Thursday, August 21, 2003

The UN Headquarters Bombing and the War on Terror

The destruction of the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad and the subsequent withdrawal of UN personnel from Iraq has firmly subordinated the Europeans to the Pentagon. The French, Germans and the UN bureaucracy were at first eager to find a replacement for the Oil for Food bonanza which had pumped billions into their pockets. After holding out unsuccessfully for a "central" UN role in Iraq by threatening not to recognize the Iraqi National Council, both France and Germany were compelled by events to simply accept a "major" role after it became clear that they could not withhold legitimacy from a de facto government forever. That "major" role was headquartered in the now-ruined Canal hotel. But the truck bomb which drove the UN out of Iraq has left the continental Europeans with no alternative presence in the central battleground for Arabia. The Islamists proved that the league is too rough for international civil servants or European diplomats to play in. The Europeans must now accept any role that the Pentagon will grant it.

All that is on offer is an enlarged version of the ISAF model in Afghanistan. Under those arrangements, the French, Germans and Canadians got to play traffic cops in Kabul and act like glorified security guards in front of public buildings while strictly limited to the city limits. All the real military power and access in Afghanistan was reserved for CENTCOM. Secretary Colin Powell is now said to be discussing a role for European forces in Iraq. Although the press is attempting to portray a repentant America finally seeking help from Europe, the fact is that the continental Europeans are being asked to become CENTCOM auxiliaries now that their great UN flagship has been reduced to ashes. They can now become traffic cops in Baghdad or watch entirely from the sidelines. The Europeans will swallow hard but they have no alternative but to become as subordinate to General Abizaid in Baghdad as they are in Kabul. The Europeans must accept the CENTCOM way or the highway.

The strategic role of Iraq in the overall War on Terror has been astutely debated on Winds of Change. Opinion is divided on whether Iraq is actually "flypaper" -- a killing ground for radical Islamists -- or whether it is a springboard for further attack on other Islamist positions. The first school likens Iraq to a position which the Islamists must retake in order to survive, like a high hill intruding on conventional lines. The second school regards Iraq as a launch pad to eventually occupy Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran; like Okinawa was to Japan. The analogies have a certain validity, but they fail insofar as the War on Terror is not a war of logistics and geography. It is grand politico-military struggle with certain logistic and geographic aspects, but its key characteristics have no conventional counterparts. The War on Terror is the first war of its kind in history and new terms will have to be invented to describe its characteristics.

The engagement between US forces and a coalition of Ba'ath and Islamist elements has thrown up a bundle of ratlines -- the threads of cells, clandestine routes and support structures which are the basic tactical units in this war. But unlike wars of the past, tactical units are not engaged linearly. The prosecution of a ratline discovered in Mosul is not geographically confined to Iraq but may immediately translate to action in Amman, the West Bank, Thailand, the High Seas or Buffalo, New York. In this deadly game, cells are not always destroyed but sometimes turned. The "sting" operation aimed at corralling arms dealers selling surface to air missiles is one example. And the overall aim of the War is not the physical death of Islamic militants per se so much as the corruption and weakening of their organization and parent regimes. Nor is this effect imaginary. The seismic effect of the War on Terror can be gauged from the upheavals in Riyadh and Teheran.

Thomas Friedman has accidentally hit upon the key strategic value of Iraq in the War on Terror. It is a rich recruiting ground of Arab intelligence assets. It is bursting with ratlines. Iraq is valuable to America because it is full of Kurds and Arabs -- the raw material of the American sword. America is in Iraq for the very same reason that Al-Qaeda set up shop in London, Berlin and Paris: to seize human beachheads in the heart of enemy territory. As such Iraq is both flypaper and springboard and has the potential to be a decisive battleground in and of itself. The War on Terror is a struggle for the hearts of hundreds of millions. Its task is not to turn Arabs into imitation Americans so much as to create the conditions under which Muslims can reconsider and remodel their whole culture. In the process, every regime in the Middle East will be shaken to its very core. Ruling houses will fall. Boundaries will be redrawn. America herself will be transformed in ways that no one understands.

Whatever the outcome of this titanic struggle, Europe will have missed the chance of a decisive role. By pursuing the failed policy of scavenging for lucrative contracts in the shadow of America rather than participating in history, the current generation of European bureaucrats will have adopted the meanest and most short-sighted of policies in the history of the Old Continent. How low they have fallen, the once great. UN personnel have now been ordered out of Iraq. They shouldn't let the door hit them on their way out.