Monday, December 27, 2010

Visigoths inside the gates

The Conflict
America is at war with Al Qaeda.  Their primary target is the throne in Saudi Arabia--an American ally.  This war should be called the Saudi Arabian Civil War.  Bin Laden is a Saudi citizen.  His financial backers are Saudi citizens.  Al Qaeda cloaks itself in Islamic religious trappings.  The califate that Al Qaeda wishes to establish could only rule from Mecca, and must replace the Saudi King to do that.

I have my doubts about the genuineness of Al Qaeda's religious propaganda.  In an important sense it doesn't matter.  The Saudi throne is their goal.  If you believe the propaganda then they want the throne for it's religious importance.  If you disbelieve the propaganda then they want the throne for the money and power that comes with it.  But the religious propaganda is clearly important for many of Al Qaeda's key supporters (the extremist clerics.)  So Al Qaeda is constrained by their own propaganda.  They cannot act in ways that betrays that propaganda in the eyes of those extremist clerics.

The US was attacked for two important reasons.

First, the US was supporting the current ruler of Saudi Arabia.  Most Americans know little about King Saud.  Those who have studied the region generally agree that he is the least bad option.  Certainly it would be very bad for US interests, in many ways, if Al Qaeda won the Saudi throne.  So, even though most of Americans don't understand it, and many don't like it, it is strategically important for the US to support King Saud against Al Qaeda.

Second, the US is the great enemy in the religious propaganda--the "great Satan".  The US is a Christian and secular nation that was interfering in the Middle East--thwarting the extremist clerics from several of their goals (like the destruction of Israel.)

Al Qaeda held Afghanistan.  They wanted to get to Saudi Arabia.  American air and sea power was deployed in the Gulf to protect America's oil interests and allies.  So Al Qaeda was left with two options: sending their armies through neighboring countries, or building a new army closer to the target (like Yemen, Oman, or Jordan.)

When you look at a map, the path from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia is clear: Iran and Iraq.  Iran is a religious enemy of Saudia Arabia, and so could be an ally of Al Qaeda.  Iraq and Saudi Arabia were distrustful allies, but Iran was a common enemy that they could agree on.  So the battle line between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia would likely form on the border between Iran and Iraq, unless Iraq could be convinced to change teams.


In 2001, Al Qaeda had not committed to either option (moving through Iran and Iraq or rebuilding their army elsewhere.)  When they attacked the US mainland in 2001, Al Qaeda was rolling the dice on losing Afghanistan.  This was a risky gambit, but it had the potential to help with both options.  Iraq and the US were enemies (after Gulf War I), and so Al Qaeda and Iraq gained a common enemy.  And extremist clerics throughout the gulf region would flock to Al Qaeda for attacking the great Satan.

When Al Qaeda attacked Manhattan they were expecting all of the American forces in the Gulf region to converge on Afghanistan.  They were probably intending to leave a token resistance force there, to keep the American's engaged.  And they were probably going to drive the rest of their army through open gates in Iran and Iraq to invade Saudi Arabia.  That was Al Qaeda's best-case scenario--their shortest path to victory.

Someone in America (or Saudi Arabia) recognized that scenario and made the highly unlikely decision to invade Iraq before Afghanistan, thereby cutting off Al Qaeda's path to Saudi Arabia.

With that path closed, Al Qaeda's only remaining option is to re-build their army closer to the target.  The rise of Islamic extremists throughout the region seems to indicate that this option is still in play.  This option is not without risk, primarily because it is a slowly-developing strategy.  America is a very powerful enemy, and they will be difficult to evade for a long time.  But Al Qaeda has reason to believe that America will not have the will to pursue the war for long enough to win.

Al Qaeda's best strategy against America is to continue to increase the cost of the war until American decides that the price is too high.

There are four distinct "costs" that America is paying.  Al Qaeda couldn't have predicted how all of this would work out.  They didn't need to.  All that Al Qaeda needs to do is anything that they can think of that increases the price that America is paying.  If they can survive, America will eventually quit.  It is only a matter of time.

