Losing the plot since 9/11

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 September, 2006, 12:00am

As the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, approaches, the Bush administration wants to develop a new weapon in its anti-terrorism arsenal. Known as Prompt Global Strike, it would enable America to hit rogue states, terrorists or criminal organisations anywhere in the world quickly and with devastating force.

The plan is to spend US$500 million over the next two years taking some nuclear-armed ballistic missiles off submarines and replacing them with a similar number of long-range missiles carrying non-nuclear warheads that could strike any target in less than an hour.

Proponents of the scheme say it would allow the United States to react to a grave national-security threat without having to use nuclear weapons. But critical US lawmakers worry that other nuclear states, chiefly Russia and China, might be confused about the type of missile fired and its intended target. With only minutes to think, they could mistakenly conclude that they were under US nuclear attack, and retaliate with nuclear weapons.

In an attempt to allay these concerns, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov, in Alaska recently. Mr Rumsfeld said he would be happy to see Russia do exactly as the US was planning to do - so that both countries would have an additional weapon available for pre-emptive strikes against mass-casualty terrorism or weapons of mass destruction. The risk of misunderstanding could be overcome by good communications and prompt notification of any launch, he said.

Russia is more receptive to the idea now than when it was first mooted in February. Mr Ivanov says detailed talks will follow.

Either way, this is another hi-tech response to terrorism. The US in Iraq, and Russia in Chechnya, have countered armed insurgency and political violence primarily by military means. US President George W. Bush has insisted since 9/11 that America is engaged in a 'war on terror'. This is a dangerous misnomer. It suggests military might is the solution when, in fact, the core of the struggle is ideological.

The analogy of a counter-insurgency campaign - similar to that waged against communists by British and regional governments in Southeast Asia from the 1950s - is more appropriate. The key part of this strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population by offering them the prospect of a better life free from intimidation and fear instilled by insurgents' terror tactics.

In Iraq, the US seems unable to get beyond a military response. Worse still, it will not accept that, to do so, it needs many more well-trained soldiers on the ground. Experience in Southeast Asia and elsewhere suggests that, for a counter-insurgency campaign to be successful, the force arrayed against rebels must outnumber them by at least 10 to one - initially, at least.

The Bush administration lost the plot nearly five years ago. The al-Qaeda attacks in the US killed around 3,000 people of 80 different nationalities and many different creeds. Instead of representing this as an assault on civilised people everywhere, the administration acted as if the outrage was an all-American tragedy stemming from Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, young Europeans and Americans are increasingly reluctant to risk death and injury by volunteering for military service in a struggle they regard as misplaced.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment