Monday, January 12, 2004

Blood, Sweat and Tears

The most seductive images of "liberation"  are conjured up by Paris in 1944 or the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, 1989 -- cheering crowds, strewn flowers and famous writers meeting long-lost friends in wine cellars. The second and truer image is that of a Korean infantryman crouching at the bottom of a freezing trenchline in 1952 on the first step of a long road that eventually built a nation which today manufactures supertankers, consumer goods and automobiles. The adage that the "best is the enemy of the good" applies to images as well; the beautiful often drives out the true.

A French reader points out a fascinating Guardian article which describes the depth of the Islamist offensive against the West. European secret services are close to despair at the persistence and spread of Jihadist groups on the old continent, from Madrid to Oslo, catalyzed by Saudi Arabia: "the key source of funds for al-Qaeda and related militant groups".

Previously seen as a relative backwater in the war on terror, Europe is now in the frontline. 'It's trench warfare,' said one security expert. 'We keep taking them out. They keep coming at us. And every time they are coming at us harder.'  ...

Britain is still playing a central logistical role for the militants, with extremists, including the alleged mastermind of last year's bombings in Morocco, and a leader of an al-Qaeda cell, regularly using the UK as a place to hide. Other radical activists are using Britain for fundraising, massive credit card fraud, the manufacture of false documents and planning. Recruitment is also continuing. In one bugged conversation, a senior militant describes London as 'the nerve centre' and says that his group has 'Albanians, Swiss [and] British' recruits. He needs people who are 'intelligent and highly educated', he says and implies that the UK can, and does, supply them. Islamic terror cells are spreading eastwards into Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic for the first time, prompting fears of a new battleground in countries with weak authorities, powerful criminal gangs and endemic corruption in the years to come. Austria has become a central communications hub for Muslim extremists; France has become a key recruiting ground for fighters in Chechnya; and German groups, who often have extensive international links, are developing contacts with Balkan mafia gangs to acquire weapons.

Islamism in the West derives much of its power from the nature of the parent societies. In Follow the Money the Belmont Club described how early Islam's brilliant concept of co-opting marauding societies created a powerful engine of expansion. As John Keegan put it:

The Arabs were horse-riding raiders before Mohammed. His religion, Islam, inspired the raiding Arabs to become conquerors of terrifying power, able to overthrow the ancient empires both of Byzantium and Persia and to take possession of huge areas of Asia, Africa and Europe. It was only very gradually that the historic settled people, the Chinese, the Western Europeans, learnt the military methods necessary to overcome the nomads. They were the methods of the Greeks, above all drill and discipline. The last exponents of nomadic warfare, the Turks, were not turned back from the frontiers of Europe until the 17th century.

The role of ancient horse riding raiders is occupied in modern society by criminal syndicates and gangs: gangs which have established themselves in the unassimilatable Muslim enclaves of Europe. The jihadi are the latest in the line of missionaries sent against the West, and these proselytizers, as the European secret services have learned to their cost, ride upon the wings of a larger storm. The Al Qaeda recruit in jails not in desperation but out of choice.

Major John Nagle, an operations officer with a First Infantry Division battalion and an Oxford PhD understands that it is a society not an army that he is up against. A brilliant article by Peter Maas in the New York Times Magazine (registration required) describes the topsy-turvy world of the Sunni triangle, a place where people blame Americans for Ba'ath atrocities and cooperate obsequiously when they are threatened. It is a world where conspiracy theories, the default mode of thinking in the criminal world, is the normal type of cogitation. After a police station bombing, the crowd

didn't seem angry at the insurgents responsible for the carnage. Instead many of them blamed the G.I.'s. The mother of a dead policeman, who was allowed inside the hastily formed perimeter, shouted insults at the Americans until an Iraqi police officer escorted her out. A rumor swept through the crowd that it wasn't a car bomb that had caused the blast but a missile fired by the Americans, who were angry, so the rumor went, because the police were not supporting the occupation.

Nagle learned the language.

Soon after arriving at Camp Manhattan, Nagl's battalion was the target of mortar attacks by an insurgent who was nicknamed ''the mad mortarman.'' The soldiers were unable to catch him in the act, but counterbattery radars pinpointed the field he was operating from, and Nagl's troops fired artillery and mortars at it one night. When American soldiers went to the scene the next morning, local civilians, who hadn't enjoyed the experience of having American shells landing by their homes, told the Americans who had been firing the mortars; four men were detained later that day. According to the American troops, there were no complaints from local men and women about the American shelling; nobody was injured, and the locals apparently understood it was not an indiscriminate assault but a targeted response to targeted attacks. Nagl says he believes that makes a difference, and he points to declining attacks to support his case. ''Direct-fire attacks on us have dropped dramatically,'' he told me. ''We have a pretty clear message. If you shoot at us we will do our damnedest to kill you, and most of the time we will. And if you live in a neighborhood and you know there are bad people and you don't want Americans to return heavy fire into your neighborhood, endangering your families, you need to turn in the bad guys. That message is being received.''

Winning in the Sunni triangle, in Nagle's view, required "total war", not indiscriminate violence, nor even violence for military ends, but violence for social change.

''Total war means you use all the elements of national power,'' he told me recently. ''It's at the grass-roots level that you're trying to win. You can kill enemy soldiers -- that's not the only issue. You also need to dry up their support. You can't just use the military. It's got to be a constant din of propaganda; it's got to be economic support; it's got to be elections. As long as you only go after the guy with the weapon, you're missing the most important part.''

The best way to achieve that was not by the infusion of more American troops but Iraquization: the recruitment of a cadre who could remold the society on constructive terms. Nagle recalled that ''Vietnamization,'' when it finally came along in 1969, was too little, too late. ''There are lots of reasons why Iraqis are going to be better at it than we are,'' he said. ''They know who is supposed to be where and what they are supposed to be doing. They can see patterns of behavior that are irregular in a way that our untrained eye cannot. They can talk to everybody in a way that we cannot.''

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has argued that America must join the "forces of moderation" in Islamic society "because ultimately this is a struggle within the Arab-Muslim world, and we have to help our allies there, just as we did in World Wars I and II". Nagle's battle and the efforts of European police are it's face. Not the liberation of Paris in 1944, but the slow dismantling of encrusted hate and dysfunction; the patient work of years. The challenge will be not simply to reform Islamic society, but to avoid destroying it in order to save it.