Commentary

Turn The War on Terrorism Into a War By Proxy

By Ivan Eland
January 23, 2002

The latest game in Washington is speculation about where the Bush administration’s worldwide war on terrorism will move next. Hard-line hawks are gunning for Iraq. But recent comments by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of Defense and the administration’s chief hawk on Iraq, seem to indicate that an attack on Iraq is not imminent. Instead, attention has now turned to the Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen, and Somalia. Each of those nations has fundamentalist Islamic elements that might harbor and support Al Qaeda terrorists who could again attack the United States.

Although any Al Qaeda cells in those nations need to be targeted, it does not necessarily need to be by direct U.S. military action. As in Afghanistan, the U.S. military “footprint” should be minimized. That minimalist strategy would avoid generating more retaliatory radical Islamic terrorism than it would exterminate.

Fortunately, unlike pre-war Afghanistan, in three of the four nations—Philippines, Indonesia and Yemen—the governments have their own vested interests in trying to eradicate Islamic radicals. The United States could provide weapons, intelligence, training, military advisers, and money to help those nations take out Al Qaeda cells. Evidence exists that the U.S. government is already providing that assistance. For example, the United States is sending military advisors to the Philippines to help battle Islamist insurgents there.

The remaining country—Somalia—is the problem. According to recent leaks to the media, the CIA and the U.S. military have cased the country for Al Qaeda targets to strike. But other than a few training camps in remote areas, Al Qaeda targets will probably not be prominent. Radical Islamic groups in Somalia no longer operate overtly or try to hold territory. No longer attempting to hold ground enables the terrorist groups—for example, Al-Ittihad—to lose their formal structure and thus to become even more difficult to find, penetrate or attack.

But the United States is not without options in Somalia. The Ethiopian government is fighting an insurgency in an eastern region next to Somalia. Muslim Somalis help fuel that separatism. In addition, the Ethiopian government charges that the current Somali government has ties to radical Islamic groups, such as Al Qaeda and Al Ittihad—an accusation that seems well-founded—and fears that it might try to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia. Ethiopia currently aids warlords trying to topple the Somali government. The United States could provide weapons, intelligence, training, military advisers, and money to the very willing Ethiopian armed forces to conduct attacks on radical Islamic cells in Somalia, including Al Qaeda. Also, the Ethiopian government could act as a conduit through which such assistance could pass to warlords in Somalia that are fighting such Islamic groups.

Prior U.S. experience, however, should raise a flag of caution in Somalia—both in terms of direct U.S. military action and even for a war by proxy. During the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the CIA funneled billions of dollars in military aid to the Islamic rebels through the Pakistani intelligence services. The Pakistanis gave the aid to the groups most friendly to Pakistan, which also turned out to be the most radical and least effective in fighting the Soviets. Those most radical elements are now the worst nightmare of the United States. The U.S. government must monitor the assistance carefully to insure that the money given to Ethiopia is given to Somali groups that are most likely to fight Al Qaeda and Al-Ittihad effectively and that are least likely to cause the United States future problems. More important, as the film Blackhawk Down—depicting the killing in Somalia of 18 U.S. Army Rangers in 1993—should remind us, direct U.S. military intervention in the never-ending internecine conflict in that east African nation is a bad idea.

There is probably no need for such large-scale direct U.S. military operations in any of the aforementioned four nations. The United States has poor intelligence in those remote countries—especially about the intricacies of local politics and the shadowy groups it is pursuing there. The war on terrorism is best led by entities in those regions that have their own incentives to help the United States eradicate radical Islamic groups that support or are part of the Al Qaeda terrorist network—that is, governments of the countries, friendly groups within the countries or neighboring governments. Of course, the United States must be careful which groups it supports.

But effective and reasonable local actors will give the United States the most bang for the buck in its war against terrorism, while at the same time lessening the chances that the United States will be a lightning rod for retaliatory terrorism.

Ivan Eland i sthe Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.