November 19, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Tough Choices?

There are really only two choices: 1) Win the war in Iraq, or 2) accept defeat. And don't deceive yourself: That's the debate that has now begun.

Of course, politicians being politicians, “defeat” is never called “defeat.” Diplomatic sleights-of-hand are preferred instead. People talk of “internationalizing” the conflict, of turning it over to the UN or NATO, of empowering free Iraqis to fight on their own against the Baathists and their foreign Jihadi allies. Serious people know that if the world's only superpower can't win this war, no lesser power will be up to the task.

If we accept defeat in Iraq – as we accepted defeat 10 years ago in Somalia and 20 years ago in Lebanon — we should not deceive ourselves about what will follow.

The atrocities of 9/11 were the consequence of Washington's earlier decisions not to seriously fight back against the terrorists who had attacked us again and again in the 1980s and ‘90s. Surrender in Iraq will save the lives of some soldiers today. But it will cost the lives of civilians tomorrow. How many, no one can predict.

If we make up our mind to win, what do we have to do? Quite a lot.

Though Pentagon planners undoubtedly have been thinking about the challenges posed by “low-intensity conflicts” for years, it appears their Iraq battle plan has not survived contact with the enemy. Battle plans seldom do.

After toppling Saddam Hussein, President Bush did predict that Iraq would remain a “dangerous” and “difficult” place. But the enemy's strength – and his ability to play the Western media like a violin — was obviously underestimated.

Surely, our military planners knew there were thousands of enemy combatants whom we had not managed to kill or capture. Surely, they knew that those combatants had ample stores of weapons and cash. Surely, they knew that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had sworn to turn Iraq into “another Beirut” and that preventing Iraq from becoming free and democratic also would be a foreign policy goal of Saudi Arabia, Iran and several other countries in the region.

And surely, they must have known that we had inadequate intelligence networks set up within Iraq. That could only mean that it would be difficult for our troops to find the terrorists. By contrast, it would be simple for the terrorists to find our troops.

The lack of adequate intelligence in Iraq and other parts of the world is the most severe disability America suffers today in Iraq and in the broader War on Terrorism. This disability is, in turn, the consequence of a series of bad decisions that began as far back as the 1970s. A debate should be taking place – on the campaign trail if nowhere else – over how we now, belatedly, begin building an intelligence capability second to none the world has ever seen. Without that, we can't hope to win the war we are fighting.

The problem is not that we have too few high-tech satellites that can read license plates from outer space. The problem is we have too few low-tech spy handlers and “assets,” people who are street-wise — even when the streets are in Tikrit, Damascus, Karachi and Kabul.

It appears that American intelligence failed to penetrate Hezbollah after it attacked us in Beirut in 1983, failed to infiltrate al Qaeda prior to 9/11, failed to slip inside Saddam's inner circle before or after the first Gulf War of 1990-91.

No one is saying that such spying is easy, but it's possible and necessary. Americans did manage to enlist in al Qaeda in recent years – those Americans just didn't happen to be working for the CIA. And it appears that those allied with terrorists have managed to penetrate Guantanamo. That should tell us something.

In the short run, we can – and must – utilize Iraqis as intelligence assets. Such individuals should have been recruited and trained long ago. Now, one can only hope a furious effort is being made – appealing to patriotism in some cases, and using less savory means when required.

We also have to make it clear that we will not tolerate state sponsorship of terrorism.

Without state sponsorship, obtaining weapons, money, passports and other terrorist tools becomes difficult. Without state sponsorship, terrorists must stay on the run. Under such conditions, it is harder for them to hatch sophisticated plots.

That al Qaeda bombed synagogues in Turkey last week is tragic. But you have to figure al Qaeda would have preferred to bomb synagogues in New York, Washington or Los Angeles if they could have. That most of al Qaeda's victims in Istanbul were Muslims may not go unnoticed in the Islamic world.

Badly trained terrorists are obviously a lesser threat than skilled cadres. Well-trained terrorists fly jet liners into skyscrapers. Badly trained terrorists try to light their sneakers during the in-flight beverage service. With that in mind, terrorist training camps anywhere in the world must be shut down. Under the Taliban, bin Laden trained tens of thousands of terrorists. Saddam trained both domestic and foreign terrorists at Salman Pak, where he even kept the fuselage of a 707 to help hijackers learn their trade.

If diplomatic demarches are not successful in getting dictators to shut training camps, other means must be employed.

Don't deceive yourself. There is really only one choice: 1) Fight to win, in Iraq and elsewhere. The foreign jihadis now in Iraq will either die in a war against American troops there — or they will go on to fight American civilians on other fronts. They're not about to return to Ramallah and Riyadh to open aerobics studios.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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