Phase Three?

The enemy is growing desperate.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

After the first two conventional military victories in Afghanistan of November 2001 and this spring in Iraq, the recent bombings suggest that we are now entering a third phase: A desperate last-ditch war of attrition in which our enemies feel that bombing, suicide murdering, assassination, and general terrorism against Westerners the world over might still achieve what conventional military operations did not. The idea is to make life so miserable for Iraqis, and so dangerous for foreigners, that the United States will withdraw, thus allowing either a fascist autocracy or terrorist theocracy — in the manner of the Taliban or an Afghan warlord — to emerge from the chaos.

Indeed, the abhorrent assault on a U.N. complex in Baghdad — taken together with the near-simultaneous murdering of innocents in Jerusalem, the recent attack on the Jordanian embassy, and the bombing of Iraqi oil and water pipelines — may suggest to critics of the Americans that the enemy is recouping and gaining the upper hand.

Far from it. We are indeed entering a third phase. But it is not quite what most people think, since it has brought a brutal clarity to the conflict that the terrorists may not have intended. For those who were still unsure of the affinities between the West Bank killers once subsidized by Saddam, Baathist fedeyeen, the Taliban, and al Qaedist terrorists, the similarity in method, the identical blood-curling rhetoric, and the eerie timing of slaughtering during peace negotiations and efforts at civil reconstruction should establish the existence of a common enemy. It has been fighting us all along — a general fascism, now theocratic, now autocratic, that seeks to divert the Middle East from the forces of modernization and liberalization.

Contrary to the latest round of punditry, the liberation of Iraq did not stir up a hornet’s nest nor create ex nihilo these terrible alliances. No, they are natural expressions of the hatred manifested on 9/11 that will continue until either we or they are defeated.

The intifada was unleashed during negotiations and concessions. The World Trade Center and Pentagon were bombed in a time of peace after a decade of forbearance in the face of continual affronts. The killing in Afghanistan focuses on aid workers and restorers. And the U.N. complex in Baghdad was not a casualty of war, but rather targeted during the postbellum efforts to feed, clothe, and rebuild civil society. There is a pattern here.

From the detritus of Wednesday’s terror will arise a new grim acceptance that despite all our brilliantly rapid military victories we are not yet finished in this war for civilization, and that there are a group of killers — whether Baathists, al Qaedists, West Bank murderers, or Iranian and Saudi terrorists-who shall give no quarter. We should never forget that. In the euphoria of the three-week victory many of us rightly still worried that under the new restrictive protocols of postmodern warfare the age-old laws of conflict were for a time being forgotten: The ease of postbellum occupation is in proportion to the level of punishment inflicted on the enemy.

Our careful air campaign, the inability to sweep down into the Sunni triangle in the first days of the war from Turkey, and the abrupt collapse rather than the destruction of enemy forces in the field paradoxically resulted in thousands who ran away rather than were defeated. We immediately ended the fighting and began the humanitarian effort to help the helpless — even as our enemies and their jihadist friends saw that magnanimity as the removal of the stake driven through their vampirish heart.

Yet tragically whether an enemy is engaged in battle or in the street, there always remains a finite number of recalcitrant diehards who must be killed or captured. So while it was amazing that Saddam’s army dissolved in April, we should always remember that many of them still must be dealt with in August and September — both to eliminate combatants and, just as importantly, to send a message to foreign terrorists that it is a deadly mistake to take on the United States military.

The current choice of soft and largely civilian targets, while in the short-term horrific and depressing, is also instructive. The Baathist remnants and assorted terrorists who are now their allies have declared themselves not only enemies of the United States, but murderers of innocent Iraqis, Jordanians, and U.N. officials at large. They brag that they are driving infidels and Westerners of all stripes from sacred land. In fact, the current indiscriminate killing was a strategic mistake. It is a sign of desperation and can only unite the global community in its belief that terrorism, suicide murdering, and the agents of rogue regimes really do constitute a nexus of opposition to the forces of civilization — and must in return warrant universal resistance from the world at large.

Blowing up petroleum pipelines and vital water supplies in a scorching summer is directed at the Iraqi people, not just the American military. That nihilism reminds both us and the Iraqis that there is no going back to Saddam or descending into anarchy. The terrorists wish to make life as miserable for Iraqis as they do for Americans, and are willing to kill both for their own political ends. The net result of that desperate gambit will be a grudging acceptance that those who seek to end water, gas, food, and freedom in Iraq are the enemy, not us — and thus only Iraqi assistance can end the terror that threatens themselves.

What should be the American response to the latest terrorism? There will of course be the normal post-calamity bickering and recriminations: Not enough troops? Unwise dismissal of Baathist police and army? Failure to incorporate U.N. and international peacekeepers? These are important issues to be adjudicated, but they and many others still to be raised do not get to the heart of matter.

Our astonishing defeats of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban cannot blind us to the reality — unchanging since 9/11 — that we are in a war to the end with those who wish to destroy Western society and all that it holds dear. Both tactically and strategically this is a conflict that our enemies cannot win — given their military inferiority and accompanying failure to offer an attractive alternative to the freedom and prosperity of the West.

This doom the nihilists grudgingly accept. Thus the past week in Afghanistan, in Baghdad, and in Jerusalem they have once more embraced the tactics of the bomb-laden truck and suicide belt to demoralize civil society and to win the only way they can — as was true in Beirut and Mogadishu — by eroding public support for the continuance of war. Otherwise, they will lose and the virus of reform and legality will only spread.

Because September 11 was a direct consequence of our early failures to confront our enemies, our general response to the latest challenges should be even greater defiance. It is time to bring to fruition the president’s warning of nearly two years ago, that one is either with or against the terrorists. So Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, from which our enemies (many now in Iraq) operate, must either close their borders, turn over terrorists, and join the ranks of civilization — or chose the side of barbarism and accept the terrible consequences of such a fatal decision. And for the short term, we must continue on course-employing counterinsurgency tactics to go after the terrorists in the field, accelerating the transfer of governance to Iraqis to increase their visibility and responsibility in the conflict and restoring infrastructure to Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is the American way and the nature of our media culture to exaggerate setbacks and ignore successes. Thus even as our television screens seem to be overcome by panic and fear, high-ranking Baathists continue to be arrested in Iraq, terrorists find themselves stymied in achieving another 9/11, and the reconstruction of Iraq continues.

Our real problem? We must shed our complacency that has habitually arisen after the absence of another 9/11 attack in the United States, and the rapid victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, and press on. Either the Middle East will be a breeding ground for terrorists and rogue regimes that threaten sober nations and peoples the world over, from Manhattan to Jerusalem, or it will desist and join the rest of the world. It really is as simple as that.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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