The Magazine

The Millennium War

From the January 3 / January 10, 2005 issue: A report from the Mesopotamian front.

Jan 3, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 16 • By AUSTIN BAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

One of the problems we face in defining what constitutes an American victory or acceptable End State in the global war on terror is the war's dirt-stupid name. One might as well declare war on exercise as declare war on terror, for terror is only a tactic used by an enemy. In this case the inept name has led to needless political confusion and loss of clarity about long-range goals.

In September 2001, I suggested we call this hideous conflict the Millennium War, a nom de guerre that captures both the chronological era and the ideological dimensions of the conflict. If there is one mistake we've made in fighting this war, it's the way we've soft-pedaled the ideological dimensions, and that soft-pedaling has blurred our goals. This really is a fight for the future, a battle between our free, open political system and the unholy alliance of despots and millenarian Islamofascists whose very existence depends on denying liberty.

Recognizing the ideological component as an essential feature of the war indicates the most desirable End State to the war would have two features: (1) democratic nations that police terrorism, instead of promoting it or seeding it; (2) an Islamic clerisy that understands its role on Earth is spiritual guidance and education, not temporal political control.

A large order? The task is absolutely huge, but so was World War II, when heavy history fell on "the greatest generation." It's this generation's turn to accept the challenge of building free nation states and protecting Muslim moderates, or we will face terrible destructive consequences.

THE POLISH OPERATIONS OFFICER briefing Major-General Graham ends his presentation with a discussion of Multi-National Division-Center South's plans for the upcoming Shia pilgrimage season. The Poles are working with Iraqi authorities. This is a modern war, an intricate war in which military, economic, cultural, and political elements intertwine. Handling bus traffic and pilgrims' parking issues has priority. Certainly, pilgrims are targets for terrorists; they are also customers and, as one of the briefers points out, tourists.

We leave the headquarters and walk to our motor convoy. A day earlier General Graham and I had been discussing Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his recent return to Najaf in the midst of Moktada al-Sadr's latest Mahdi Militia escapade. "Sistani is a living example of an apolitical Islamic clergyman," General Graham had said. "He specifically says his role is that of spiritual guide." I mention that to one of the Polish lieutenant-colonels walking with us. He nods in agreement. Sistani is the most influential Shia religious leader. Now with Saddam gone, his voice is free.

As we reach the vehicles one of the U.S. officers, Major John Hoppman, who works with me in the Corps plans section, asks me if we'll get to visit the ruins.

"Of course," I reply. "It's our turn to be tourists."

Babylon was an old-style military empire that attacked its neighbors, then ruled them by force. Our contemporary world is filled with petty empires that differ very little from Babylon, fake states where gangs or tribal clans rule by oppression, not consensus. In too many hard corners of our planet the foundation for a modern state never formed, but the trappings--capital, an army, a seat in the U.N., IMF loans--can be acquired. Legitimate authority? Rule of law? Forget it. The bayonet to the throat remains the only process for establishing authority, making "sovereignty" within Rand McNally borders a constantly contested notion. In such tribal, feudal, and anarchic quarters, lip service may be paid to common humanity, but the implementation of laws protecting basic human rights is rare.

For centuries the fake nation-states didn't matter too much. Tribal battles remained local horrors. Not any more. Enforcing local dictatorial control with arrows or assault rifles is one thing--but now the rogue rulers use nerve gas. With ballistic missiles at hand, with terrorists willing to fly commercial jets into skyscrapers, rogues' possession and use of chemical weapons is no longer a local matter: Technological compression means a local war can become a global war. We learned, at a terrible price, that Islamofascist plotting in Afghanistan produces terrorist crime in New York and Washington. To return to an era where distance made a difference requires ditching essential technology. Ban the Internet? Ban the 747? Ban satellite television?

This is why the End State in Iraq matters, and why there is no Exit Strategy from the task in Mesopotamia.

