Spies, not soldiers, as key to war's Phase 2
Counterterrorism chief says success now hinges on behind-the-scenes efforts involving many nations.
WASHINGTON — It's the bombing of Al Qaeda's caves that gets the attention.
But as the United States expands its commitment to the war on terror to help "governments everywhere ... remove the terrorist parasites that threaten their own countries and peace of the world," as President Bush said this week it's not just the high-profile military battles that will count.
As important as it may be to wipe out infrastructure like Al Qaeda's, the behind-the-scenes work of building up the global capacity to fight terrorism will determine the success of a war declared barely six months ago, US officials say.
"In many ways, our most important impact is going to be in helping to build the capability of nations around the world to confront this threat," says Frank Taylor, the State Department's head of counterterrorism. "We will close the seams in which these groups operate and by that I don't just mean the physical places, but the cracks where intelligence isn't shared and [where] countries don't cooperate."
That means much of the work against terrorism will come through such less-telegenic campaigns as enhanced intelligence work, information sharing, and checks on financial operations.
The American show of military might has been important to restore national confidence, some officials and analysts say. But the focus on military operations has also been frustrating for officials who emphasize that military operations won't always be the most important component of this campaign. At the same time, some critics are concerned that the war itself is straying from its original goal, stated by Mr. Bush last September, to target organizations with global reach.
Looking back on the past six months, however, Ambassador Taylor sees steady progress toward this original goal. The retired Army general says one of the greatest accomplishments has been the sustaining of an international coalition as demonstrated by the 179 countries that took part Monday in the White House's six-month commemoration of the September attacks. "Many people worried it wouldn't last," he says, "but cooperation has expanded with our key coalition partners."
Martha Crenshaw, a noted terrorism expert at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, says that "at least as significant" as the smashing of Al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan is the breaking up of its interests in Western Europe through intense police and intelligence work. "It's important to remember that Sept. 11 was planned in Germany and other Western European states," she says.
But such upbeat appraisals of the war on terrorism aren't shared universally. Critics say that as the campaign has progressed, the US seems to be targeting any terrorism anywhere.
"The term 'global reach' is no longer always used when the administration describes the terrorists it's targeting," says Charles Peña, with the Cato Institute here. "The objective is becoming less focused, and as it does, the central target has an increasing ability to slip away from us."
But other experts see no "mission creep" and say the US is targeting what is necessary to reduce global terrorism.
"I don't subscribe to the back-seat driving that's going on now," says Paul Bremer, who was chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism that reported to the Clinton administration in 2000. "The president said we would go after Al Qaeda and other groups of global reach, and the campaign is on target."
Taylor ticks off the countries where the US is either providing military advisers for counterterrorism campaigns or plans to soon the Philippines, Yemen, Georgia and says, "It's all been about Al Qaeda."
No one questions Al Qaeda's ties in Yemen, but some terrorism experts say that in the other cases, the connection between Al Qaeda and local terrorist groups is less of a foregone conclusion. The US could end up enmeshed in what are largely civil conflicts, they say.
Even more troubling, says Mr. Peña, is the targeting of groups that have no connection to Al Qaeda. He points to the recent US action against the Basque separatist group ETA, and rhetorical shifts that suggest the US may soon change policy to help Colombia wage war on its insurgencies.
Some experts see extending the war to groups like ETA as part of a US desire to show that the fight is not limited to Islamic groups. But Mr. Bremer says it is more a gesture of solidarity with Spain, which has cooperated with the US against Al Qaeda. "Yes, it's a broadening of our effort," he says, "but it's consistent with our goals."