Iraq, Terrorism and Geopolitics

Stratfor, 2020 GMT, 2001/12/04


It is no secret that a debate is continuing within the Bush administration over whether to expand the anti-terror campaign from Afghanistan to Iraq. Those advocating an attack on Baghdad were defeated during the first round of planning, but they are renewing their arguments following the recent Taliban withdrawals. They are also trying to combine an Iraqi strategy with the model seen in Afghanistan.


Ever since the earliest planning for the response to Sept. 11, the Iraq question has divided American strategic planners. On one side, elements within the U.S. Defense Department, publicly led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, have advocated a strategy that could be called "the parallel solution." This plan argued that the Afghan campaign had to be embedded within a broader strategy against not only al Qaeda but also against all states that had cooperated with the group, chief among these Iraq.

The parallel solution argued that unless all sanctuary for al Qaeda were liquidated at the same time, the command structure would likely migrate from haven to haven. Any U.S. success in Afghanistan then would not translate into the destruction of al Qaeda.

The other side was led by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who argued for a "serial solution." Powell's primary concern was that a broad, simultaneous attack on multiple Islamic countries would produce two unacceptable results.

First, it would shatter the international coalition on which the United States was absolutely dependent. For example, Russian and European support are indispensable to the anti-terror campaign, but neither the Russians nor many European states were prepared to support a campaign against the Iraqis.

Second, Powell was aware that one of the primary strategic goals of al Qaeda was to create the perception that the United States intended to dominate the Islamic world. Al Qaeda hoped Washington would adopt a broad strategy that could be portrayed as an attempt to destroy any Islamic regime that resisted it. Powell was aware that the situation in Pakistan was particularly volatile. Were anti-American sentiment there to boil over, the Afghan campaign would become an Afghan-Pakistani campaign, with enormous strategic implications.

There was an additional consideration. Mounting a broad-based campaign against multiple countries, particularly Iraq, would require months for deploying troops and building up supplies. Delaying the Afghan campaign in order to wait for a buildup around Iraq was politically unacceptable and militarily unwise. Disrupting al Qaeda inside Afghanistan was a more pressing military requirement, even if it did not completely close down the migration of planning cells.

From Washington's perspective, the Afghan campaign is now drawing to a close, assuming the al Qaeda leadership can be contained inside the country. Although the Taliban has not been broken decisively, the fact is the United States doesn't care much about the group, viewing them as a local Afghan issue.

Al Qaeda is the real issue that interests the United States. Whether Osama bin Laden and his staff are captured or killed is less important than whether they are contained and isolated inside Afghanistan. Their survival and isolation might actually be the ideal solution.

If they were killed or captured, mid-level al Qaeda operatives in Europe and elsewhere might coalesce and form a new command structure, as they have undoubtedly been instructed to do. The flip side, of course, is that events might outstrip U.S. plans. Bin Laden might already be out of Afghanistan with much of his staff, or a shift of command may already have taken place.

This is why the Iraqi question has flared again in Washington. Those who argued for a parallel approach were defeated in the original planning. But they are now mounting a dual attack in defense of their position.

First, they are arguing that the Afghan issue has been settled and therefore the requirements of a serial attack have also been settled. Second, they are arguing that to the extent the Afghan issue remains open, it increases the urgency of follow-on campaigns in order to prevent the re-establishment of an al Qaeda command cell in another country.

The Iraqi question is particularly difficult. The strategy established in Afghanistan is based on four principles:

1) The exploitation of internal tribal, clan and ideological schisms to destabilize the regime and create a power vacuum to be filled, at least notionally, by indigenous forces.
2) The use of air power and extremely limited ground forces to support anti-government elements.
3) The use of raiding forces to attempt to destroy al Qaeda operatives.
4) The shifting of post-war reconstruction to the United Nations, allies and internal forces.

Under no circumstances has the United States been prepared to deploy multidivisional forces to occupy and pacify Afghanistan. This is a strategy that might work well in countries like Somalia and Yemen, where social fragmentation and clan warfare resemble the situation in Afghanistan.

It is also in keeping with the strategic principles the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush laid down after taking office. Bush was deeply concerned that ongoing peacekeeping responsibilities were diffusing U.S. power across multiple non-critical and non-mutually-supporting missions, leaving the United States exposed to major threats such as China. The strategy used in Afghanistan combined the pressing need for a military operation with the administration's concerns for economy of force.

Iraq represents a different case in two regards. First, although there is no question that Iraqi intelligence cooperated on occasion with al Qaeda, there is a substantial ideological gulf between al Qaeda and the Iraqis. Moreover, al Qaeda has worked assiduously not to become hostage to any one state. Whereas it might dominate Somalia or Yemen, it would rapidly become hostage to Baghdad. Thus, although Iraq is itself a source of terrorism, it is not likely to be critical to defeating al Qaeda.