After America quits this war, Al Qaeda will soon win the Saudi Arabian throne.  After that there will be a short period of regrouping and rebuilding.  But Al Qaeda will soon return to attacking the US (the great Satan), using the financial resources of the Saudi throne.

America is not fighting a conventional enemy at this point.  America is fighting an existential threat, but they do not realize that the struggle is this serious.  America cannot quit the Saudi Arabian Civil War, or America itself will become the primary target of the new Al Qaeda owned Saudi Arabian extremist Islamic califate.

America cannot continue to pay the costs of this war forever.  And America cannot stop paying the costs of this war.  That is exactly the position that Al Qaeda hoped to put the US in.

The Costs
America is going to continue to pay these four costs until the end of this war.

America is fighting a war far away from it's shores, buying and transporting massive amounts of equipment.  It is employing a large and expensive army.  It is paying huge bribes to marginal enemies to purchase their cooperation.  It is employing bleeding edge technologies.

America could make strategic decisions that would change the structure of the war and lower these costs.  The Obama administration recently approved the sale of a tremendous amount of high tech equipment to Saudi Arabia.  As long as the current Saudi King maintains control of this equipment then this will reduce America's costs in the war.

There are other similar tactics that could be employed.  But all of these tactics involve political pain and tactical risks.  Without significant tactical risk and political pain the financial costs of this war will continue to spiral out of control.

America's will to fight decreases with each American soldier's death.  America's military leaders understand this, and they are using high technology to minimize the deaths.  But the coffins keep coming.  And they will continue to keep coming.

Conversely, every US citizen that Al Qaeda kills increases America's will to fight.  This is why Al Qaeda is only executing incompetent attacks in the US now.  An incompetent attack on US soil forces the US to spend more on protecting the homeland, without increasing America's will to fight.  All attacks on US soil are now designed to do just that--increase costs without increasing resolve.

Loss of Prestige
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, America enjoyed a tremendous amount of international prestige.

Before 2001, America was the country that had saved the world from the Nazis and Communists.  America was the biggest engine powering global peace and prosperity.  Though far from perfect, America was the most benevolent sole superpower that anyone could imagine.

After 2001, America was the victim of an awful and unfair sneak attack.  No one imagined that Al Qaeda was as dangerous at the Axis of World War II, but Manhattan became a new generation's Pearl Harbor.  Everyone was ready to cheer America's selfless sacrifice as the US stood up to this new brand of violent despotism.

After the invasion of Iraq, America became fickle, fallible, and frightening.  Everyone could see that Iraq was invaded on false pretenses.  If America could openly invade a country and kill the rightful ruler there, for no good reason, then American exceptionalism was a lie.  The claim of Iraqi WMDs was a gamble designed to protect America's reputation.  When that gamble failed the American intelligence apparatus was exposed as a sham.  If American could be so wrong, and do something so terrible and wrong, then what would America do next?

That question continues to hang in the air, haunting every American move.  It has tremendously tarnished America's reputation.  Every day it becomes more and more difficult for America to rally it's allies.  Every innocent death, every abuse of power, every person held without trial, every tortured prisoner, and every unanswered question weakens America's ability to lead the international community.

Soon America will call for help and no one will answer.

Loss of Identity
There is a strong line of reasoning that fire should be fought with fire.  In some circumstances a firebreak is the only way to stop the advance of a raging wildfire.  Burn the ground in front of a wildfire in a controlled manner, denying the fire it's fuel.  Sometimes a raging fire can only be extinguished with a larger explosion that will use up all of the oxygen.

Al Qaeda has used terrorist tactics against the US homeland.  Terrorists tactics have both short-term and long-term effects.  By calling it "terrorism" we have highlighted the short-term effects and ignored the long-term effects.  The short-term effects are fear and disruption--terror.  The long-term effects are much worse.  The government that was attacked has to change itself into a police state (or secret police state) in order to protect against further attacks.

Islamic extremists believe in very limited freedom for individuals.  They want religious authorities to control the government, and they want the government to control the details of people's lives.  Their goal for this control is to force people to obey their religious laws.  They view freedom primarily as freedom to sin, and so they are against individual freedom in principle.

