- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2002

The success of the military campaign in Afghanistan has intensified the debate in the Bush administration about whether the international coalition is necessary for the war against terrorism or is an impediment.
A compromise appears to have been made between coalition supporters such as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and opponents such as Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. But this cannot last forever, and a clear strategy will have to be formed.
The war against al Qaeda has reached a point in which a fundamental strategic analysis is required.
The most important goal in the Afghan theater of operations appears to have been reached. The country is no longer an effective base for the command and training units of al Qaeda. Its members might remain in Afghanistan, but their ability to operate the international network from there has been degraded severely, if not disrupted completely.
The internal situation in Afghanistan remains chaotic, and the Taliban undoubtedly is trying to regroup, form alliances and reassert itself. Whether it succeeds is not a matter of fundamental importance to the United States. Such an opportunity is distant at best, and the United States has more pressing issues facing it than internal Afghan politics.
The question that confronts Washington is this: With the first, short chapter in the al Qaeda war concluded, what will the future war-fighting strategy be? A serious debate is raging inside the Bush administration over such a follow-on strategy.
Mr. Powell is making the case that the foundation of U.S. strategy must be the creation and sustenance of a large coalition.
But Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld share a different view. Their argument appears to be that the purpose of a coalition is to enable combat operations, and that an overly broad coalition will place severe restraints on such operations. Therefore, the United States should narrow the coalition as necessary up to and including taking unilateral actions in order to destroy al Qaeda.
A public projection by U.S. intelligence agencies is framing the debate. These agencies are asserting a high probability that al Qaeda again will attack the United States to a degree equal to or greater than September 11. The intelligence consensus is that while al Qaeda may have been hurt or even disrupted during the past few months, it has not been destroyed, and it has excellent regenerative powers.
Therefore, the urgent question remains: How can the United States be protected against these attacks? If a static defense won't work and an attack is necessary, what form should this attack on al Qaeda take? If al Qaeda is destroyed, how can the United States make certain that replacement organizations don't rise out of the network's rubble?
The initial impulse in all U.S. foreign policy is to build coalitions.
This is partly because of political motivation: Coalitions legitimize war globally and within the United States. There is also a military motivation: The United States lacks manpower for major Eurasian operations.
Throughout the 20th century, Washington constructed war-fighting coalitions for two reasons. The first was geographic: The United States needed bases close to the theater of operations for mounting and sustaining offensives. The second was demographic: The quantity of forces the United States was able to put on the ground was historically insufficient to deal with the enemy. Washington needed allies in order to shift and share the manpower burden.
Thus, immediately after September 11, the United States used the emotion of the moment to recruit a broad coalition. The initial response was extraordinarily positive.
Even Iran appeared to be prepared to assist the United States in some important ways.
Then reality cut in: The Pakistanis had severe problems in helping the United States. The Russians were prepared to cooperate, but the geography was not quite right, and the price was high. Conventional U.S. allies such as the Europeans were willing to cooperate in Afghanistan, but they had serious doubts about follow-on operations.
This was the heart of the problem. Al Qaeda is a global, non-national entity. It was relatively easy for coalition partners to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan. But those operations were only the beginning. A global enemy requires a global strategy and a willingness to go anywhere in the world and at any cost.
However, to coalition partners who had interests other than protecting the United States against al Qaeda, the willingness to endorse unlimited, global military and intelligence operations by the United States was too much of a blank check.
The allies began to define their limits. The coalition members were so numerous that by the time all their limits were put side by side, the United States could not execute any sort of war-fighting plan. It was at this point that serious rethinking of the coalition strategy began.
A small number of special-operations and light-infantry troops on the ground, combined with carrier-based and long-range attack aircraft, had destroyed the Taliban's will to fight in a matter of weeks. It appeared to some observers that if the success of the Afghan campaign could replicated, it would reduce dramatically the need for coalition partners.
