Draining Bin Laden's Swamp

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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

The U.S. has begun moving air power into the Persian Gulf region — air power capable of raining down massive destruction on Afghanistan if its ruling Taliban movement refuses to hand over Osama Bin Laden. Not that there's much left there to destroy. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on Wednesday acknowledged that the Pentagon has struggled to identify significant targets in a country ravaged by two decades of brutal war. "Several countries have exhausted themselves pounding that country," Rumsfeld said. "There are not great things of value that are easy to deal with."

The Taliban's ruling council of clerics have decided to ask Bin Laden to leave voluntarily for the good of Afghanistan "within a reasonable timeframe," but that may simply be a ruse: under pressure after the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, the Taliban also proclaimed that Bin Laden had voluntarily left Afghanistan and was no longer their responsibility. All it meant was that he'd simply gone to ground. So, even if it's unlikely to weed out Bin Laden and his men, the air armada could yet be used to deliver harsh punishment to the Taliban.

Other targets?

It's also possible that the air power is being marshaled to hit countries other than Afghanistan — some U.S. officials, notably deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, are reportedly pushing hard for strikes against suspected terrorist facilities in Iraq and in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. But unless Washington is able to show its allies cast-iron evidence of direct involvement of any state in the September 11 attacks, air strikes on third countries remain an unlikely scenario because they could easily alienate the Arab allies whose intelligence support remains the critical factor in the coalition's ability to destroy Bin Laden's networks. Bush administration hawks see the U.S. military campaign as an opportunity to deliver a decisive blow to Saddam Hussein's regime, but such a move would likely alarm Arab (and even European) allies, and imperil Washington's coalition building.

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Still, the focus remains on Afghanistan, where the Taliban has been warned to expect U.S. military action if it fails to hand over Bin Laden within days. The immediate objective of such action would presumably be to kill or capture the Saudi terrorist — if they manage to find him, which will be no small feat. And also to neutralize or eliminate as much as possible of his command structure and "army." Both objectives would be difficult to realize from the air, and Rumsfeld hinted at the likelihood of some form of special forces deployment. Even then, Bin Laden's men are believed to be widely dispersed in hostile terrain, and the likelihood of fierce Afghan resistance and the country's hard-earned reputation as a graveyard for foreign armies makes a full-blown invasion an unlikely option for the U.S.

Not surprisingly, then, Bush administration officials are emphasizing the long-term nature of the campaign. And also that this is about a lot more than Bin Laden. Secretary of State Colin Powell compared him at the weekend to "the chairman of the board of a holding company." In other words, even in the unlikely event that the Taliban hands him over, that would not necessarily resolve the problem of the considerable infrastructure, command structures and personnel he'd leave behind.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said Wednesday that the campaign would combine military, political, intelligence and diplomatic initiatives to "drain the swamp they live in." And that's a sound principle of counterinsurgency, which recognizes that the resilience of an unconventional enemy derives from the support and succor he procures from his environment. Terrorist groups such as Bin Laden will seek out the most supportive environment for their sanctuaries; isolating and destroying them requires turning their environment against them.

Whose swamp is it anyway?

The past half century of counterinsurgency around the globe confirms that "draining the swamp" is a predominantly political rather than military process. Afghanistan works as a safe haven for Bin Laden precisely because it is a failed state, a land scorched by war and run by an extremist militia inured against most traditional levers of foreign policy. But the swamp is a lot wider than Afghanistan — indeed, it should be imagined less in territorial terms than as a microclimate. Bin Laden's networks are dotted throughout the Arab and Muslim world, where they profit immensely from a climate of deep-seated hostility towards the United States. Even more complex is the fact that such hostility is seldom official government policy, but rather the sentiment on the streets to which these not-exactly-democratic governments are forced to respond. For example, Bin Laden has reportedly continued to raise funds from wealthy businessmen in the Arab world despite being identified as Public Enemy No. 1 in the U.S. And, of course, the personal profiles of some of the hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks suggests that it is not only impoverished and impressionable youths from these countries who are joining Bin Laden, but even elements of the technologically-savvy middle class who benefit most from globalization and whose visits to strip bars ahead of their kamikaze mission suggests they may not even be quite as devout as your average Taliban fighter.

Bin Laden's campaign against the U.S. is based on the premise that terror strikes can force the U.S. to withdraw its military presence from the Middle East and Gulf, particularly his native Saudi Arabia. And that, as he sees it, would critically weaken the powers in the region he most detests — Israel and pro-Western Arab regimes such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Last week's terror strikes are part of a long-term campaign begun by Bin Laden as early as 1993, rather than simply a response to U.S. policy towards Iraq or Israel. Both issues have generated intense anti-American anger across the Arab world, and Bin Laden exploits that climate to maximum advantage — in procuring funds and recruits, but also because that anti-American feeling on the streets makes it more difficult for even pro-Western Arab regimes to cooperate with Washington.

Not surprising, then, that the requirements of coalition building spurred the Bush administration over the last week to knock Israeli and Palestinian heads together. Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat were told in no uncertain terms that the game had changed, and that both sides would face the wrath of the international community unless they do more to forge a cease-fire. Nobody's expecting miracles, but changing the tone of Israeli-Palestinian relations is considered critical to maintaining the all-important Arab support for the anti-terror coalition. Still, it'll take a lot more than an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire agreement to transform the anti-American political climate in the Arab world. A long-term anti-terror coalition that stifles the emergence of new Bin Ladens will require wide-ranging efforts to repair the political consensus between Washington and its Arab allies so painstakingly constructed by the last Bush administration before the Gulf War.