Second, the strategy applied in Afghanistan, although useful in other countries, would not clearly be applicable to Iraq. During Desert Storm, a multidivisional, conventional operation had to be mounted simply to reclaim Kuwait. That force might have been sufficient to approach Baghdad, but its ability to mount an intense campaign would have depended on a willingness to absorb substantial casualties, and would have required massive resupply and reinforcement.

Iraq, in other words, required a commitment of the bulk of American military power in 1991. Under current circumstances, that would raise serious risks elsewhere in the region and the world. Therefore, the defenders of an Iraqi strategy have tried to integrate the Afghan model into an attack plan. As in the most recent military campaign, the United States would support elements opposed to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein using air power and Special Forces troops.

The problem with this strategy is it assumes a condition that does not appear to exist in Iraq: the presence of a motivated, capable opposition. Hussein's enemies have been foiled consistently by Iraqi counter-intelligence. The strategy of arming and motivating an anti-Hussein coalition has been discussed and attempted several times during the past decade. It has never worked.

The advocates of an attack on Iraq understand this. They also understand that if the principle of such an attack were accepted, it would by inevitable military logic evolve into a conventional attack. The planning process would move from covert operations, to a strategic air campaign to the introduction of conventional forces.

Powell struck back in interviews last week, making it clear that military operations against Iraq are not likely at this time. He is concerned the coalition might not stand the strain, and he does not believe an attack on Iraq would materially affect al Qaeda. He also understands the campaign would have to evolve into a major thrust against Baghdad.

It is not that Powell is concerned about whether Hussein can be defeated. Even if the Saudis would not participate in an attack or allow its soil to be used, the situation in the north, where Turkish forces operate deep inside Iraqi territory, still creates strategic opportunities. Moreover, the recent evolution of events inside Iran raises the possibility of another axis of attack. And that is precisely what worries Powell.

There were many reasons for not moving on Baghdad in 1991, but the most important was geopolitical. The foundation of U.S. strategy in the Persian Gulf always has been maintaining the balance of power between Iraq and Iran so that U.S. interests are not threatened by one country having too much power.

The destruction of Hussein's regime 10 years ago would have created a power vacuum in Iraq not easily filled. It would have made Iran the dominant power in the Persian Gulf and would have in effect traded a dangerous Baghdad for a dangerous Tehran. It was far better for a crippled Iraq to cancel out a crippled Iran. That same situation exists today. The maintenance of the regional balance of power requires that Iraqi and Iranian power cancel each other out.

Wolfowitz and his colleagues understand this dynamic well. It would seem they have another geopolitical conception in mind. Wolfowitz regards both Iraq and Pakistan as long-term threats to American interests. Clearly, the United States has relied not only on the Iraq-Iran balance of power but also on the Pakistani-Indian balance to protect U.S. interests.

What the Wolfowitz camp is apparently arguing is that Pakistan has ceased to be a reliable ally, counter-weight or even a coherent nation-state. Similarly, Iraq also challenges the fundamental interests of the United States with or without al Qaeda. Therefore, the logical argument is that the United States should shift from a balance-of-power strategy to one based on close alliances with two major powers -- India and Iran -- whose interest is to collaborate with Washington.

Each would benefit greatly by the destruction of a cohesive Iraq and Pakistan. Each is certainly prepared to cooperate with the United States to achieve that goal. The question -- and this is always the question when abandoning a balance-of-power strategy -- is what will hold Iran and India in check following the collapse of their adversaries? That is clearly the point that Powell and his supporters are making.

The Wolfowitz answer is four-fold. First, whatever the long term brings, the short-term threat of terrorism is too great. The risks from Iraq and Pakistan are already enormous; the risks of relying on Iran and India are purely hypothetical.

Second, the process of disintegration is a drawn-out one. Both Iran and India will depend on each other and the United States to manage the instability on their frontiers.

Third, should the situation prove unacceptable down the road, the United States always has the option of recreating Iraqi and Pakistani entities or threats to contain the Iranians and Indians.

Finally, India is a commercial republic and Iran is evolving that way. The United States can provide economic benefits to contain their appetite for mischief.

Powell's likely response is that it is far better for relations with India and Iran to evolve in the context of current geopolitical and strategic arrangements. He undoubtedly reminds Wolfowitz that there are other nations -- like Saudi Arabia -- to be taken into account and that a broad assault on multiple Islamic countries could come back to haunt the United States. Islam can be contained and divided, but it cannot be overwhelmed.

What is emerging in the wake of Sept. 11 is a profound debate over the future of U.S. strategy throughout the Indian Ocean basin. The logic of U.S. grand strategy is always to rely on the balance of power, the justification being that it is better to use the regional political dynamic than to dissipate scarce resources in diverse military operations. But this argument falls apart if the balance of power itself can't be maintained, or if the cost of the balance of power -- such as Iraqi terrorism -- is too great.

In STRATFOR's view, Powell's more traditional understanding of American interests is likely to prevail, for both logical and bureaucratic reasons. Foreign policies usually are driven by their own internal logic. The debate over how to treat Iraq cuts to the heart not only of Indian Ocean policy but also to how the United States carries out its mission globally.


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