos and indignation at the recent killings of some of our advisor/soldiers in Afghanistan.

We have now been in Afghanistan for over a decade. That is twice as long as we were involved in World War II – and longer than any foreign war in our history. We went to Afghanistan to redress the attack of 9/11. We then completely took our eyes off the ball and invaded Iraq, an act that may well turn out to be the greatest foreign policy gaff in the history of the United States.

We went into Afghanistan on the premise that we were fighting the Global War On Terror (GWOT) and in fairly short order we had completely eliminated Al Qaeda from the Afghan countryside. By 2002, GWOT/Afghanistan was all over. In 2003, we invaded Iraq, destroying whatever planning continuity we may have had for Afghanistan. And guess what happened. As time dragged on, the struggle in Afghanistan ceased being a counterterrorism program and became a counterinsurgency with Afghan people rising up against us. The Bush administration avoided acknowledging that. They purposefully continued to call it counterterrorism. It’s easier to get sympathy and support fighting terrorists than it is fighting insurgents.

The problem here is that, according to the US Army’s own experts, a counterinsurgency program requires 25 troops for every 1,000 indigenous residents, which would have meant a commitment of 850,000 US troops to effectively combat the Afghan insurgency. So, by 2011, ten years in, we were fighting an insurgency with a force that was one eighth the size required by the facts on the ground.

How did we manage to get to the point where we are so roundly disliked by the Afghans? A look back on our behaviors in Afghanistan show a pattern that clearly was not designed to win Afghan hearts and minds. The torture and abuse of Afghan prisoners at Bagram began in 2002 and came to public light in 2005. Helicopter and drone attacks have regularly caused collateral civilian damage. Afghans have seen American soldiers urinate on Afghan dead. And most recently, we have been burning Korans, which is an incredible sacrilege in Islam.

This is certainly not to say that we have purposefully committed these acts. Clearly, the haze of war, cultural ineptitude and plain old stupidity are co-responsible. What is fact, however, is that we are the foreigners in Afghanistan and we have been there for over a decade. The average Afghan, if he remembers at all, thinks we came to get rid of Al Qaida. And we did, by 2002 at the latest. So they ask, why have we stayed?

Are these American troops perhaps here for some other reason? Are they here as the new Crusaders to occupy Afghanistan? Are they here to bring us Afghans a new form of government – democracy, for example? If that is the case, we Afghans are uninterested. The point is that, having been given absolutely no good answers to their questions, and given the fact that Afghanistan has been invaded innumerable times in the past, they simply have to be suspicious of us and our motives. Even the roundly disliked Taliban is preferable to the foreign occupiers.

The Afghan people have never supported a strong central government. Quite the opposite, they are tribally and nationally diverse people. They are Pushtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Amak, Turkmen, Baloch and many others. They have survived over the years by keeping power at home in their valley, being suspicious of everyone not in their tribe and keeping Kabul at arm’s length.

There is no news here. This is the way the Afghans have always been and may always be. What is sad is the fact that Americans who really understand Afghanistan have known this forever. In the process of getting mired down in Afghanistan, many of those experts spoke up and predicted quite accurately what the future held for the US in Afghanistan.

Of course, the problem is that our politicians didn’t listen to them. Do they ever? Did they on Iraq? They went ahead with their plans for their own internal domestic political reasons and in doing so, proved conclusively how wrong they were.

George W. Bush’s great Neoconservative Middle East experiment is drawing to an end, leaving a deeply fractured America, with trillions of dollars of debt wasted on military adventures we rationally never could have concluded in our favor.


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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

By Haviland Smith

It would be fascinating and probably terrifying to know even roughly what amount of money and resources it took for this country to prepare for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. A quick look at New York City shows the kind of money everyone wants to spend and no one wants to fund.

When Osama bin Laden first got geared up on his quest to bring down the United States, he said very clearly that one of his goals was to bankrupt us. Of course, what he meant was that he planned to create the conditions that would bring us to bankrupt ourselves.

It is critical to remember here that terrorism is not designed to overwhelm. It is designed to undermine. In that context, whatever it does to cause or initiate anxiety in targeted populations and governments, it relies on the reaction of those populations and governments equally as much to achieve its final goals. And America has reacted in ways that have haunted us and will continue to haunt us for decades. Bin Laden could not have wished for more.