In planning follow-on operations, at least one coalition partner voiced objections to each operation. Even the issue of how to treat prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, became a matter in which the coalition weighed in heavily.
With the fear that a new al Qaeda attack could come at any moment, the Defense Department began to view the coalition as an unnecessary nuisance or, worse, a death trap.
Mr. Powell saw the situation differently.
First, he argued that no long-term military implications could be drawn from what happened in Afghanistan. The success of U.S. forces was limited. The Taliban had abandoned the cities, but it was far from destroyed.
Second, the United States had built a coalition on the ground in Afghanistan, among tribes and warlords willing to fight the Taliban. Far from being an argument against coalitions, Afghanistan was the case for coalition warfare.
More important, the peculiar internal dynamics of Afghanistan were not likely to be present in most other countries. Neither the relative indifference of neighboring countries nor the internal fragmentation was present in, for example, Iraq. Therefore, the conclusions reached by the Defense Department were based on a misreading of the facts.
It appeared since the beginning of the year that Mr. Powell was losing the argument. First, he was deeply and publicly embarrassed on the issue of the status of the Guantanamo detainees. He wanted them classified as prisoners of war. He was publicly repudiated by the president, who then made his famous "axis of evil" speech in which he linked Iran with Iraq and North Korea.
That represented the high point for the unilateralists. At least some Iranian elements clearly had aided fleeing al Qaeda members. Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Cheney and their allies made the argument that if holding Iran in some vague coalition meant that the United States had to tolerate the protection of forces that soon might be killing Americans at home, then it wasn't worth the price.
Moreover, if other allies could not understand that the protection of al Qaeda automatically placed a nation outside the pale of civilization, then those allies weren't worth the price either.
No one expected the explosion that occurred after the speech.
The European allies already had no intention of being drawn into a confrontation with Iraq. The idea that they would be drawn into a simultaneous confrontation with Iraq and Iran the latter a country in which they had substantial commercial interests was beyond consideration.
The United States did not have the right to commit them to confrontations that didn't suit their interests. Moreover, they did not see a connection between a confrontation with Iran or Iraq and destroying al Qaeda.
Washington was stunned by the degree of criticism it received from the Europeans and many others in the Middle East. The core U.S. position is that "anyone supporting al Qaeda in any way is our enemy, and if the allies won't join us, we'll do it ourselves."
Mr. Powell's argument was that the idea that al Qaeda could be defeated without the coalition was an illusion. The coalition was absolutely critical if not for military purposes, then for political ones. Al Qaeda could relocate from country to country. The United States could attack any one country and force relocation, but it could not simultaneously attack all of the countries where al Qaeda might be.
Since a sudden strike could not incapacitate al Qaeda, the only alternative strategy was long term, moderate pressure designed to undermine the group's foundations and create a general atmosphere in which it could not flourish.
In order to do this, the United States must recruit as many members of the coalition as it can and must not ask them to act immediately in ways that are not in their interests or that they cannot do.
Mr. Powell's view is that we are in a long-term war that depends on the willingness of coalition partners to reshape the way in which their internal culture and policies operate. In other words, condemning Iran may be satisfying, but there is no real military option for the country. Condemnation will decrease their willingness to work with the United States.
What appears to be emerging is some sort of compromise. At the very least, the signals coming out of Washington vary from day to day on the question of unilateralism versus coalition building.
What is going on here was similar to what happened in the months after Pearl Harbor was attacked. A war was under way, and a strategy had to be generated on the fly. Core decisions had to be made, theaters of operation defined, commanders selected.
Six months have passed since September 11. It should be no surprise that there is no clear strategy. It would be amazing if there were.
At the same time, compromises are rarely the optimal solution. Decisions need to be made. This is where the president earns the big bucks.

George Friedman is founder and chairman of Stratfor in Austin, Texas, a provider of global intelligence to private companies and subscribers. Its Web site is Stratfor.com.


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