What Kind of War?

David Tucker

September 1, 2001

A constant theme in the talk of the most senior members of the administration is that we are engaged in a different kind of war. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld put it this way: “What we’re engaged in is something that is very, very different from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf war, Kosovo, Bosnia, the kinds of things that people think of when they use the word ‘war’ or ‘campaign’ or ‘conflict.’ We really, almost, are going to have to fashion a new vocabulary and different constructs for thinking about what it is we’re doing.” To make this point clear, officials have been saying that this war will not be one of pitched battles and seized capitals. The military, they insist, will not be the only weapon we use or even the dominant one.

While it is true, for all the focus in the press on troop movements, that this is not a war that will be decided by conventional military attacks, it is equally true that the war we are starting to fight has a precedent. It is important to understand this for two reasons. First, by arguing that what we are doing is unprecedented we might undermine public confidence that we have the experience we need to succeed. Second, if officials come to believe that what we are doing is new, they may not pause to learn the applicable lessons from the past.

It is understandable, of course, given the scale of the attacks that occurred September 11th, that officials would feel that we have in our response embarked on something new. But we are still fighting violent clandestine groups and the states that sponsor or harbor them. This is not new. We have been doing it for more than thirty years and with success. Many of the terrorist groups that plagued us and others no longer do. Everything that we have learned over this 30 year period should be considered in our current effort. To do this properly, we have to distinguish the ways in which our current enemies differ from those we have fought before. Once we have done that, we will see that looking at the precedents for what we are about to begin can help us understand how to proceed. In particular, the precedents tell us something about how we should use military force.

In considering precedents, we should begin with Osama bin Ladin’s organization. Like the Marxist groups of the 1970s and 1980s, it is a clandestine coalition that functions in many countries because it is held together by principles that transcend nationality or ethnicity. Like these Marxist groups, bin Ladin’s organization and its allies support themselves with theft, fraud, and voluntary and extorted contributions. Like the Palestine Liberation Organization or many of the Palestinian or Islamic groups that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, it has a complex financial structure and runs businesses. Like the IRA, whose members starved themselves to death in prison as a protest, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and several other groups, its members are so dedicated that they are willing to commit suicide to attack others. And, like all these groups, it has many well educated, middle class members. Even bin Ladin’s role as a wealthy patron of loosely affiliated terrorists connected by a common purpose rather than a hierarchical or well-developed organizational structure has a precedent. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a wealthy Italian Marxist, used his wealth to help organize such a collection of violent Marxist groups in Europe.

Similar in kind to what we have encountered before, bin Ladin’s organization does differ in some important ways. It is probably more professional (or at least experienced—from conflict in Afghanistan and elsewhere) and better financed than many of its predecessors. Bin Ladin’s organization is most different from its predecessors, however, in its apparent desire to kill not in order to influence our policy deliberations, as the PLO did when it killed two American diplomats in Khartoum in 1973, but simply to damage us as much as possible. This is the reason bin Ladin has been interested, reportedly, in acquiring weapons of mass destruction and why we have to take such reports seriously. These differences make bin Ladin’s organization harder to fight than its predecessors and the fight more urgent and suggest that it should be different in one respect.

We can see this if we consider the implications of military action. Such actions have always been problematic because we offer more easy-to-hit targets to the terrorists than they do to us. Therefore, if we conduct military action as retaliation, as a kind of tit-for-tat punishment meant to discourage further attacks, we risk coming out the worse in such a cycle of action and reaction. The air strike against Libya in 1986, in response to a Libyan bombing that killed American service men, for example, may have led Muammar Qadaffi to decrease his support for terrorism but it did so for only about 18 months. As Qadaffi renewed his activity, more Americans died from Libyan terrorism after the raid than did before it, even if we do not count the Americans killed when Libyan agents blew up Pan Am flight 103. Similarly, the evidence suggests that state sponsors curtailed their support immediately following the raid but eventually renewed it.

Our disadvantage in retaliatory campaigns explains in part why, following the attack on Pan Am 103, we responded with an entirely non-military campaign. What eventually contributed most to getting Qadaffi to stop supporting terrorism was the economic sanctions and international isolation that Great Britain, the United States and France were able to impose on Libya through the United Nations once the three nations made public the evidence linking Libya to the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 and a French airliner.