The American measures that have flowed from 9/11 have cost us trillions of dollars. Our “War on Terror,” upon which our military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been hung, our domestic “counterterrorism” operations and our intelligence operations designed to wipe out al-Qaida leaders have contributed to trillions of dollars of post-9/11 debt.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration and the country as a whole had a choice between two reactions. We could stick with the basic tenets of counterterrorism operations and go after al-Qaida with our police, special operations and intelligence resources, or we could introduce measures that would prolong the atmosphere already created by the attack by introducing countermeasures that would keep our country perpetually on edge.

We chose the latter in violation of Benjamin Franklin’s injunction that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

We passed the Patriot Act, which added a layer to an already bureaucratized intelligence community. It also “legalized” major diminutions in our civil and individual liberties with highly questionable and warrantless surveillance and police programs and the new “national security letters.” We implemented a color-coded warning system, which, it seemed, was ramped up whenever our leadership thought we were getting complacent. We instituted Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation” and renditions.

And we did all this in the face of sheep-like acquiescence of the American people and their elected representatives who clearly felt that safety was more important than freedom.

What would have happened if we had not orchestrated major military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and become involved up to our ears in Pakistan? Would we have suffered a second major attack here at home? No one can answer that question with certainty, and it is possible that we will ultimately suffer such an attack despite everything we have done that we think has prevented just that.

Part of that possibility lies in the fact that everything we have done has had the side effect of alienating those moderate Muslims (at least 99 percent of the Muslim world) who had no fundamentalist beef with us. Much of that damage has been done by the presence and operations of our military in the name of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan, where there are practically no terrorists, and Iraq, where there were none until after our 2003 invasion.

What we have done in our paranoia is put ourselves at the mercy of our own federal, state and municipal governments, which are singularly preoccupied with covering their posteriors. They cannot afford to overlook anything they think is a “credible” threat.

Even worse than that, we have put ourselves in the position of being vulnerable to any provocations that the remnants of al-Qaida, or anyone else, might wish to run against us, and we have done so completely voluntarily.

We have fulfilled bin Laden’s and the other terrorists’ dreams. They can now simply whisper to anyone we consider to be a reliable source that there is an attack in the works and America will galvanize as we did on 9/11 of this year, raising national paranoia and spending billions. Curiously, that could be what just happened in New York City.

The big question here is how can we undo what we have already done to ourselves before we go bankrupt in an ultra-frightened and paranoid national security environment?

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times Argus

We are now getting close to the 10th anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks of 9/11. Although a decade is an insufficient period for most historians to comfortably draw firm conclusions about anything, it is possible to look at our world today and see how it appears to have been affected by that disastrous event and the ensuing decade. 

It is critical to remember that terrorism is not designed to overwhelm. It is designed to undermine. In that context, whatever it does to cause or initiate anxiety in targeted populations and governments, it relies on the reaction of those populations and governments equally as much to achieve its final goals. And America has reacted in ways that have haunted us and will continue to haunt us for decades. Al-Qaida could not have wished for more.

Domestically, we have seen major changes in our lives. Think of our color-coded terrorist warning system, our current airport controls, our paranoia over anyone who “looks like a Muslim” (whatever that is), or “acts differently.” What is that paper bag doing in the subway? Airport? Train station? Movie?

In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans were clearly prepared to and ultimately did surrender their civil liberties and individual rights in the hope that doing so would add to their own physical security. We forgot Benjamin Franklin’s injunction that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The Patriot Act, where it was designed ostensibly to increase our security here at home, did many other things that have negatively affected the way we lead our lives. It increased the government’s ability to spy on us, to monitor our activities in a very broad and general way. It introduced warrantless wiretapping and the monitoring of fund transfers and Internet communications. It also initiated the national security letter process that required any person or organization to turn over records and data pertaining to individuals without warrant, and all this without probable cause or judicial oversight.

The other major domestic impact of the decade has been financial. During that period, we have gone from what was verging on a national surplus to a deficit that is now approaching $15 trillion and increasing at the rate of $3.95 billion every day. We got there through a combination of factors, including tax cuts, the “War on Terror,” and unfunded military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and now Libya. Brown University’s comprehensive June 2011 “Costs of War” project, factoring in all the costs associated with the decade, arrives at close to $4 trillion. Tax cuts add $2.8 trillion. There seems virtually no doubt that in the absence of our reaction to 9/11, we would be fiscally relatively healthy.

In addition to the foregoing difficult domestic situation, which we largely created for ourselves in the aftermath of 9/11, the changes we have seen in our foreign policy will haunt us for years to come. In that arena, our move to military-based, unilateral policy was a radical change. Yet our invasion and defeat of Iraq and the ascendence to power of the Iranian-allied Iraqi Shiites will likely prove to be our most egregious blunder.

It’s not that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in any sense enlightened; it is very simply that Saddam’s Iraq was the only effective impediment to Iranian control over the Persian Gulf. From 1980-88, Iran and Iraq fought a war for supremacy in the gulf. In the absence of a clear resolution of that conflict, the fact that Iraq survived served as a critical deterrent to Iranian dreams for hegemony there.

Our invasion and defeat of Saddam’s Iraq was something the Iranians could never have accomplished on their own. With Shiites now assuming power under our new order in Iraq and Iran threatening the old Sunni positions in the Gulf States, Iran has come even closer. We have destroyed the last real impediment to Iranian dreams for the gulf.

We have had our chances to deal with 9/11 in ways that would have better favored our own national interests. Instead, we panicked, invoked questionable practices at home and became involved in military adventures abroad that will almost certainly ultimately be viewed as disasters.

Without the active, witless involvement and acquiescence of our government and Congress over the past decade, al-Qaida terrorism would have caused us far less pain than it ultimately has and we would be a great deal safer, richer, wiser and internationally more powerful and respected than is now the case.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and the Rutland Herald]

Terrorism is not designed to overwhelm. It is designed to undermine. In that context, whatever it does to cause or initiate anxiety in populations, it relies on the reaction of those populations equally as much to achieve its final goal.

The reaction of the Bush administration to the slaughter of 9/11, largely continued under Obama, was precisely what bin Laden and al-Qaida would have prayed for as it created an environment which made life for Americans difficult, induced levels of paranoia and ultimately resulted in the loss of many of its citizens’ basic human rights in the name of the fight against terrorism. Terrorism has now been fully planted in our collective psyche. To wit:

We have lived for almost a decade with an insane, multicolored “terrorist warning system” designed primarily to cover the posterior of the administration that designed and implemented it.

Transportation has become a nightmare. The simple preparation for air travel takes infinitely longer now than it did 10 years ago. Controls in airports have become so repressive and intrusive that air travel now proceeds at a crawl.

We have become paranoid and morbidly suspicious and distrustful of anyone we think might be a Muslim.

Our government has been able to get whatever it wanted in terms of surveillance rights. We have been subject to warrantless surveillance of all kinds.

We have watched our government torment, torture and incarcerate people without any regard for human rights or international law and convention.

The sad thing is that we have acquiesced to all of this because of our concerns about our own personal safety. But will we ever get our human rights back or will we lose more? In the dark days of 1775, Benjamin Franklin wrote perceptively, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The key here is that without the active, witless involvement and effective acquiescence of our government, al-Qaida terrorism would have caused us far less pain than it ultimately has.

When it came to planning the attack on 9/11, most of the al-Qaida operational management was dead set against it. The plan prevailed solely because Osama bin Laden, their oracle, was its champion.

Ultimately, those in al-Qaida who opposed the 9/11 plan were proven correct. The 9/11 attack was the beginning of the decline of al-Qaida, who did just about everything wrong. They provoked a nasty, powerful and retributive America which turned on them full force. We invaded Afghanistan, denying them their operational base and stability. We methodically began to eliminate their senior and mid-level operational management. We pursued bin Laden so relentlessly that it completely changed al-Qaida’s modus operandi.

Al-Qaida became a franchise operation, the McDonald’s of terrorism. All a wannabee jihadi had to do was get a group of like-minded folks together and find a building from which to operate. At that point, visits to training facilities in Pakistan or Yemen or wherever, would teach them how to make bombs and how to run a business. Just like McDonald’s.

This progression was largely the result of the environment in which al-Qaida lived. As they ramped up their operations, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq and later in Yemen and in North Africa, they created another entire category of enemy — those Muslims who objected to their killing of other Muslims. Since they were killing Muslims in droves, that meant that they could no longer be sure that their living environment was benign.

Worst of all from the Muslim point of view, they began to justify those killings by indiscriminately and in Muslim eyes, inappropriately employing takfir, the practice of branding other Muslims as unbelievers and making them thereby “legally” executable by al-Qaida.

Add to that the fact of lethal Western pursuit of their members, and we see al-Qaida going underground and paranoid. Bin Laden hid in the open in suburban Pakistan. But he was so paranoid that he had no phone, no Internet connection. Under those circumstances, there ceased to be an “al-Qaida Central.” All that was left were the franchises around the world. Given his personal circumstances, bin Laden could not conceivably have exercised classic command and control over them.

Which is precisely where we are now. We see disparate groups freelancing on their own in whatever operations appeal to them and doing so in operational environments that are increasingly hostile to them. Osama’s death hasn’t changed much.

If we could only bring ourselves to mitigate those of our activities, like our Middle East military operations, that provoke moderate Muslims and therefore strengthen al-Qaida, we might find ourselves in a far stronger counterterrorist position than that in which we find ourselves today.

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The old saw tells us that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.  But that really isn’t true.  A terrorist is a  terrorist and an insurgent, or freedom fighter, is an insurgent. If we are able to stick to labeling them on the basis of what they actually do, rather than what we think they represent, we will be able to keep them straight and stand a much better chance of dealing effectively with terrorism.

Insurgencies are movements designed to overthrow existing governments.  Some are popular and have pretty good prospects for success. Some are not. Generally they spring from within populations.  If they are successful, it is because they generally represent the population’s views and thus have their support.  That makes them very difficult to defeat, particularly by a foreign government.

It is extremely difficult to define “terrorism” largely because it is such an emotional subject.  The United Nations has been unable to do so. Having said that, there are certain characteristics that are helpful in identifying terrorists.  They use violence and asymmetrical warfare as their primary tools.  They are not typically organized like insurgencies, but rather resemble politically oriented covert action groups. They use their terror psychologically for maximum impact to intimidate populations rather than simply kill individuals.  Finally, they are non-state groups.

Historically, governments have been far more successful against terrorist groups than they have been against insurgencies, primarily because insurgencies tend to enjoy more support from local populations

Today’s American foreign and domestic counterterrorism policies have been built on the “Global War on Terror” or (GWOT).  The Bush Administration labeled everyone it didn’t like a “terrorist”, never taking the time to differentiate between terrorism and insurgency.  That was our first mistake. The Taliban, despite the fact that it commits terrorist acts, is essentially an insurgent organization. Yet, until recently, they were constantly referred to as terrorists, perhaps because we needed terrorists for our GWOT in an Afghanistan where there were hardly any Al Qaeda members left.  Even though Afghans generally hate Taliban policies, and with good reason, they will often chose them over us if they are forced to do so.  We are, after all, the foreigners in the fracas.

Our second mistake was in deciding to “solve” our terrorism problems with the military might that had so brilliantly served us during the preceding fifty years.  In employing a military response, we were using an asset that had been designed in the Second World War to sweep across northern Europe in an attack on Germany and then further fine-tuned during the Cold War to sweep across Germany and Poland to defeat the USSR.  How we figured that was an appropriate tool for dealing with the new terrorism is hard to understand.  The answer probably lies in the fact that the military establishment wanted a piece of the action, and all it had to offer was its sword.

Until the early May operation that dispatched Osama bin Laden, the only example we had that argued that massive military response might not be the best approach, was the initial invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.  In that operation, a handful of special operations troops accompanied by a small number of intelligence officers, kicked off a blitzkrieg that ended in very short order with the literal destruction of Al Qaida in Afghanistan and, coincidentally, the defeat of the Taliban.  Remember, this was the “GWOT”.  Afghanistan initially had nothing to do with insurgencies, only with 9/11 and the terrorists.  Even though it all went south with the subsequent invasion of Iraq, the lesson was there to be studied, absorbed and implemented.


In 2010, the Rand Corporation reviewed the findings of its own 2008 study of 648 terrorist groups that existed around the world between 1968 and 2006.  It concluded that of those groups, 43% were absorbed quietly back into the environments in which they had been active, 40% were defeated by police and intelligence operations and 7% by military confrontation.

In Islam, as elsewhere, true terrorist groups most often are involved in activities that are dangerous to the general population.  Such groups, as in the case of Al Qaeda, often include members who are foreigners, who have goals inimical to the local population’s goals, or serve non-local causes. In the case of Al Qaeda, they often kill Muslims, a sin under the Koran. In short, they do not necessarily spring from and represent the ideas and desires of the local population.

