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"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." - George Orwell

Monday, November 15, 2004

Shadow War 

In his book Shadow War: The Untold Story of How Bush is Winning the War on Terror, Richard Miniter sets out to answer three questions:
Where is Osama bin Laden? Why hasn't there been another terrorist strike inside the U.S. since September 11, 2001? Is President Bush winning the war?
Miniter answers the second two conclusively and well, and gives a credible case for his answer on the first. Unfortunately, several sections of the book, and one entire chapter, are essentially non sequiturs.

Where is Osama bin Laden?

Miniter makes the case the he is alive and well and living in Iran. The book was published in September 2004, well before bin Laden's pre-election videotape, when there was much speculation that he was dead. Miniter makes a good case that he is in Iran, though admits that it is quite possible that he is somewhere near the Afghan-Pakistani border.

John Kerry famously declared that we failed to get bin Laden at Tora Bora because we "outsourced" the operation. Tommy Franks answered that accusation by responding that one, we never knew for certain whether he was even there or not, two that we relied on Afghans because they knew the area better than us, and third, our Special Forces were heavily involved.

Richard Miniter describes Afghanistan and the Tora Bora region
(Superimposed over the United States on a map) Afghanistan stretched from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans and from Cincinnati to Atlanta. The implications were clear; Afghanistan is far bigger than most Americans realize and there remain many places for terrorists to hide. the land is a smuggler's paradise of deep ravines, caves, crevices, dry plains prone to visibility-destroying dust storms, and snow-caped peaks soaring high above the limits of American helicopters. (p. 14)
The mountainous environment "...made encirciling al Qaeda's forces at Tora Bora impossible." That, coupled with the distrust locals traditionally show to outsiders, meant that flooding the country or even a region of it would be foolish.

Why hasn't there been another Terrorist Strike since Sept 11, 2004?

It's not for lack of trying, answers Miniter. Rather, it is because we are defeating "...something like a plot a day."(p. 4)

Recall that a second wave of attacks by hijacked aircraft were planned for the days after Sept 11. Al Qaeda never got a chance to carry them out, because "afterwards, we never got time to catch our breath, we were always on the run," explained Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to his interrogators after his capture.

Much of the book is dedicated to telling the story of how the U.S. and it's allies defeated several terrorist plots. I won't give them away, other than to say that much of what he relates has not appeared in the papers. It is the result of good old-fashioned investigative journalism.

The Bush Administration is not spared criticism, however. "Visa Express," and their failure attempt to recruit informants inside al Qaeda come under scrutiny, for example. The feud between Condelezza Rice and Richard Clarke is dealt with at some length. Miniter seems to have a more positive assessment of Clarke than did Tommy Franks.

Is President Bush winning the War?

Yes, and in a thousand small battles. Many are related in the book, too numerous for me to list here.

Miniter makes the case that Saddam Hussein "...provided arms, training, and money to bin Laden." and details the Iraq - al Qaeda connection in an appendix.

There are many fronts in the War on Terror, most of which do not make the daily newspapers. One of them is on the oceans and at our port facilities. Al Qaeda hatched several plots to attack U.S. Navy ships, so far all of which have been successfully foiled. One of them even involved a traitor on a U.S. warship who sent sensitive information to his al Qaeda contacts about naval operations. The Navy and Coast Guard have gone from being reactive to adopting the Bush strategy of preemption. We are now actively stopping and searching suspicious ships on the high seas as well as when they enter port.

Miniter also discusses our successful operations in North Africa.
Fought largely by forces from the U.S. Army's European Command (whish is responsible for North Africa), the CIA, French Intelligence (many of the Saharan countries are former French colonies), and a panoply of African allies, the war on al Qaeda in North Africa has gone largely unnoticed in the American media. At the very least, this war shows that the Iraq War was not a distraction from President Bush's War on Terror, only a distraction for the press. (p. 89)
Much time is taken to discuss this cooperation with other countries. After relating the arrest of an important al Qaeda terrorist in the UAE, Miniter concludes that

The UAE alliance with the U.S. is just one of the many that the Bush Administration has negotiated - and others are said to be just as productive. With its dizzying number of alliances, the Bush administration's War on Terror is anything but unilateral. (p. 117)

Whither the Press?