Iraq, long plundered by despots, should be a wealthy country. It has water, an agricultural base, a source of capital (oil), and people willing to work. It is the best place to begin to reform the dysfunctional political systems that shackle and rob the vast majority of Middle Easterners. Success in Iraq would create conditions to break the region's endless cycle of robbery and violence. It would also force angry Middle Eastern Muslims to finally confront the inadequacies of their own societies instead of blaming Europe, the United States, and Israel for their centuries of fossilization and decline.

What are the features of this ideal Iraqi End State? It would be democratic and prosperous, capable of providing its own internal security and of deterring external threats. This is a tall order, and we should not underestimate the difficulty of achieving it.

Perhaps some of the war's architects and supporters thought achieving a democratic End State in Iraq would be a snap. Not everyone did. In an essay just two years ago, I described what the transition to peace would be like:

Pity General Tommy Franks or, for that matter, any American military commander tasked with overseeing a post-Saddam Baghdad. For in that amorphous, dicey phase the Pentagon calls "war termination," . . . U.S. and allied forces liberating Iraq will attempt--more or less simultaneously--to end combat operations, cork public passions, disarm Iraqi battalions, bury the dead, generate electricity, pump potable water, bring law out of embittering lawlessness, empty jails of political prisoners, pack jails with criminals, turn armed partisans into peaceful citizens, re-arm local cops who were once enemy infantry, shoot terrorists, thwart chiselers, carpetbaggers, and black marketeers, fix sewers, feed refugees, patch potholes, get trash trucks rolling, and accomplish all this under the lidless gaze of Peter Jennings and Al Jazeera.

What I missed was the amount of money Saddam had squirreled away to keep the pot boiling and test U.S. will through time. Oil For Food and other scams gave the tyrant a bankroll. I expected al Qaeda or its avatars to show up in Iraq--in fact, that's one of the sotto voce goals for waging war in the heart of the Middle East, to fight Islamofascism on its home turf. Prior to 9/11, with little pressure on its hidden network, al Qaeda could take its time to spring a vicious surprise attack--surprise and visionary viciousness being its strengths and the gist of its "asymmetric" challenge to America's "symmetric" power. "Fear us, America," was the message, "because al Qaeda chooses the time and place of battle, and when we do you are defenseless."

The essence of strategic art is to force an enemy to fight on your terms, not his, and ideally in a fight he cannot refuse. The U.S.-led attack on Iraq changed al Qaeda's battlefield. Sunni-extremist al Qaeda has had to fight in a predominantly Shia country. Arab elitists in al Qaeda snubbed the Afghans and ticked them off; Kurds know the feeling.

Zarqawi's al Qaeda clan accepted the battle. Zarqawi's network has been hit and hit hard. We've learned a lot about al Qaeda funding and recruiting, but Zarqawi hasn't been destroyed. Something that has been destroyed is the notion that al Qaeda's extremism dominates Islam. The idea that waging jihad against the West is easy has also been exposed as a lie. These are ideological defeats for al Qaeda, but the Bush administration--soft-pedaling the ideological conflict--has failed to exploit them politically and psychologically.

The continuing combat in Iraq is thus not only the result of slapdash postwar planning, but of two strategic aims that will take years to mesh: (1) engage al Qaeda on a battlefield it did not choose in order to destroy its eschatological claims, and (2) plant a modern, secular Arab state in the Middle East that will ultimately seal al Qaeda's defeat. The Iraqi people remain in the crossfire of Saddamite resistance, al Qaeda terror, and Coalition firepower.

What are the acceptable End States in Iraq? In an essay he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in August, Iraq's interim prime minister Iyad Allawi identified three keys to success in Iraq: (1) security and the rule of law, (2) a prosperous economy, and (3) an "inclusive, collaborative" political system. To achieve it will take years of low-level warfare and continuing security assistance from the United States even after the New Iraq begins to manage its own domestic security. No administration of whatever political stripe should think otherwise.

Another acceptable End State would be what a friend called "a too strong, bulldog Iraq." Don't dismiss the notion out of hand. Here are the attributes: "New Iraq" decides to rearm for offensive capability--and the French or Russians sell it weapons. Angry at perceived Syrian, Iranian, or Saudi interference, a brave new Iraqi government turns to regional assertiveness as a way of solidifying domestic support. The United States could live with this End State, but it would seriously frustrate attempts to spur political evolution in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A far less acceptable End State would be a "gentle" dictatorship in Iraq, an authoritarian regime that did not threaten the region but held Iraq together by force and smashed civil opposition in the name of domestic security. This would be an ideological defeat for the United States, the defeat salved if this New Iraq were an effective counterterror partner in the region. Early Coalition withdrawal, whatever the reason, would make this End State more likely.

The last acceptable End State, but one that further frustrates long-term American goals, is the oft-debated tripartite Iraq, with Kurdistan in the north, Shia-stan in the south, and Baath-istan in the Sunni Triangle and Al Anbar Province. This would be a dangerous mosaic, but for the sake of oil revenues the Baathists would have to police al Qaeda. Kurds and Shia areas would also destroy al Qaedaites.

Defeatists and cynics will argue it's too late for the United States to wage the Millennium War on ideological grounds. This ignores the fact that this war is ideological in its deepest origins.

Afghanistan is the guide. Afghanistan's October 9 presidential election was the most significant election in 2004. Obviously, it was significant for the people of Afghanistan, but it was significant too for the forgotten, trampled, robbed, and oppressed people suffering in Earth's various tyrannies--those who do long for freedom's fairer shake. The successful election was also a major step toward victory for the civilized world. This Millennium War is as much a war against fear, poverty, and anarchy as it is a war against the petty tyrants who harbor and sustain terrorists. The 8 million Afghans who voted, despite terror threats from al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts, rejected fear. The Afghan people acted, ignoring death threats made by religious fascists, the destruction wrought by 30 years of war, and the lack of "a modern transportation and communication infrastructure" (i.e., roads and telephones).

The Afghan people understand that democracy and the rule of law are the keys to modernity as well as the foundations of a more just society, and they made a public statement about their own hopes for the future. It's a future where the governed have a legal voice. It's a future where the rule of law replaces the whim of the tyrant imposed by force. The Afghan vote exemplifies the "ballot" component of the U.S. global strategy of bullets, money, and ballots. The bullets are combat and security operations. The money is financial, reconstruction, and development aid. The ballot is shorthand for fostering consensus-based governmental institutions and reinforcing the rule of law.

The Afghan presidential election is another loud shout for freedom. The Afghan people, in astounding numbers, went to the polls when they were given the opportunity--the first time in history they had the chance.

MAJOR HOPPMAN and I lag behind one of the British commandos in General Graham's personal security detachment. It's 1300 hours and heat bakes Babylon's walls. At least we don't have to wear our armor inside the ruins, which is some relief.

We pass one of Saddam's fake-Nebuchadnezzar bricks, and I point it out to John. "Snap a picture, sir?" he asks.

"Naw, let's catch up," I reply.

Then we pass a large, restored door, a portal. The portal perfectly frames the hill with Saddam's squat pleasure dome.

"This is a picture, Colonel Bay," John says.

With a broad sweep I pull my patrol cap off my head and point it toward the palace, like a carnival barker introducing a freak.

"Great shot sir. Do it again."

"I really think that place is hideous," I said. "Building it damaged the ruins. No way it didn't."

"It's sure there," John says.

I put my hat back on. "Yeah, so we deal with it, huh? I'll tell you something, though. When someone turns that palace into a luxury hotel, you'll know we're well on our way to victory."

Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and U.S. Army Reserve officer who served in Iraq from May through September 2004. His most recent novel is The Wrong Side of Brightness.