Terrorists normally operate clandestinely in their local environments, trying to avoid identification by local populations. In fact, they often conduct operations designed to pit one portion of the population against another, simply for the purpose of creating chaos.  That was part of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) operational approach under Abu Musab al Zarqawi. AQI provocations were designed specifically to goad Shia into attacking Sunnis or vice versa, simply to keep the pot boiling.

When terrorists are the object of an essentially clandestine response like the one we conducted in Afghanistan in early October 2001, it is they alone, not the local population that are being targeted. That fact gives operational advantages to the special ops personnel and non-military police and/or intelligence officers working against them and permits local resident neutrality or even support for the local authorities.

When terrorist operations become known to local populations and are recognized as threatening or opposed to their interests, those populations often turn against them, as was the case with AQI at the beginning of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, when the Sunni “Awakening” began to methodically wipe them out.

In direct contrast, when terrorists are confronted with military power, particularly foreign military power, the entire equation changes.

Let’s start here by stipulating that what America seeks from local Muslims in the struggle with radical Muslim terrorism, is optimally their support or, failing that, their neutrality.

As we know from our own experiences in the Middle East, American military confrontation tends to force the local non-combatant population to make a decision about whom to support, particularly if the local population believes that our “terrorist” is his “insurgent”. Will it be the foreigner or the local?  This is the main reason that accurate labeling is so critically important and that a non-military approach is preferable in cases of terrorism. Is he a terrorist who is not seeking the same goals as the population and can be justly opposed? Or is he an insurgent who is on the same page with the population and must be supported?  If he is a terrorist he is less likely to be accepted or protected by the locals.  If he is really an insurgent, he will be one of them and they will back him against the foreigner.

If we misidentify out of carelessness, stupidity or even willfulness, as may very well have been the case in the past, we will likely employ the wrong techniques against the troublemaker, whatever he really is.


As if all this terrorism/insurgency discussion is not enough, our problems in the Middle East are made especially difficult by the facts that exist both there and here in America.  The historical, political and cultural differences between us are numerous and important.

The Middle East is rife with ongoing conflicts.  Sometimes they are absolutely overt, sometimes they are less obvious, but they are always there and have been for millennia.  The Shia/Sunni split, the Persian/Arab competition for hegemony in the Gulf, the anomalous position of the Kurds. The hangovers of the Crusaders, Western imperialism and US Regime change operations in Syria and Iran have all added up to a region in which, today, the notion of liberal democracy is quite foreign and its bearer is viewed with extreme suspicion.  There is little history of democracy. The peoples of the region, particularly given their tribalism, ethnic and sectarian differences have no experience that would prepare them for the freedoms and responsibilities that must come with self-rule and liberal democracy.  What they do have is a Koran which gives any believing Muslim an exhaustive blueprint for life.

On the other side of the ledger, we have a United States that is ruled by its own American exceptionalism and eager to save the world by exporting its model.  Yet, we are a wildly impatient, ADHD nation, short on planning, and married to short-term political timetables. In foreign affairs, we tend to evolve policies for American domestic political reasons, eschewing the realities that exist abroad.  We talk democracy and support the most repressive rulers in Islam. For over sixty years we have failed miserably to bring peace to Israel and Palestine. We are so bereft of influence there that the sides are preceding in their own respective directions without reference to America.   Yet, our goal seems to be a desire to install “democracy” in a world that has little reason to want to accept it.  As a result, we are seen as opportunistic, narcissistic and hypocritical.

Many, if not most of these problems have solutions that would help us.   The “Arab Spring” will change the Middle East forever, as the rebellions against existing authority have completely stolen the show from Al Qaeda, rendering their dreams of a medieval caliphate virtually obsolete.  The rebellions have brought some sort of self-determination to those people who outlast the tyrants that have recently ruled them.  If we can bring ourselves to accept self-determination in place of democratization as a viable goal for them, active nation-state hostility to us will subside.

What we can do completely on our own is change our counterterrorism policy.  When we attack terrorism with our military establishment, as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2003, terrorism morphs into insurgency. That insurgency then demands our involvement in the export of democracy and nation building, all of which are matters at which we are demonstrable failures.

We are proposing to do all of this in the face of popular American disinterest in and lagging support of our adventures in the Middle East.  Reality is additionally determined by a burgeoning national debt, ongoing national economic problems, a wildly expensive military establishment built for wars we do not face and acute national taxophobia.

