Tuesday, November 11, 2003

"Clinging to the Enemy's Belt"

It was the North Vietnamese Army that first popularized the counterintuitive notion that there was greater safety in combat by getting closer to the enemy. For them, "clinging to the enemy's belt" meant getting so near to American lines that the US advantage in heavy weapons could not be fully exploited. The successful forecast of an attack on Saudi Arabia,  enabling Americans to dodge the danger, is an example of how the US is putting this principle into practice. The American ability to know more about a threat within Saudi Arabia than the Saudis themselves is impressive indeed. The partial American penetration of the terrorist attack on Saudi Arabia marks the second instance of an imperfect, yet still valid warning against a threat that could not be deflected. The first was Bali. CNN reported that "U.S. diplomatic and intelligence officials say they repeatedly told the Indonesian government of information suggesting terrorists were planning attacks against 'Western tourist sites' in the two weeks before the Bali bombings."  But regrettably, the information was not specific enough to forestall the particular attacks in either case.

The Al Qaeda operations probably did not come to the attention of intelligence fully described. In all likelihood, they had their genesis in tantalizing snippets and obscure references, emerging from the background until each was deemed worthy of a code name and assigned to a cell of analysts for further tracking, like a weather system growing into a monstrous cyclone. The picture was probably fragmentary and pieces were missing, but data, although time-lagged were coming in all the time, until the trackers knew within limits when and where it would make landfall. Not enough to save everyone, but enough to save some. How did America get to know so much? By getting close to the enemy.

Much US intelligence comes from enemy contact. Incidents like this raid by British Special Forces on the Al Qaeda in Northern Iraq probably resulted in enemy personnel and document captures -- sources of data. Such raids are not one-offs but part of standard operating procedure. The fascinating Third Infantry Division after-action report (page 76) reminds us that Special Operations Forces and "other government agencies" operate within the battlespace of American conventional forces, like infantry divisions,  pursuing "targets and missions of national interest". Whether within ground units or stealthily coming ashore from US naval vessels, operatives in contact with the enemy seize data, like the voluminous information taken from the Iraqi intelligence files, whose bulk has been compared to that of the East German Stasi dossiers.

Those who advocate "bringing the boys home" and withdrawing into the illusory safety of a fortress America might consider that in certain respects, the most dangerous place of all to be is out of contact with the enemy. From the perspective of Al Qaeda, and indeed any terrorist organization, the key object of maneuver is to open out the distance between themselves and possible contact. The Al Qaeda's obsessive search for sanctuary, whether in the deserts of Northern Africa, within the chaos of disintegrating societies or as guests of a dictatorship amounts to a quest for enabling space, without which there is no room to wind up, hatch plots, concoct weapons and train. If Al Qaeda aims to wage asymmetrical warfare by taking its enemies by surprise and breaking contact at will,  transposing this principle suggests that continuous contact is tantamount to turning the tables on them. Sad that.