We are particularly likely to be at a disadvantage in any merely retaliatory campaign against bin Ladin, since bin Ladin and the Taliban by extension, again, do not appear to be bargaining with us but trying to destroy us. This does not mean that we should avoid military force in our campaign against them. On the contrary, against an implacable enemy, military force will be necessary precisely because bargaining is not possible. Force is what is left. Military force is necessary, then, not as retaliation, as a kind of coercive bargaining, but as part of a strategy to suppress bin Ladin’s organization and to make sure that Afghanistan will no longer support terrorists.

For all their necessity, however, these attacks will have to be limited in scope. This is so because, as noted, bin Ladin’s organization will not present many targets easy to hit, nor will the Taliban. Other means must be employed as well as force. But a more important limit on our use of force will be what our coalition partners will tolerate. Only one country, Great Britain, supported our attack on Libya. We have more support now because of the scale of the September 11th attacks. We will need to keep this support if we are to succeed in our campaign and so must accommodate the interests of our coalition partners. We can accommodate their interests without compromising our own, if we set priorities among the targets of our campaign. With this done—and the Bush administration appears now to have done it—we can decide how willing we should be to accept constraints imposed by coalition partners.

For both operational reasons (lack of targets that our conventional military power can smash) and political reasons (the interests of our coalition partners), therefore, military force should be only part of the strategy with which we will prosecute this campaign. If this is so with regard to the highest priority targets, then it is even more likely to be the case when we move beyond them, to groups that some of those in the coalition against bin Ladin and the Taliban have supported. This will not necessarily render our efforts ineffective. Part of limiting the role of force is recognizing when and to what degree it must be used. While it may be unlikely that bin Ladin and his hard core followers and supporters in the Taliban will be stopped by sanctions and political isolation, others with whom we may contend might be. This will especially be the case if we can hold together the coalition against bin Ladin and wean some of its members from their support of terrorist groups.

In general, then, despite talk of a new kind of war, over time our current campaign against terrorism is likely to resemble those we have undertaken in the past. With regard to violent clandestine groups, we will lead with diplomatic and financial measures to deprive them of political and monetary support. In the case of the most dangerous, we will use limited military action where appropriate. Officials are speaking less now than they have in the past about arresting terrorists but presumably that too will continue to be a method of dealing with some of them, if not with those, like bin Ladin, who dispose of numbers of armed followers or live within states with armed forces that are willing to protect them. As for the state sponsors, we appear to be continuing our efforts, now three decades old, of isolating them politically and imposing sanctions on them. At least in the case of Afghanistan, we appear to be contemplating some kind of military response as well. In short, the only thing that has changed in our response is our willingness and the willingness of our allies to take actions that we hesitated to take in the past. But even this is not that great a change. In the past we were willing to act in a way commensurate with the threat. That is what we are doing now.

Two final points need to be made about this war. First, the fight we are engaged in, now and in the past, is fundamentally a political, not a military struggle. In keeping with remarks about the absence of an army to fight or a capital to seize, we must keep in mind that in this fight public opinion is the center of gravity, the point control of which determines if we or our enemies topple over. In the past, terrorists have often misjudged the public reaction to their violence. Early successes lead to later excesses, following which public support dropped, governments were able to split moderates from the extremists who had promoted the violent excesses, and over time the groups weakened and disappeared. The militia movement that spawned Timothy McVeigh, for example, was largely undone as a consequence of the revulsion at his bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City. Something like this may be at work now with bin Ladin, even if, as seems likely, he is intent on inflicting as much damage as he can on us and is not concerned with how people might react to such violence. In order to exploit bin Ladin’s miscalculation, in taking action against both his organization and Afghanistan, we must keep the focus on bin Ladin’s violence and not let it shift to our own.

Finally, we should take some comfort from our experience fighting terrorism over the past 30 years. We had significant success, so much so that we probably grew complacent about bin Ladin. But we should not forget the success. Those terrorist groups that fought us no longer exist or are mere shadows of their former selves. We have been patient, accepted inconclusive results, suffered setbacks but struggled on and prevailed. We have every reason to believe that we will again in the current struggle.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.