We need to acknowledge that our current use of military might against terrorism in acutely counterproductive. In the absence of that constant military presence, local governments will find it politically more acceptable to share Al Qaeda as an enemy than they do today.  We need to concentrate on our liaison relationships with friendly countries, our production of intelligence on all terrorism activities and our training and deployment of the kind of special operations teams that we have recently seen operating so successfully.

The effectiveness of those teams and of a program based on them, coupled with the absence of our provocative uniformed military in battle all over the region, will give us a better shot at solving our problems in the region.  At the same time, a change in counterterrorism tactics and the deployment of a greatly reduced, but uniquely competent force should permit the saving of billions of dollars and the opportunity to put our economic house in order here at home, while it raises our prospects of diminishing the future threat of terrorism.

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[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

In 1775, Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The recent tragic events in Arizona have caused some American legislators to consider whether or not we should be paying more attention to some of the more important people in our country with a view to protecting them from the armed crazies who would try to kill them.

Before we plunge headlong into that activity, it might be useful to consider some of the ramifications of any course of action that is purportedly designed to increase safety.

First, you can be safe, or you can be free. You cannot be both. In the process of acquiring safety, you will have to give up some of your freedoms, and they are not easy to retrieve.

Just think back on the immediate post-9/11 period when our government, in an attempt to improve our security, passed the Patriot Act and amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, both of which directly impinged on Americans’ civil liberties.

The ACLU summarized our losses under that legislation quite succinctly. Overnight we got: wireless wiretaps; statutory authority for the government to get a court order to come into your home without your knowledge and even take property without notification; the ability of the government to obtain many detailed, personal records including library and bookstore records, financial and medical records, and Internet communications without probable cause and without meaningful judicial review.

For those records that could be obtained using “national security letters” there was no judicial review at all. Finally, changes to immigration regulations and the President’s claimed authority to detain “enemy combatants” sanctioned indefinite detention without criminal charge and without meaningful judicial review.

In March 2002, we were given a color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale—green, blue, yellow, orange, red—which had no objective criteria and therefore could not be accurately evaluated. It was a massive government CYA operation that had absolutely no positive outcomes for us or our security. It served only to show that the government was at least doing something about our security.

At the same time, it kept us on perpetual edge and fostered an environment in which additional “security measures” would be more readily accepted, making the population more susceptible to the Neoconservative concept of the “Long War”.

If you want the closest thing you can get to total security, you need to look at the old Soviet model. In that system, a police state was set up, not to provide security, but to remove liberty and opposition to the state. Over the years, informing on others became so ingrained in the people that the elaborate Soviet informant system evolved. Everyone was expected to report anything different to the KGB. That system did a pretty good job of insuring security for the people, but it also completely removed their civil liberties.

If you drive south on I-95 in Maryland you will see widely distributed overhead signs erected by the state’s terrorism tip line (800 number provided) encouraging you to “Report Suspicious Activity”.

Our airports, railroad stations and bus terminals are filled with reminders to report suspicious activity and suspicious packages.

The Department of Homeland Security has provided us with the “Eight Signs of Terrorism,” which urges reporting “suspicious” activities. DHS has also produced a video to outline those signs and provides an elaborate format for reporting them.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with any of these measures. Our federal state and municipal governments would be foolish not to try to enlist its citizens in the struggle with terrorism. Any US citizen would be derelict not to report any activity he or she sees as part of an impending terrorist attack.

The problem is that all of these post 9/11 laws, measures and policies have led and will continue to lead to a diminution of our civil liberties. Once you get momentum in that direction, it’s really hard to pull back. Ask anyone who has lived in a totalitarian state.

It’s your choice, free or safe. You can’t have both.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.

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Untangling the Muslim web

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

There really are only three available solutions for our problems with terrorism in the Muslim World: (1) we can respond to all such situations with military power, (2) we can disengage militarily from the Muslim world or (3) we can try to implement a hybrid of the first two. Under the Bush administration, we were totally married to the military solution. Under the Obama administration, it would appear we are flirting with the hybrid. No one has tried disengagement.

What we know is that a decade of military confrontation has created at least as many problems for us as it has solved, largely because it has alienated, infuriated and neutralized moderate Muslims, our major hope and potential ally against fundamentalist terrorism. It seems highly unlikely that the ongoing hybrid Obama approach will be any more successful, as the same issues of alienation and hostility still exists.

