An Enemy With No Forwarding Address by Marwan Bishara*
September 11 was the end of the era in which the United States perfected its zero-dead approach to conflict, with minimum casualties to the US and maximum damage to the enemy. President George W Bush had to declare the US at war before nominating an enemy. The new enemy is mobile, transnational, or sub-national. So now begins the era of asymmetric conflicts.
For decades the US spent trillions of dollars to ensure minimum casualties in any confrontation. In the Vietnam war, it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for each dead Vietnamese fighter. In the Gulf war, it kept US casualties low. With rapid, massive bombardment from afar (the Colin Powell doctrine), the US hoped for zero casualties in future symmetrical wars. Its missiles and superior fighters, supported with the most sophisticated airborne intelligence, could guarantee such a result by inflicting unbearable destruction on the enemy.
But now we have the asymmetric war scenario some American strategists have warned against in the last few years: one that hit where it hurt most, hit the pride of America's might, the Pentagon and Wall Street. Washington, trying to adapt to an evolving, globalising world, had been introducing a revolution in military affairs (RMA).
There were two distinct concepts. The first was fourth generation warfare, stateless or asymmetric, to be fought by an opponent who might have a non-nation-state base, such as an ideology or religion. In February 2001, before a Senate committee on world threats (1), CIA director George Tenet said what struck him most forcefully was the accelerating pace of change in so many arenas that affect our nations interests. To the US, asymmetry means Osama Bin Laden and other international terrorists, mafiosi and drug dealers. But the idea also covers non-state actors like those the US has already encountered in Somalia, Kosovo, and Lebanon in 1983, when a bomb killed 239 US Marines. Those analysts who think the future will be asymmetrical propose a rethink of the usefulness of billion-dollar fighter planes and advanced frigates if two men and a boat could kill 17 men and damage the USS Cole, (12 October 2000 in Aden).
The second concept has been the anti-missile defence shield Star Wars to protect America from incoming ballistic missiles carrying chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, with vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has concentrated its efforts on this, which has the merit of subsidising the military-industrial complex. There was international condemnation of this return to policies of proliferation, so Bush explained that his shield was not against other nuclear powers, but against rogue states or, worse, groups capable of launching missiles against American soil or interests abroad.
Both of these ideas and their believers seemed to converge into a coherent strategy to fight a new war against an asymmetric enemy. But who, aside from Bin Laden, is the enemy? Not mafias and drug-dealers: hostilities are bad for business. Unless Washington intends to bomb one of the rogue states, why would their leaders launch a missile against the US when they would be punished like Libya, or Iraq over the last decade? To what extent has America created new enemies, and just how dangerous, beyond the 11 September outrage, are they? How is this terrorism different from that which Arab nations or certain European countries have faced over 20 years? Is it a qualitative difference or just (if one can say just) quantitative?
Asymmetry must be distinguished from di-symmetry, meaning a quantitative difference in firepower and force, a strong state against a weak one (the US against Iraq). Asymmetry is about the qualitative difference in the means, values and style of the new enemies. Once a power like the US insists on exclusive superiority in world affairs as well as in conventional warfare, its disadvantaged enemies resort to unconventional asymmetrical means to fight it, avoiding its strengths and concentrating on its vulnerabilities.
Not fighting fair
The Pentagon says the new enemies don't fight fair; their strategy, based in a globalised world, uses all possible sophisticated modern means: communication, transportation, information, psychological terror, international media and the internet. In their arsenal are also such low-tech weapons as penknives, fishing boats, homemade explosives and civilian planes. As we have seen, these work. Even though these enemies must be based somewhere, no permanent location can be assigned to them, because they have no permanent home, their network is dispersed. The world is both their address and area of operation.
Asymmetric enemies have a common interest: weakening state sovereignties and boosting international market forces. In this they are like McDonalds, CNN and AOL. All use the grey areas in a globalised world, the gaps in the legal structure, to ensure maximum profits and escape the accountability that results from constitutional or democratic legitimacy. In this sense, asymmetric enemies are creatures of the neo-liberal version of globalisation. They have more room for manoeuvre than states. That is why the American media describe Bin Laden not just as a political Islamist, rooted in a particular society, but as the representative of a new cosmopolitan Islam that is a global threat, like the Islamist movement of Hassan al-Turabi (now in prison in Sudan). This movement is thought to be confronting the US, to weaken or destroy its power.
