Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert

The U.S. Military's $500 Million Gamble to Prevent the Next Afghanistan

In April 2004, while MDJT rebels kept Saifi handcuffed in a small cave near one of their mountain encampments, General Wald gave a talk at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. Saifi was still technically at large, but Wald was optimistic about what the U.S. had done in Chad and Niger to pursue him. In his speech, Wald sketched out an ambitious African security plan. The current military cooperation across the Sahel, he indicated, might serve as a precursor for a transnational army. "The irony of all ironies is that Muammar Qaddafi, at the African Union meeting in Tripoli, about a month ago or so, recommended a 1 million- person standing army in Africa," he said. "Now I think that's crazy, don't get me wrong." But a bit later, Wald went on to suggest that establishing five 3,000-man brigades from various African military units might be a good way to police the continent. "That's a great thing," he noted. "We need to help encourage that. We need to help train that." Wald then laid out European Command's operating principle. "Our approach is basically to help Africans help themselves," he said. "Use nontraditional approaches that most people pretty much gag on, get over the stovepipes, quit worrying about who gets credit."

European Command will be expanding its role in the region during the next several years. With the Pentagon reconfiguring its global distribution of personnel and resources, the U.S. military has been combing Africa for suitable "forward operating locations" and other installations for temporary use. (The Moroccan newspaper Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia recently reported that the United States was collecting intelligence from a clandestine "listening" station in the Algerian Sahara; last year, ABC News revealed that the CIA was using a secret detention center "in the North African desert.") Meanwhile, the Pan Sahel Initiative is being augmented: Its funding for this year was raised to $30 million, five other countries—Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, and Nigeria—will participate, and in the spirit of its more extensive geographic scope, it has been renamed the Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative. In 2007, Congress will likely expand the program's budget to $70 million, and by 2012, it is expected to have allocated half a billion dollars. The military is also using its own funding to conduct bolder operations in the region. Last summer, hundreds of Special Forces visited more than half a dozen countries that share the Sahara for Operation Flintlock, another training mission. A military spokesperson called Flintlock "the largest joint military exercise between African nations and the United States since World War II."

Ammari Saifi
Illustration: Tim O'Brien
Ammari Saifi

General Wald may be a key architect for programs like Flintlock and the Pan Sahel Initiative, but the doctrine behind these projects is perhaps best articulated by John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California. Arquilla's concept, called "netwar," is one that he and another military strategist, David Ronfeldt, have been developing since before 9-11. To combat Al Qaeda, Arquilla has argued, the United States and its allies must learn to develop the structural fluidity of terrorist organizations; they must function like Al Qaeda, or Colombian drug cartels, or the anarchist Black Bloc, which rioted with destructive effectiveness during the 1999 WTO summit in Seattle. Last year, Seymour Hersh noted in The New Yorker that, based upon this strategy, "a few pilot covert operations" had occurred, including the hunt for Saifi, and that this was possible because changing rules at the Pentagon enabled the military to send secret "action teams" overseas.

"In this first great war between networks and nations, it behooves the latter to form their own networks—for it is growing ever clearer that it takes a network to fight a network," Arquilla explained in a policy review for the Institute of Public Affairs, in Australia. "'Networking,' in this instance, consists of widespread sharing of information and cooperation in the field between intelligence, military, and law enforcement organizations in all countries involved. It means preemptive attacks will result from shared intelligence and will feature multi-national assault forces. It means that nobody leads, but rather that all strive together toward a common goal." Small, specialized military or paramilitary units commanded by the United States and other countries would work in coordination to "swarm the enemy" with multiple highly targeted attacks. In instances where an element of confusion is required, American and allied network participants might even be indistinguishable from their adversaries. The strategy, Arquilla says, gives the Defense Department the opportunity to keep a low profile in politically volatile areas; it also "takes the initiative militarily and yet still strengthens the global coalition of nations allied in the fight against terror networks."

There is undoubtedly something to this. The U.S. military is not in a position to police the globe, and it certainly is not in a position to invest a great deal of its resources in places like the Sahel, which do not yet constitute a grave and immediate danger. And while the "netwar" concept does conserve American manpower and does give the American military flexibility and political cover, it raises important practical and ethical questions. The most obvious among them is reliability. If a "nobody leads" network fails then nobody is leading; or to put it differently, for every successful WTO protest that comes out of nowhere, numerous others fall by the wayside because they do not properly self-organize. Reliability, of course, also depends upon each participant, not just the network as a whole. Afghan fighters, for instance, working under the guidance of U.S. Special Forces, proved to be woefully ineffective during the battle at Tora Bora, allowing Al Qaeda's top leaders to escape into Pakistan. In Mali, while tracking Saifi and his men, the Defense Department encountered similar problems; a counterterrorism official familiar with the Sahel drove home the point when he said, "U.S. intelligence on terrorists was provided to the Malian government and then was later found among Saifi's people, in the hands of the very militants the government was supposedly targeting."

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