Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Six Questions for Michael Scheuer on National Security

Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004; he served as the chief of the bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999.




1. We're coming up on the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Is the country safer or more vulnerable to terrorism?

On balance, more vulnerable. We're safer in terms of aircraft travel. We're safer from being attacked by some dumbhead who tries to come into the country through an official checkpoint; we've spent billions on that. But for the most part our victories have been tactical and not strategic. There have been important successes by the intelligence services and Special Forces in capturing and killing Al Qaeda militants, but in the long run that's just a body count, not progress. We can't capture them one by one and bring them to justice. There are too many of them, and more now than before September 11. In official Western rhetoric these are finite organizations, but every time we interfere in Muslim countries they get more support.

In the long run, we're not safer because we're still operating on the assumption that we're hated because of our freedoms, when in fact we're hated because of our actions in the Islamic world. There's our military presence in Islamic countries, the perception that we control the Muslim world’s oil production, our support for Israel and for countries that oppress Muslims such as China, Russia, and India, and our own support for Arab tyrannies. The deal we made with Qadaffi in Libya looks like hypocrisy: we'll make peace with a brutal dictator if it gets us oil. President Bush is right when he says all people aspire to freedom but he doesn't recognize that people have different definitions of democracy. Publicly promoting democracy while supporting tyranny may be the most damaging thing we do. From the standpoint of democracy, Saudi Arabia looks much worse than Iran. We use the term “Islamofascism”—but we're supporting it in Saudi Arabia, with Mubarak in Egypt, and even Jordan is a police state. We don't have a strategy because we don't have a clue about what motivates our enemies.

2. Is Al Qaeda stronger or weaker than it was five years ago?

The quality of its leadership is not as high as it was in 2001, because we've killed and captured so many of its leaders. But they have succession planning that works very well. We keep saying that we're killing their leaders, but you notice that we keep having to kill their number twos, threes and fours all over again. They bring in replacements, and these are not novices off the street—they're understudies. From the very first, bin Laden has said that he's just one person and Al Qaeda is a vanguard organization, that it needs other Muslims to join them. He's always said that his primary goal is to incite attacks by people who might not have any direct contact with Al Qaeda. Since 2001, and especially since mid-2005, there's been an increase in the number of groups that were not directly tied to Al Qaeda but were inspired by bin Laden's words and actions.

We also shouldn't underestimate the stature of bin Laden and Zawahiri in the Muslim world now that they’ve survived five years of war with the United States. You see commentary in the Muslim press: “How have they been able to defy the United States? It takes something special.” Their heroic status is an important fact. It helps explain why these cells keep popping up. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda is also assisting insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. I agree with the view that we've moved from man and organization to philosophy and movement, but one hasn't entirely replaced the other. There are three levels: Al Qaeda central is still intact; there are groups long affiliated with Al Qaeda, in places like Kashmir, the Philippines, and Indonesia; and there are the new groups inspired by Al Qaeda.

3. Given all this, why hasn't there been an attack on the United States for the past five years?

It's not just a lack of capacity; they're not ready to do it. They put more emphasis on success than speed, and the next attack has to be bigger than 9/11. They could shoot up a mall if that's what they wanted to do. But the world is going their way. Our leaders have been clever in defining success as preventing a big terrorist attack on the United States, but we've lost some 3,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've spent billions on those wars, and as in Vietnam the government has suffered a real hit on its credibility. The war in Iraq has created huge divisiveness in our domestic politics, not to mention in our relationships with our European allies. At the same time, there are more people willing to take up arms against the United States, and we have less ability to win hearts and minds in the Arab world. If you're bin Laden living in a cave, all those things are part of the war and those things are going your way.

4. Has the war in Iraq helped or hurt in the fight against terrorism?

It broke the back of our counterterrorism program. Iraq was the perfect execution of a war that demanded jihad to oppose it. You had an infidel power invading and occupying a Muslim country and it was perceived to be unprovoked. Many senior Western officials said that bin Laden was not a scholar and couldn't declare a jihad but other Muslim clerics did. So that religious question was erased.

Secondly, Iraq is in the Arab heartland and, far more than Afghanistan, is a magnet for mujahideen. You can see this in the large number of people crossing the border to fight us. It wasn't a lot at the start, but there's been a steady growth as the war continues. The war has validated everything bin Laden said: that the United States will destroy any strong government in the Arab world, that it will seek to destroy Israel's enemies, that it will occupy Muslim holy places, that it will seize Arab oil, and that it will replace God's law with man's law. We see Iraq as a honey pot that attracts jihadists whom we can kill there instead of fighting them here. We are ignoring that Iraq is not just a place to kill Americans; Al Qaeda has always said that it requires safe havens. It has said it couldn't get involved with large numbers in the Balkans war because it had no safe haven in the region. Now they have a safe haven in Iraq, which is so big and is going to be so unsettled for so long. For the first time, it gives Al Qaeda contiguous access to the Arabian Peninsula, to Turkey, and to the Levant. We may have written the death warrant for Jordan. If we pull out of Iraq, we have a problem in that we may have to leave a large contingent of troops in Jordan. All of this is a tremendous advantage for Al Qaeda. We've moved the center of jihad a thousand miles west from Afghanistan to the Middle East.

5. Things seemed to have turned for the worse in Afghanistan too. What's your take on the situation there?

The President was sold a bill of goods by George Tenet and the CIA—that a few dozen intel guys, a few hundred Special Forces, and truckloads of money could win the day. What happened is what's happened ever since Alexander the Great, three centuries before Christ: the cities fell quickly, which we mistook for victory. Three years later, the Taliban has regrouped, and there's a strong insurgency. We paid a great price for demonizing the Taliban. We saw them as evil because they didn't let women work, but that's largely irrelevant in Afghanistan. They provided nationwide law and order for the first time in 25 years; we destroyed that and haven't replaced it. They're remembered in Afghanistan for their harsh, theocratic rule, but remembered more for the security they provided. In the end, we'll lose and leave. The idea that we can control Afghanistan with 22,000 soldiers, most of whom are indifferent to the task, is far-fetched. The Soviets couldn't do it with 150,000 soldiers and utter brutality. Before the invasion of Afghanistan, [the military historian] John Keegan said the only way to go there was as a punitive mission, to destroy your enemy and get out. That was prescient; our only real mission there should have been to kill bin Laden and Zawahiri and as many Al Qaeda fighters as possible, and we didn't do it.

6. Has the war in Lebanon also been a plus for the jihadists?

Yes. The Israel-Hezbollah battle validates bin Laden. It showed that the Arab regimes are useless, that they can't protect their own nationals, and that they are apostate regimes that are creatures of the infidels. It also showed that the Americans will let Israel do whatever it wants. It was clear from the way the West reacted that it would let Israel take its best shot before it tried diplomacy. I saw an article in the Arab press—in London, I think—that said Lebanon was like a caught fish, that the United States nailed it to the wall and Israel gutted it. The most salient point it showed for Islamists is that Muslim blood is cheap. Israel said it went to war to get back its captured soldiers. The price was the gutting of Lebanon. Olmert said that Israel would fight until it got its soldiers back and until Hezbollah was disarmed. Neither happened. No matter how you spin it, this will be viewed as a victory for Hezbollah. Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon six years ago. Since then there have been the two intifadas, and now this. The idea of Israel being militarily omnipotent is fading.

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