Yet, a careful examination of the realities of the Muslim world and our relationship with it will argue favorably for our complete military disengagement from the region. That act would effectively remove the primary motivation of present and future moderate Muslims who, as a result of our ongoing policies, have come to support, or at least not actively oppose Al Qaida.

To survive, Al Qaida must have an external enemy and we have turned ourselves into Al Qaida’s enemy of choice. If we disengage militarily from their battlefield before the majority of moderate Muslims turn against us, they will have to deal immediately with all those unavoidable, intractable, internal Muslim issues that have made our lives so complicated since the Iraq invasion. Religious, ethnic and national differences, rivalries and conflicts will be Al Qaida’s to deal with in their quest for the Caliphate. They will loose.

There will be major concerns here at home that our military disengagement from both Iraq and Afghanistan will precipitate internal strife in those countries, or worse yet, a general conflagration in the Middle East. Almost all of the disparate ethnic and sectarian components in each of the countries there have external advocates or protectors in the Muslim world. Iraqi Shia have Iran, the Sunnis have Saudi Arabia and Syria, etc.

It does not appear at this time that any of those “protectors” actively seeks to precipitate strife either in the countries involved or in the greater region. Quite the opposite, they have every reason not to seek regional strife. It is far too destabilizing and threatening to governments now in power.

However, if such strife does come on the heels of U.S. military disengagement, it will be the endemic hatreds and rivalries that will precipitate it, whether we leave now or 50 years from now. These divisions and hatreds have existed for millennia. How long are we prepared to stay?

It will be argued that military disengagement will jeopardize the West’s energy supplies, but oil is fungible and only has value when pumped out of the ground and traded. It is also the only major economic asset most of those countries have with which to satisfy the needs of their peoples.

Are we deserting our friends? Who are they and are they really friends, or are they in it simply to get whatever support they can from us for their own narrow national goals, without making more than a minimal commitment to us and to our needs?

Some will say Israel will be jeopardized, but despite the fact that we have been their primary protectors for 40years, they seem recently to have ignored our needs in the region in favor of their own, calling into question their previous contention that our national interests are identical.

The fact is that our recent military-based and spearheaded policies in the Muslim world have exacerbated our problems with terrorism, added endless new terrorists to our enemies’ ranks, filled their coffers, sullied our previously good reputation with Muslim moderates, maintained and encouraged despots in power and accomplished very little positive for us.

If nothing else, it’s time to consider change. In that context, it might be a profitable departure for America to see the world as it really is, not as we would like it to be. Only then will we get policies that are in harmony with the existing facts on the ground.

Military confrontation has rarely successfully been used with insurgencies, it has never succeeded against terrorism. A far better result against terrorism has been achieved with police and intelligence operations.

Within the framework of our national interests, there is no viable military solution for terrorism in any part of the Muslim world. Everything we do militarily is directly contradictory to our national interests. The reason for that lies partly in the fact that Muslim terrorism seems to regularly morph into or become absorbed by insurgencies as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More importantly, it stems from the critical, decades-old complaints that Muslims have had about American policies and activities in their region. What Americans need to understand is that as long as those American policies continue, we will be dealing with terrorism and rejection in the Muslim world. They are the causative factors behind the fact that, “they hate us for what we do, not who we are”.

If, on the other hand, we were to modify those policies, Al Qaida would not last long in an increasingly moderate Muslim world hostile to terrorism’s extreme, un-Muslim philosophies and activities. Without the United States as an intrusive, compliant, external whipping boy, Al Qaida would be forced to deal with the realities of their own diffuse and fragile Muslim world, a world largely hostile to them.

But this is a suggested policy built on the realities on the ground in the Muslim World and we all know that U.S. policy is more often built on the internal political needs of the Administration in power, in this case, the Obama administration.

President Obama is faced with unhappy choices. If he were to see merit in military disengagement from the Muslim world, he would face onslaughts that he is “weak on terrorism” from Republicans and from all those who see advantages in the “long war”. That would include those people and organizations that benefit politically, emotionally and economically from its continuation. Disengagement might just be enough to do him in.

On the other hand, if he can make up his mind to consider what truly is in our national interest and is prepared to suffer the potential negative political consequences of going against the supporters of the “long war,” he could, at minimum, begin the process of solving our most basic problems with the Muslim world and with terrorism.

Haviland Smith is a former counterterrorism expert and station chief for the CIA.

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