The Magazine

G-Men East of Suez

A serious anti-terrorism policy would unleash the military, not deploy the Justice Department

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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But the bloat in the FBI's counterterrorist work isn't just a manifestation of the American bureaucratic ethic of overkill, which is really just the straightforward transfer of domestic FBI practices overseas. First and foremost, it springs from the Clinton administration's depoliticization of terrorism. Middle Eastern terrorism against the United States, particularly a kamikaze strike against a U.S. Navy vessel, is, from any angle, an act of war by unconventional means, as former secretary of the Navy John Lehman recently pointed out in the Washington Post. In the nineteenth century, when the Western world was graced with fewer lawyers, this would have been self-evident, not requiring a reminder from a historically minded former official.

The primary reason, of course, why the Clinton administration has made the Justice Department and the FBI the lead counterterrorist agencies is that doing so offers more foreign-policy wiggle room: We can blink in the face of a foreign threat and pretend we haven't.

As a case in point, let us look at Usama bin Laden, who, odds are, is with his buddies in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad lurking somewhere behind the bombing of the USS Cole. It's doubtful there are many souls left in the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Central Intelligence Agency who really believe that bin Laden is just a "guest" of the Taliban. They may not fully appreciate how bin Laden has helped the Taliban define its own raison d'etre and foreign aspirations, but they unquestionably know that if the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, really wanted to shut down bin Laden's operations or hand him to the Americans, he could certainly do so.

Yet we meaningfully threaten neither the Taliban nor the Pakistanis, who provide the Taliban with essential military support. (U.S. sanctions against Afghanistan, a war-shattered country with a virtually non-existent per capita income whose denizens excel at smuggling and the opium trade, are an oxymoron and thus don't count.) Mollah Omar and the Taliban are, by any meaningful definition, state-sponsors of terrorism.

The Pakistanis, if not state-sponsors, are sympathetic cousins who use Afghanistan and its para-military-cumterrorist training camps for their own purposes in Kashmir. One would think -- given bin Laden's terrorist actions in Africa, the repeated worldwide embassy alerts that Washington ascribes to the Saudi militant and his allies, and the eminence bin Laden has in America's multi-billion-dollar counterterrorist programs -- that someone might seriously consider militarily retaliating against Mollah Omar and his close Afghan associates. We can find them, in Qandahar, Afghanistan -- unlike bin Laden and company.

But the criminalization of terrorism allows timidity and caution in foreign affairs -- always the bureaucratic default choice in American foreign policy -- to hold the foreground. The strategic aspect to counterterrorism -- incorporating America's fight against this or that terrorist into a larger regional game plan -- haphazardly happens, if at all.

Given the Taliban's support of bin Laden and the Pakistanis' avoidance of the issue, one might think we would consider giving a sliver of our annual counterterrorism budget to the anti-Taliban forces of Ahmad Shah Masoud in northern Afghanistan. Masoud, the most accomplished of the Mujahedeen commanders of the Soviet-Afghan war, drives the Taliban and the Pakistanis nuts since they've been unable to conquer his domain. As long as he survives, the Taliban grip on Afghanistan could be cracked. Financial aid to Masoud would send a crystal-clear signal to the Taliban and the Pakistanis that America was displeased with their toleration, indeed encouragement, of bin Laden and his virulently anti-Western Islamic radicalism.

The State Department and the National Security Council, of course, cannot conceive of doing anything more forceful than utter reproaches and reprimands, which inevitably preface new appeals to the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service with very close links to the Taliban, to do something about bin Laden. If bin Laden is discovered to be behind the attack on the USS Cole before January 2001, the Clinton administration, given the past, can be expected to fire more cruise missiles at tent and mud-brick Afghan training camps. CIA director George Tenet and his minions will complement the attack by leaking to the press that "we now have bin Laden in a box." Counterterrorism budgets in Washington will inevitably go up, further increasing the possible size of the next FBI-led team sent overseas to investigate a bombing.