Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Midnight at the Bazaar

The careful reader will have observed that there was actually no "intelligence failure" in A Day at the Bazaar. By day's end the participants had discovered the fundamental truth about the shell game, although it was not what they expected. Each of their several hypotheses about the location of the pea was falsified. But rather than building on their discoveries and taking the hard-won truth to the next step, the punters returned obsessively to the question of why their cherished methodologies had failed, forgetting in their excitement, what their methodologies were for. They had conflated the concept of an "intelligence failure" with the notion of methodological failure.

But Belmont Club reader SR has not. He writes:

It's SR again. Ok, I'll be honest, The Three Conjectures has been nagging me for months. So why am I writing you now? I realized that there was an implicit assumption made in the 2nd conjecture. The explicit assumption in 2nd conjecture was "Suppose Pakistan or North Korea engineered a reliable plutonium weapon that could be built to one-point safety in any machine shop with a minimum of skill, giving Islamic terrorists the means to repeatedly attack America indefinitely". The implicit assumption was that the Islamists would start with a single iteration, i.e. attack cities one or two at a time. There is no reason to assume that they would do so.

Operationally it's trickier to maintain cover for the requisite number of teams, but there's no reason it's not possible. Keeping in mind that Al Qaeda is known for two operational principles: the ability to wait for years, if necessary, between attacks in order to position its resources and its use of simultaneous operations. Assuming the leadership learned its lesson in Afghanistan and Iraq, they know U.S. is not a paper tiger unwilling and/or unable to go to war against its allies wishes. Therefore, there is no reason, aside for logistical difficulties, for them not to wait and use a say, 30-40 city simultaneous attack.

Additionally for Al Qaeda, the threshold of victory required for a "first strike" is nowhere near as stringent as it was for the Soviets. The Soviets had to contend with the 2nd strike capabilities of the U.S. nuclear forces. The Islamists have an advantage in that they can preposition their leadership and resources prior to launching a first strike. Distributed networks are very resilient to nuclear attacks, which is why DARPA funded ARPANET. Imagine that prior to launching a say 30 city first strike, the Al Qaeda leadership distributed itself from Indonesia to Chechnya to Central Africa to Columbia and Peru. Even if what's left of the U.S. responds by making a sea of glass from Morocco to Afghanistan, what's left of the leadership would survive and be able to direct the further course of the conflict.

SR has raised two important points. The first is that the existence of an international WMD industry, which came to light after Libya opened in weapons program to inspection after the invasion of Iraq, essentially fulfills the assumption on which the 2nd Conjecture was based. There now exists a Pakistani weapons design, which, if it still cannot be built in a machine shop with a minimum of skill, is now with the help of available dual-use parts, within the reach of any interested government willing to buy it. The second is the observation that the Al Qaeda must from bitter experience know that the next attack on America must be so overwhelmingly crippling that it cannot effectively retaliate. There is no reason why a 30 city first strike is inconceivable, or even difficult as this 40-year old design shows. Nuclear weapons are cheap. According to the Brookings Institution, the United States built 32,000 warheads since 1945 at a total cost of $409 billion in 1996 dollars -- about $13 million apiece. Some, like the W-84 are considerably cheaper, at $1.1 apiece. Saudi oil revenues are about $191 million a day. SR understands, even if many media pundits do not, that if the unmasking of the international WMD arms mart were the only fruit of the Global War on Terror it would have been well worth it. One might conceivably argue that the UN would have eventually unraveled the whole skein in 2 or 3 decades, but that would be of academic interest only to visiting archaeologists from another planet.

The danger now is that this vital knowledge will be cast away or enmeshed in the toils of committee hearings. The intelligence bonanza will be ignored while we attend to the methodological failures. The idea that one should foresee everything perfectly before embarking upon a task has never been required before, at least not within recorded military history. It may come as a surprise to many that after the last dossier has been consulted, the last map perused, and every resource debriefed, that armies send out patrols of men whose principal function is to push forward until they are shot at when they make contact with the enemy. In a world of darkness and shadows, it will go hard with those who are forbidden to put out their hand. It will go hard with us. We will save our fingertips at the cost of delivering ourselves entire into the pit. Safety in a world littered with weapons of mass destruction lies in getting close to the enemy; not in the same grid square, but in the same cave, where we can grip his beard and smell his breath.

The street urchin was first to leave the coffee-house where the days events were discussed. He showed no resentment at having his advice disregarded by the punters, and for the general entertainment recited verse penned by a consumptive Englishman nearly a century before.

And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than that Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who made the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

And now they wait and whiten peaceably,
Those conquerors, those poets, those so fair:
They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten, here or there;

When those long caravans that cross the plain
With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells
Put forth no more for glory or for gain,
Take no more solace from the palm-girt wells.

When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.

And they laughed aloud at the prospects of the morrow.