The Pentagon is discussing war-strategy changes for defeating Islamic terrorists that would place more emphasis on killing, capturing or discouraging midlevel operators who enable top al Qaeda leadership to function.
Interviews the past week with Bush administration officials show that policy-makers are thinking the only way to ultimately win the war is to take down the lower-level operators who form the networks that support Osama bin Laden and scores of other al Qaeda lieutenants around the world.
President Bush, in assessing progress in the war, often cites the statistic that 75 percent of known al Qaeda leaders have been killed or captured. The strategy has been generally that if you cut off the head of al Qaeda, the body will eventually die.
But more than three years into the war on terrorism, some officials are leaning toward a new policy that would place just as much emphasis on taking foot soldiers off the street.
“DOD is pushing a strategy of going after the al Qaeda network,” a well-placed administration official told The Washington Times. “Getting the leadership alone is not going to do it.”
The source said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is “putting pressure on the system” to come up with new ideas, but has not endorsed a new plan.
One official, who asked not to be named, said the recent arrests of two American al Qaeda planners are examples of how the United States can methodically disable terrorist cells, leaving chieftains with few to carry out their orders.
Another change being discussed in an ongoing interagency review by the Pentagon, State Department, CIA and White House National Security Council is a strategy that emphasizes this is a war that targets Islamic extremism, not Islam itself.
“We have to convince Muslims that al Qaeda is their mutual enemy,” said the administration official.
There is a belief by some officials that the phrase “war on terror” is not specific enough, said a second official.
And a third topic is finding new ways to discourage Muslim clerics from preaching hate and encouraging violence.
The Washington Post first reported last week that the Bush team is re-evaluating its anti-terror strategy. The Times subsequently conducted interviews to learn details of some of the ideas.
Officials told The Times there is some frustration at the review’s slow pace. One called it a “complicated process” and blamed the National Security Council staff at the White House for delays in pushing all sides to agree.
“The Pentagon has been trying to overcome a lot of resistance,” said the second Bush official. “Anytime they make their case, they get resistance.”
That official said the Pentagon wants the intelligence community to put more emphasis on signal intercepts to identify al Qaeda foot soldiers.
The United States is essentially fighting a three-front war: Iraq, Afghanistan and the global theater.
U.S. Special Operations Command, based in Tampa, Fla., was designated by Mr. Rumsfeld in 2003 as the combatant command in charge of global counterterror operations. Socom has set up a relatively new structure, the Center for Special Operations, to do the battle planning.
Two defense sources said Socom has struggled to set up the battle-planning staff and coordinate with regional commands.
“Trust me,” said one of the sources. “Changing from supporting to supported and getting cooperation from the regional commands have been difficult, at best.” “Supported” refers to a command, such as U.S. Central Command, that plans and carries out its own missions. Until 2003, Socom was a “supporting” command, meaning it carried out missions dictated by others.
Said Col. Samuel T. Taylor, a command spokesman, “I disagree with anyone’s assertion that Socom is struggling. A major transition, such as the one we are undergoing, requires extensive planning and coordination. … We are moving forward in the right way, at an appropriately rapid pace.”
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