This is part of why Islamic extremists use terrorist tactics.  The governments that they attack have to respond by imposing limits on individual freedoms, and they have to exercise more control over their citizens in order to protect those citizens.  Only part of Al Qaeda genuinely believes that this is a religious struggle.  But those people greatly enjoy seeing US citizens subjected to body scanners, travel restrictions, terrorist watch lists,  invasions of privacy, continual surveillance, and all of the other abuses that a terror-attacked government is bound to perform.

In their view, Americans are simply building the tools that the extremist clerics will eventually use to enforce their religious laws.  Americans are becoming compliant sheep that accept the sorts of invasions of privacy that the extremist clerics wish to perform.

We have encountered the enemy, and it is us.

As an American citizen, this is the cost that I find the most unbearable.

Every terrorist attack brings increases in government control over innocent citizens.  The US government is terrorizing it's own citizens because Al Qada forced it to.  The terrorists are winning.  America is no longer the free country that it used to be.  And it will continue to get less free as long as the terrorist attacks continue.

This isn't an issue of political party.  Both parties are completely committed to increasing the government's power in response to each terrorist threat.

If you believe that governments are capable of propping up external threats in order to maintain their own power then this is your nightmare scenario.  Any invasion of privacy can be justified.  Anyone can be a terrorist threat.  Any means that the government can use to neutralize a threat is allowed.  Citizens are detained or killed without trials.  Constitutional protections are suspended.  Freedom will never return.

The Conclusion
There are several ways in which this war could end, if you are willing to believe that the US government wants the war to end.

The califate crowd could all die.
In the American Civil War, the South could have given up on the idea of keeping their slaves.  Or the North could have given up on the idea of abolishing slavery.  If either side had backed off that issue then the war would have ended.

Not every member of Al Qaeda believes in the religious vision of an extremist Islamic califrate (kingdom) headquartered in Mecca.  If that religious goal dies out then the war can wind down.  This is the Saudi Arabian Civil War, and the hope of that califrate is the issue that is driving this war.  If King Saud agrees to let Al Qaeda form their califrate then he will be killed, along with his family and everyone he loves.  He won't do that.

But Saudi Arabia and america could, theoretically, change their strategy and focus on nothing but identifying and killing the true believers among Al Qaeda.  If they could do it then they could negotiate a peace with whoever remained.

America could reduce the costs to continue the war.
This war is a marathon.  America has to bear the costs for as long as they can.  Al Qaeda has to survive.

Al Qaeda will die of natural causes, if America can keep running long enough.  There are two ways that America could reduce it's costs in this war--and thus extend the amount of time that it can run the marathon.

Focus on cost reduction.
This isn't so much a strategy as it is a collection of tactics.  Don't deploy enough troops to win, just deploy enough troops to avoid losing.  Stop buying exotic and expensive weapons.  Make fewer attacks--and those attacks that you do make must be calculated to inflict an absolute minimum of collateral damage.  Dig in and slow down the pace of the war.

This is anathema to the American psyche.  I hate it.  Every American will hate it.  I'm not sure if America has the stomach to pull it off.

On the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq this should look like a stalemate.  That is exactly what this strategy is looking for.  On the front lines, where American forces are interacting with Afghani and Iraqi citizens, America has to lighten their touch.  Make friends by being a good neighbor.  Apologize for the collateral damage that has been caused.  Just become another part of the scenery.

At home, go back to normal.  Shut down the invasive airport screenings.  Take everyone you can off the terrorist watch list.  Don't issue a terror alert unless you absolutely have to.  Scale Homeland Security back down tremendously.  Quit talking about the "war on terror" and begin talking about protecting our friends in the Middle East.

The Achilles' heel of this strategy is that there will be more terrorist attacks against the US homeland.  Citizens will be killed and injured.  People will scream for more protection.  Politicians have to understand that it is in the citizens' best interest to not give them substantially more protection--because more protection is a cost that America cannot bear for long enough.  The terrorist attacks will only stop after they prove to be ineffective in escalating America's costs.