If you put together all the characteristics that the American strategists attribute to the new model asymmetric enemy, they add up to a profile of Osama Bin Laden. If he didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him. As we all now know, he was groomed by the CIA in the 1980s, only to turn against his creator after the Gulf war. Should an asymmetric enemy be distinguished from a state and that state's intelligence network? Is it possible to organise a movement of international violence without some state support? It is not clear how a new enemy could reduce its operations to being only virtual. And even enemies whose heartland is an ideology need physical space somewhere for their logistics and tools. Their bank accounts have to be kept somewhere, too.
What about the rogue or failed states? The intervention in Somalia taught the US a hard lesson. When, in October 1993, Hussein Aydid humiliated the US, killing 17 American soldiers, the Clinton administration became convinced that it could not manage, let alone win, a war against militias not accountable to the conventions of a state.
Operation Just Cause in Panama in December 1989 was also an asymmetric war, even though it was the largest American operation since Vietnam. It was meant to recapture Manuel Antonio Noriega and it succeeded. The US went on to target Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, all of whom it considered to be more like bandits than heads of state. Such operations were no different from US operations during the cold war targeting South American or the Middle Eastern leaders. What is new?
Perhaps what is new is the possibility of deploying many new non-orthodox methods of prevention and dissuasion that were impossible, or illegitimate, before 11 September. Less than a week after, Congress lifted the ban on assassinating foreign leaders (2). An upgraded level of American violence is now possible.
Learning from Israel
Strategies against a new enemy have centred on the need for new precise weaponry of maximum deadliness. Intelligence services must be reinforced with software reconnaissance and satellite spies, and also human spies. Police work, including racial profiling, is recommended. The strategists want to spy on potential sources of support for the new enemy, including NGOs and charities, expatriate communities and internet sites. A US senator complained recently that the CIA was replacing the State Department in diplomacy.
The missile defence shield is now possible too, since who knows what an asymmetric devil is planning for the next attack? Congress has given the president new powers: the Senate voted unanimously and the House of Representatives approved the authorisation by a 420-1. The one dissident, Democrat Barbara Lee, insisted that military action would not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the US (3). Most of the material about asymmetry focuses on the US and, since the second intifada, on Israel. The US has been working with Israel for a long time on projects including the Arrow anti-missile missile. Israel's fighting style, especially in the West Bank and Gaza are of special interest to US experts, who detect asymmetry in Israel's wars.
Under the headline How to Fight an Asymmetric War, General Wesley Clark, commander of Nato forces in Kosovo, explained that the Palestinians inside Israel (somebody remind Clark that West Bank and Gaza are not in Israel) learned how to resist using non-lethal force. It was a tactic aimed at exploiting world sensitivities, forcing Israeli security forces to overreact. Occasionally non-lethal force was supplemented with armed men among the rock throwers or terror bombings. Responding with fighter planes, tanks and artillery was impossible; responding with troops on the ground risked casualties. No society is more reluctant than Israel to accept losses, so the country developed new equipment, forces and tactics. To secure its borders, Israel deployed more heavily armoured tanks and troop-carrying vehicles and procured Apache helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and very long-range optics. To protect itself internally, Israel issued its infantrymen plastic bullets and riot-control gear. Special security forces were organised to help relieve the conventional Israeli units of responsibility for keeping order (4).
Clark's admiration for Israel's skills is deeply worrying: this policy has led to nearly 700 Palestinian dead, and thousands injured. And in the absence of an Israeli political or diplomatic option, force has not improved security. Anthony Cordesman, defence analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that Israel was forcing the Palestinian Authority to suppress Palestinians and curb democratic freedoms to attain stability. When the intifada continued, he said the Palestinians had two options: peace with violence or war. Cordesman described a situation in which Israel would do the dirty work for the PA and against it: that is also asymmetric warfare. It means more social control, more assassinations and crippling of the economy.
Listening to Bush, it is clear that US strategy is heading towards Israeli-style asymmetric warfare, even though it failed in Palestine. This choice would be a catastrophe. The world's grey areas created by war, globalisation and impoverishment are danger zones. Public institutions and development are more necessary in grey areas than are military interventions. The events of 11 September reflect a transformation of the world that we must try to understand. The response that has been made to them is in service of a strategy that aims to impose an international security order in the interests of the US. Will we see the same behaviour that followed the victory over Iraq, which favoured the advance of radical Islamist groups? The new asymmetric enemy cannot be beaten by force, even less by technology without a political project.
* Researcher at L'Ecole des hautes études en sciences socials, lecturer at the American University of Paris, and author of Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid (Zed Press, London)
(1) "Worldwide Threat 2001: National Security in a Changing World".
(2) Le Monde, 18 September 2001.
(3) She afterwards endured vilification reminiscent of the worst McCarthyism.
(4) Time, 23 October 2000.
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