An exhaustive account of the processes and personnel involved in the decade-long war against Al-Qaeda
Successors to the 20th century cold warriors of ‘city-busting’ fame were not to lag behind in confounding ordinary citizens. Panic ridden by 9/11, these experts were to propose that the U.S. publicly threaten to bomb the city of Mecca. Others propagated ‘whole-of-government’ approach as President Bush Jr. spoke of a ‘nation at war’ and ‘global war on terrorism.’ Consensus soon evolved around primordial cutting of the head of the snake; proposing to kill and capture Al-Qaeda leaders. All this was expected to delay and diminish (and not eliminate) threat from Al-Qaeda. A series of high profile attacks continued and many more plots were uncovered and busted. Among these was the Al-Qaeda plan to isolate Baghdad and then bring it down by mass murder of sanitation workers and bakers — the quickest way to create popular disaffection and civil unrest.
Counterstrike by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker provides the most exhaustive insights into U.S. deterrence strategies since 9/11using an engaging storytelling narrative on scores of actors and events. At the core of their reincarnation lies an unprecedented blending of U.S. military operations and intelligence. Improved airborne surveillance can capture and transmit full-motion video images in real time and direct U.S. combat missions. The book shows how major ‘finds’ in Iraqi towns like Taji and Sinjar in 2007 had provided unprecedented insights into foreign fighters and suicide bombers from close U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia bee-lining into Iraq in large numbers. Also, how women suicide bombers in Iraq presented the most formidable challenge till local women-force was finally allowed to be trained and deployed to bring some relief.
Prima facie, it has been a contest of high versus low technology networks. Here, non-state actors cannot be threatened using controlled escalation of cold war theologies. Other than elusive terrorists who are never tied to territories that can be threatened of retaliation, 9/11 required U.S. to rely on such unreliable allies that had to be patted and scolded at the same time. Ignoring them was not an option as any unilateral action would flair-up anti-American sentiment thus weakening and destabilising these very partner-regimes.
Resurgent Al-Qaeda meanwhile was building networks of franchises, partnering with Pakistani Taliban and engaging Islamic extremists’ criminal-like syndicates around the rugged terrain north Waziristan. The U.S. was growing suspicious of likely leakages of information to terrorists by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Result? The U.S. responded by tightening the noose with CIA Predator and Reaper drones, flying over Pakistan’s tribal areas, being authorised to hit their targets not after seeking ‘concurrence’ but with simultaneous ‘notification’ to Pakistan. This shift was goaded partly by the U.S. need to kill bin Laden before President Bush completed his second term.
The arrival of Barack Hussein Obama in the White House was historic thus raising expectations. In dealing with Al-Qaeda, he tried to make a ‘new beginning’ with the Muslim world. From his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, he tried to counter the Al-Qaeda: “They have killed people of different faiths — but more than any other, they have killed Muslims.” Instantly, his speech was translated into fourteen languages and posted on websites, blogs and phones in over 170 countries. But there was little follow up on his promises and his counter-terrorism strategy soon shrunk to highlighting Al-Qaeda’s missteps to overcome damning images of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Gradually, it was to dawn on U.S. experts that terrorists do not operate in a vacuum. They began to appreciate that if they damage terrorist’s credibility with fellow Muslims, they were decreasing the ‘territory’ that the extremists hold dear. Second was their focus to hit terrorist ‘organisation’ by destroying their financial networks. Taking out financiers and finance managers — like the killing of Al-Qaeda’s Mustafa Abu al-Yazid in May 2010 — would seriously disrupt their movement and motivations. Third, the gun-runners and weapon-specialists who were there only for the money and nothing else. And finally the religious leaders were the lynchpin. No terrorist operation, especially suicide bombers, would ever work in absence of their blessings.
The Obama administration resorted to using high-profile Islamic experts and religious heads to denounce Al-Qaeda’s discourses and to showcase captured suicide bombers as victims, not warriors. Videos of Zarqawi and his captains burning hands while passing guns by holding its searing muzzle as also ignoring calls for prayer were used to undermine and alienate them. The U.S. successfully played with terrorist egos by upgrading and downgrading hefty federal bounties on their heads. All such methods infuriated important terrorists making them reckless and expose themselves to U.S. strikes.
Part of this evolving ‘new deterrence’ involved training national security forces to fight their own terrorists and U.S. trade-off included its trainers learning local languages, culture, terrain and other relevant details. Some of the frontline states like Pakistan were provided with huge military assistance from body-armour to F-16 fighters plus the financial assistance of over $10 billion towards Pakistani costs of deploying nearly 150,000 troops in and around its northern frontiers.
Having exit from Iraq and declared exit plans from Afghanistan, the Obama administration was getting fidgety with Pakistani inability or unwillingness to rein in the extremists outfits operating from its territory. Obama’s language had already become increasingly threatening, and drone-strikes became his ‘signature weapons’ going up from 53 for the last year of George Bush to 118 for 2010. Meanwhile, the information on Bin Laden being in Pakistan was getting definitive and precise.
The chapter ‘Counterstrike on Abbottabad’ makes the most interesting read; almost melodramatic. It alludes to earlier U.S. ‘operations’ and lessons learnt as it highlights several hiccups in Obama administration’s announcing this so-called clean victory over Al-Qaeda. Within first 24 hours, the White House was forced to correct that there were no women shielding Bin Laden when he was shot at point blank range and killed. Further correction was made to say that he was not armed and did not shoot at the team of commandoes. U.S. officials also could not substantiate if there had been any complicity of Pakistan government in Bin Laden staying 75-mile from Islamabad and almost a stone-throw away from its Abbottabad Military Academy.
A joint raid with Pakistani operatives was once considered briefly but rejected given concerns about Pakistani forces’ suspected sympathies with extremists. Killing of ‘Geronimo’ — code name for Bin Laden — was followed by brief yet sharp protests and reactions raising several new questions. The idea of this being a final victory on terrorism was quashed. It was said that the idea of Al-Qaeda had survived the destruction of its leadership. The authors conclude that the ultimate focus of the U.S. must remain on developing a ‘culture of resilience’ as future terror strikes cannot be ruled out. The best thing that the U.S. can ensure is that its people and decision-makers do not overreact to such eventualities that may reoccur.