Andrew J. Bacevich -- To Defeat Terrorism, U.S. Should Wage a Cold War
America's long war, which began on Oct. 7, 2001, when U.S. bombs and missiles started falling on Afghanistan, has become the longest in this country's history. The eighth anniversary of the conflict beckons, with no end in sight.
The counterinsurgency campaign proposed in Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's strategic assessment will prolong the war for an additional five or 10 years. The war's most ardent proponents insist that President Obama has no choice: It's either fight on or invite another 9/11.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to a global counterinsurgency campaign. Instead of fighting an endless hot war in a vain effort to eliminate the jihadist threat, the United States should wage a cold war to keep the threat at bay. Such a strategy worked before. It can work again.
At the dawn of what the Bush administration came to call the Long War, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told U.S. military personnel: "We have two choices. Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter." In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the work of changing the way they live has turned out to be difficult, costly and problematic. After years of exertions, $1 trillion expended and more than 5,000 American troops lost, U.S. forces have yet to win a decisive victory. The high-tech American way of war developed during the 1990s (once celebrated in phrases such as "shock and awe" and "speed kills") stands thoroughly discredited.
Changing the way they live -- where "they" are the people of the Islamic world -- qualifies as mission impossible. The Long War is a losing proposition; it will break the bank and break the force.
Devising a new course requires accurately identifying the problem, which is not "terrorism" and, despite Washington's current obsession with the place, is certainly not Afghanistan. The essential problem is a dispute about God's relationship to politics. The proposition that the two occupy separate spheres finds particular favor among the democracies of the liberal, developed West. The proposition that God permeates politics finds particular favor in the Islamic world.
This conviction, which is almost entirely ignored in McChrystal's report, defines the essence of the way they live in Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other countries throughout the Middle East.
At its root, this is an argument about what it means to be modern. Power, no matter how imaginatively or ruthlessly wielded, cannot provide a solution. The opposing positions are irreconcilable.
In confronting this conflict, the goal of U.S. national security strategy ought to be limited but specific: to insulate Americans from the fallout. Rather than setting out to clear, hold and build thousands of tiny, primitive villages scattered across the Afghan countryside, such a strategy should emphasize three principles: decapitate, contain and compete. An approach based on these principles cannot guarantee perpetual peace. But it is likely to be more effective, affordable and sustainable than a strategy based on open-ended war.
Decapitation -- targeting leaders for elimination -- provides the means to suppress immediate threats to our safety. The violent jihadists who pose those threats are vicious but relatively few in number. They possess limited capabilities. Their aspirations of uniting the world's Muslims into a new caliphate are akin to Sarah Palin's or Dennis Kucinich's presidential ambitions -- unworthy of serious attention. They are rank fantasies.
Without effective leadership, the jihadists are nothing. The aim of decapitation is twofold. At a minimum it will oblige jihadist chieftains to devote enormous attention to ensuring their own survival, giving them less time to plot against the West. Optimally, it will confront jihadist networks with never-ending succession crises, consuming organizational energies that might otherwise find external expression. Decapitation won't eliminate the threat -- Hamas and Hezbollah have survived the Israeli government's targeted assassination campaign -- but it can reduce it to manageable levels.
A crucial caveat is that assassinations must be precise and accurate. The incidental killing of noncombatants is immoral as well as politically counterproductive. The missiles launched from U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles in Pakistan have repeatedly demonstrated the wrong approach. The recent elimination of Saleh Ali Nabhan in Somalia -- in a helicopter-borne raid by special operations forces -- models the correct one.