Change the entire war.
This is what I thought Obama said he was going to do.  Maybe this is what Obama genuinely intended to do.  Or maybe I misunderstood him.  Maybe I was overcome by my own hope for change.

This strategy requires a 180-degree turn from everything that America has done since the invasion of Iraq.  Dust off America's white hat and put it back on.  Become the "good guys" again, and accept all of the limitations that this will bring.

Close Guantanamo.  Give those prisoners public trials (even as enemy combatants, where the burden of proof is much much lower.)  End the policy of torturing prisoners.  Publicly apologize for every single transgression--every person who was tortured, every innocent casualty, every invasion into other nations.

Stop paying bribes.  Stop assassinating people.  Stop interfering with the internal workings of sovereign nations.  No more invasions.  Leave Afghanistan, even if that means losing that battle.  Scale back our Iraqi forces to a desert base far from civilization, that only acts as a deterrent to Iran.

At home, go back to normal.  Shut down the invasive airport screenings.  Take everyone you can off the terrorist watch list.  Don't issue a terror alert unless you absolutely have to.  Abolish the Department of Homeland Security.

Quit talking about the "war on terror" and begin talking about the Saudi Arabian Civil War.  Talk about the evils of extremism, and the peaceful potential of Islam.  Every time America is attacked it should respond with an intense public propaganda campaign against extremism.  Publish the names of clerics.  Publish the names of their supporters.  Isolate them in their religious communities.

The extremist Islamic world-view is in direct conflict with the world-view of every other Muslim in the world.  This conflict is something that both groups refuse to publicly acknowledge.  Rub their noses in it.  Force the extremists to declare that their war is against every Muslim that disagrees with them--because it is.  Every jihadist knows it.  Every jihadists' mother knows it.  Send the jihadists home to kill their mothers, and the movement will dissolve.

Saudi Arabia could learn to defend itself.
A large portion of Al Qaeda's strategy hinged on the fact that Saudi Arabia had almost no army to protect itself.  It was utterly dependent on America for it's physical protection.  If America used it's Saudi Arabian protection forces to attack Afghanistan then Al Qaeda could have overthrown King Saud with a very small force.

If Saudi Arabia builds a substantial army then America could withdraw from Iraq and Saudi Arabia, leaving Saudi Arabia to fight it's civil war on it's own.  Iran would invade Iraq.  Al Qaeda might attack Saudi Arabia in force.  Iran might attack Saudi Arabia in force.  If Saudi Arabia can defend itself, then America's direct involvement could end.

America would continue to be the great Satan.  But the Islamic extremists would be temporarily satiated with their apparent victory over the great Satan--they had forced America to flee their region.  The extremists would be busy fighting Saudi Arabia itself.

The Obama administration recently approved the sale of a tremendous amount of military armaments to Saudi Arabia.  The conventional wisdom is that these arms are the start of this strategy shift.  Weapons are important.  And America's cutting edge high-tech weapons will provide a significant advantage over the more primitive weapons of Al Qaeda and the Iranians.  But weapons do not make an army.  An army is created through a tradition of excellence in training, tactics, and command.  This will take at least a generation (20 years.)

America could deny victory to Al Qaeda.
This is an ugly non-solution that I am vehemently opposed to.  But if
* America does not dramatically change the nature of this war
* Al Qaeda's leadership outlives America's will to defend Saudi Arabia
* and Saudi Arabia cannot defend itself
then this is America's last chance to survive.

America should announce this plan well in advance.  Quit Afghanistan and Iraq.  Leave Saudi Arabia to it's own defense.  And then issue this threat: "America will nuke Mecca the moment that Al Qaeda takes control of Saudi Arabia or Mecca."

Encourage everyone who is not a member of Al Qaeda to evacuate the city if Al Qaeda begins to move in.

Al Qaeda will either move in and get nuked, or it will die of frustration.

The backlash against the threat would be substantial.  The backlash against actually nuking Mecca would be nearly unbearable.  The president that gives the order will be killed.  America's empire would be over.  But America would survive--and America would not survive long if Al Qaeda established their califrate in Mecca.

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