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SALHANI: Covert forces trumpet successes in war on terror

- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Fighting terrorism necessitates a two-pronged approach - covert action by special forces and smart intelligence.

Covert action is absolutely central to winning the war on terrorism, just as it was the decisive instrument of the Cold War, said a senior U.S. intelligence official.

Covert action remains a critical instrument in the war on terror. And it is thanks to a number of covert operations that the United States, according to a high-ranking Pentagon official, has made headway in the war on terrorism.

But there is still a long way to go and real threats to counter, particularly as the Afghan insurgency has gotten significantly more intense in the past two years. In Pakistan, the problem has gotten worse over the past decade, substantially worse.

The tribal areas of western Pakistan remain the most significant strategic threat. However, the threats do not only emanate from traditional Muslim lands. According to a high-ranking U.S. intelligence official, those threats "can emanate out of the United Kingdom and other parts of Western Europe, too.

"If you look at the number of threats over the past decade, you would see as many or more coming out of Europe as the greater Middle East," said Michael Vickers, assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict at the U.S. Department of Defense.

"Al Qaeda's goals remain to catalyze an Islamist insurgency, to break up and/or prevent the formation of international coalitions arrayed against it, to exhaust and expel the West from Muslim lands, to overthrow apostate - or what they consider - illegitimate states and to establish a new caliphate, weaken the West and transform the international balance of power to favor this new caliphate. Rather large ambitions, to say the least," said the U.S. intelligence official.

According to the U.S. official, not all is dire: America's intelligence services have scored some major points in the global war on terrorism.

"We've had some notable successes over the past seven years, and some of these have been gradual and incremental but still quite significant," Mr. Vickers said.

Mr. Vickers said the progress against international terrorism was mainly in an area in Southeast Asia referred to by the intelligence community as the "terrorist transit triangle."

Progress in the war on terrorism was particularly strong in the Philippines, where headway was made in fighting the Abu Sayyaf group and the Jamaat al-Islamiyya.

Mr. Vickers is the senior civilian adviser to the defense secretary and the deputy defense secretary on the operational employment of future capabilities of special operations forces, strategic and conventional forces.

A former CIA operations officer, he was the principal strategist for the largest covert action program in the agency's history - the paramilitary operation that drove the Soviet army out of Afghanistan during the mid-1980s.

Mr. Vickers said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the start of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the United States began to practice "a revolutionary form of unconventional warfare." This called for combining the U.S.'s most advanced weapons and surveillance equipment with special operations to eliminate the threat from al Qaeda.

By the end of this decade or probably early in the next decade, special operations forces will essentially be twice as large as they were at the beginning of the decade. The numbers of special forces troops will increase from the current levels of about 15,000 to somewhere around 64,000. The budget for the Special Operations Command will more than double in the next year.

Special forces include Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, Army Rangers and Navy Seals as well as a number of classified units. More recently there has been a new Marine Corps Special Operations Command unit.

This is the largest growth in special operations force history. What the United States is building is the special operations component of the global war on terrorism for the future, according to Mr. Vickers.

At the moment, the United States maintains special operations forces in some 60 countries. The vast majority - 80 percent - of those right now are concentrated in the greater Middle East or the United States Central Command area of responsibility; the bulk of those of course in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is one of the reasons why the United States is expanding its force significantly.

Mr. Vickers said that the terrorists' sanctuary in Afghanistan was not the only pre-9/11 problem, although he qualified it as a "very, very severe problem."

What preoccupied him were terrorist groups with global reach; i.e. the European cells, those in East Africa, in the Arabian Peninsula, in Southeast Asia. Mr. Vickers described it as "a global problem that exploited globalization."

But new efforts combined with new tactics began to show positive results, particularly in Saudi Arabia against a group known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that initially was doing rather well until the tides turned on them. And more recently there have been some great successes against al Qaeda in Iraq.

"Al Qaeda in Iraq is now a whisper of what it used to be," Mr. Vickers said.

However, he warned that it doesn't mean that the threat is completely dissipated. "But its capabilities are a lot less on many metrics than it was a couple of years ago."

Al Qaeda also has demonstrated a capability to regenerate, regroup and resurge.

"When they get set back, they're able to replace some losses, not necessarily to the previous level, not necessarily to the same skill in some individuals, but they do have a regeneration capability," Mr. Vickers said.

The hundreds of special forces members trying to track down Osama bin Laden have not prevented the most wanted man on the planet from writing a book.

Indeed, according to a report from the U.S. State Department's counterterrorist unit, bin Laden is writing a book called "Nidal," or "Struggle."

This, according to Pakistani sources, is to respond to "negative propaganda and insufficient information" about al Qaeda. The book will be written in Arabic and translated into English.

The report states that bin Laden will play up on "atrocities" committed by the West against Muslims and how the "crusaders" have harmed world development.

Claude Salhani is the editor of Middle East Times.