Actually, says Minitar, most of the successes in the War on Terror are "no secret," such as the fact that Libya has renounced WMD. Why, then, has the press missed them? Why do they concentrate on Abu Graib and
While there is some merit to both of these suspicions, the root cause is something more subtle: a failure of imaginatioin. The media does not understanad the workings of the intelligence community or the military, and therefore does not understand the war.(p. 160)
Further, there is no context to the reporting. Rather, we get bits and fragments, and sensational headlines of "scandals," but no big picture. It's as if during World War II the press spent their entire time attacking Roosevelt over failure to prevent Pearl Harbor.

The War on Terror is not like World War II, but is more like the Cold War in that we are fighting an ideological enemy rather than a geographical one. To be sure, the Nazis and Fascists had their ideologies, but few others in the world wanted to adopt it. In our current war, we are fighting a movement which may at times have state sponsors but is not absolutely dependant on them. Therefore, success cannot measured in geographical terms, or even in terms of time. Imagine, Minitar asks, if a reporter had demanded that Harry Truman tell them how long it would take to win the Cold War.

Why did bin Laden want war with the U.S.?

Miniter says that the best answer he found came from a French(!) intelligence agent who specialized in counter-terrorism. In his view, bin Laden thought that
A massive attack on America's soaring skyscrapers and public offices would compel the infidel power to invade Afghanistan, forcing a final showdown between the "house of peace"(Islam), and the "house of war" (the infidels). (p.31)
Bin Laden expected to easily defeat us, just as he defeated the Soviets. He did not imagine that we would not adopt their failed strategy. To him, the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan was the "defining moment" in his life.

Oddly enough, some on the far left used as a reason why we should not have invaded Afghanistan. By doing so, they argued, we were simply "playing into his hands" or "doing what he wanted us to do." As Miniter shows, however, we are in fact winning the War on Terror; you just won't read about it in the papers.

Reason for Hope

Miniter provides much reason for hope that we will win the War on Terror. As stated earlier, he describes many small successes that usually don't make the papers. But history is also a guide, and it gives us reason for hope.

The fact is, the West is much better at being flexible, and adopting new strategies, than are the Muslim terrorists. Our experience shows as much. During World War II, we learned from our mistakes. At the start of the war we were surprised, not just tactically such as at Pearl Harbor, but also technically when we discovered our aircraft were far inferior to those of our enemies. We built new aircraft and developed new tactics. We went from initial surprise to recovery, to victory. Our enemies stayed with the same equipment and tactics throughout the war.

The same seems to be happening in this war. Is is we who are learning from our mistakes, and are developing new methods to combat our enemy. Al Qaeda, who thought we would fight like the Soviets had in Afghanistan, has not recovered or shown that they can adapt to our way of war. The reason, Minitar says, is that their experience in war has been much more limited. They simply do not have the institutional knowledge that we possess.

The non sequiturs

Miniter spends an entire chapter on the Madrid bombing and subsequent defeat of Prime Minister Jose Maria Anzar. He uses this to speculate on what might happen if we suffer(ed) a similar attack before our election, and to provide advice for the Bush Administration.

There is also a chapter on an alleged plot to kill President George W Bush. The "plot" turns out to be a fabrication, although in the end we developed a valuable relationship with Sudanese Intelligence that has helped in the War on Terror. Important as it may be, it's hard to see how it justifies an entire chapter.

It is hard to see how either of these tie into his thesis.

In Conclusion

The book is generally good, and is worth purchasing, but could have used a good editor. Minitar includes many facts and much information about the War on Terror that, to my knowledge, have not been previously published.

You may also want to visit amazon.com and read the reviews of this book there. This book has brought the Bush-haters out in force. You'll find that most of their reviews are quite childish and do not address the facts presented in the book. Nothing surprising there, of course.

Richard Miniter is also the author of Losing bin Laden; How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror.

My next review: Inside the Asylum: Why the United Nations and Old Europe are Worse Than You Think, by Jed Babbin

Update

I found an interview with Richard Miniter on "Blogs for Bush." (via Mud & Phud) Here's a sample of what he had to say:

Here's the key statistic: More 3,000 al Qaeda fighters have been seized or slain since 9-11 in 102 different countries. That shows that the effort is larger than the public has been told--3,000 may be equal to one-quarter of al Qaeda's total strength--and far more global than the public believes. If you destroy a division of the enemy and it does not score a comparable victory against you, you are winning. That is the position of the U.S. today.

The war is more than Iraq and Afghanistan: In all but a handful of those 102 cases, those captures and kills have occurred with the help of local governments. Forget the 30 allies we have on the ground in Iraq, we have almost 100 allies in the war on terror--including virtually every Muslim-majority country in the world.

I learned this firsthand by reporting in the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Israel and beyond.


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