Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Elliot Cohen WW IV (World War 4)


World War IV
Let's call this conflict what it is.

Tuesday, November 20, 2001 12:01 a.m. EST

Political people often dislike calling things by their names. Truth, particularly in wartime, is so unpleasant that we drape it in a veil of evasions, and the right naming of things is far from a simple task.

Take the matter of this war. It is most assuredly something other than the "Afghan War," as the press sometimes calls it. After all, the biggest engagement took place on American soil, and the administration promises to wage the conflict globally, and not, primarily, against Afghans.

The "9/11 War," perhaps? But the war began well before Sept. 11, and its casualties include, at the very least, the dead and wounded in our embassies in Africa, on the USS Cole and, possibly, in Somalia and the Khobar Towers. "Osama bin Laden's War"? There are precedents for this in history (King Philip's War, Pontiac's War, or even The War of Jenkins' Ear), but the war did not begin with bin Laden and will not end with his death, which may come sooner than anyone had anticipated--including, one hopes, the man himself.

A less palatable but more accurate name is World War IV. The Cold War was World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multimillion-man armies, or conventional front lines on a map. The analogy with the Cold War does, however, suggest some key features of that conflict: that it is, in fact, global; that it will involve a mixture of violent and nonviolent efforts; that it will require mobilization of skill, expertise and resources, if not of vast numbers of soldiers; that it may go on for a long time; and that it has ideological roots.

Americans still tiptoe around this last fact. The enemy in this war is not "terrorism"--a distilled essence of evil, conducted by the real-world equivalents of J. K. Rowling's Lord Voldemort, Tolkien's Sauron or C. S. Lewis's White Witch--but militant Islam. The enemy has an ideology, and an hour spent surfing the Web will give the average citizen at least the kind of insights that he might have found during World Wars II and III by reading "Mein Kampf" or the writings of Lenin, Stalin or Mao. Those insights, of course, eluded those in the West who preferred--understandably, but dangerously--to define the problem as something more manageable, such as German resentment about the Versailles Treaty, an exaggerated form of Russian national interest, or peasant resentment of landlords taken a bit too far. In the reported words of one survivor of the Holocaust, when asked what lesson he had taken from his experience of the 1940s, "If someone tells you that he intends to kill you, believe him."

Al Qaeda and its many affiliates consist of Muslim fanatics. They will, no doubt, find almost as many enemies among moderate Muslims as among infidels, and show them, if anything, less mercy. One hopes for a wave of revulsion among Muslims who abhor this rendition of their faith, understand the calamities of all-out war waged to erect a theocratic dystopia, and will fight these movements with no less vigor, and no more reservations, than do Christians, Jews, Hindus and, for that matter, atheists.

Afghanistan constitutes just one front in World War IV, and the battles there just one campaign.
The U.S. is within range of gaining two important objectives there: smashing al Qaeda (including the elimination of its leadership), and teaching the lesson that governments that shelter such organizations will themselves perish. But what next? Three ideas come to mind.

First, if one front in this war is the contest for free and moderate governance in the Muslim world, the U.S. should throw its weight behind pro-Western and anticlerical forces there. The immediate choice lies before the U.S. government in regard to Iran. We can either make tactical accommodations with the regime there in return for modest (or illusory) sharing of intelligence, reduced support for some terrorist groups and the like, or do everything in our power to support a civil society that loathes the mullahs and yearns to overturn their rule. It will be wise, moral and unpopular (among some of our allies) to choose the latter course. The overthrow of the first theocratic revolutionary Muslim state and its replacement by a moderate or secular government, however, would be no less important a victory in this war than the annihilation of bin Laden.

Second, the U.S. should continue to target regimes that sponsor terrorism. Iraq is the obvious candidate, having not only helped al Qaeda, but attacked Americans directly (including an assassination attempt against the first President Bush) and developed weapons of mass destruction. Again, American allies will flinch, and the military may shake its head at the prospect of revisiting the aborted Gulf War victory, but the costs of failing to do so, and the opportunities for success, make it good sense. The Iraqi military is weak, and the consequences of finishing off America's archenemy in the Arab world would reinforce the awe so badly damaged by a decade of cruise missiles flung at empty buildings.

Third, the U.S. must mobilize in earnest. The Afghan achievement is remarkable--within two months to have radically altered the balance of power there, to have effectively destroyed the Taliban state and smashed part of the al Qaeda--is testimony to what the American military and intelligence communities can do when turned on to a problem. But the Taliban were not the hardest case, and the airplanes dropping bombs on the enemy in Kunduz and Kandahar are in some cases older than their pilots, and suffering for lack of spare parts.

The combination of precision weapons, Special Operations forces, and sophisticated intelligence-gathering systems indicates the beginning of a desperately needed "transformation" of the American military. But this will require something more than the $20 billion a year in defense spending increases over the budget now in the offing.

Similarly, the creation of a homeland security office without real powers, the reluctance of the government to open comprehensive, formal inquiries into the disaster of Sept. 11, and the absence of big, imaginative programs--mass scholarships for public health programs, for example, or, more ambitious yet, a really substantial program of scientific research to emancipate the West from dependence upon Persian Gulf oil--tell us that Washington is somewhere between a war footing and business as usual.

It is, of course, early yet, and many of the signs--from the B-52s pounding Taliban front lines to CIA teams scouring the Afghan hills, from enhanced spending on vaccines and the Centers for Disease Control to the creation of military tribunals for foreign terrorists--indicate that the government is truly serious. But much remains to be done, beginning with acknowledging the scope of the task, and acting accordingly. Yet if after the Afghan campaign ends, the government lapses into a covert war of intelligence-gathering, arrests, and the odd explosion in a terrorist training camp, it will be a sign that it would rather avoid calling things by their true name.

Mr. Cohen is professor of strategic studies at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Books by Mr. Cohen

Books including contributions by Mr. Cohen

First Sentence:
WE SHALL BEGIN OUR EXPLORATION of military misfortune by looking at the five explanations most commonly offered by historians trying to account for defeat and disaster on the field of battle

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