As discussed in the last post on this topic, the debate over whether counterterrorism is primarily a police, intelligence, or a military function is ultimately pointless. Without foreign intelligence, governments cannot track the plans and movements of terrorist groups that operate increasingly on an international plane, even if their origins and objectives—the IRA in Northern Ireland, Hamas in the occupied territories, the original Al Qaeda in Egypt, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines—are local. Without good police work, governments cannot infiltrate and dismantle terrorist organizations. Without military capabilities, these same governments cannot respond to exigencies that are beyond the ability of intelligence and police officials to handle. The military facet of counterterrorism is important, but it is hardly primary.
Specialized military units, such as Germany's GSG-9, Great Britain's SAS, and the American "Delta Force," filled a strategic vacuum that terrorist strategy in the 1970s and 1980s created. Terrorist operations such as the PLO's simultaneous hijacking of multiple airliners in 1970, the seizure and execution of the Israeli Olympic team in 1970, and the kidnapping and killing of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978 showed that Western governments had no effective way to counter these dramatic incidents. Elite counterterrorist units—capable of mobilizing quickly in an emergency; trained for the difficult and dangerous task of rescuing hostages; provided with the transportation, supplies, and information needed in these scenarios—were missing from the Western counterterrorist arsenals.
Western governments naturally turned to their own militaries to create these new types of units. Commando units in World War II already proved their ability to execute high-risk operations with a small number of lightly-armed troops. The Special Air Service (SAS) therefore took a very small step from raiding the Afrika Korps to rescuing hostages held in an embassy building. Israeli commandos who fought behind enemy lines in the Arab-Israeli wars successfully rescued hostages in Entebbe, Uganda. Some veterans of World War II commando missions, such as OSS members who had not joined the newly-created Special Forces branch of the US Army, were looking for a new mission. The challenge of national and international terrorism provided a new challenge for these highly-skilled veterans, whose skills, backgrounds, and temperaments often did not fit the traditional military.
At the same time, police forces in many countries developed their own paramilitary units, such as the SWAT teams that proliferated across American police departments. The justification for police paramilitary units was much the same as the new counterterrorist elite units in the military: new opponents or new methods demanded new tactical organization and methods. In the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, local, state, and national police organizations, from the NYPD to the FBI, needed to handle everything from hostage situations during bank robberies, bombings and kidnappings executed by radical groups like the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, and growing violence between competing gangs involved in the drug trade. SWAT-like units became a normal and necessary part of police organizations. They did not, of course, supplant other types of police professionals. In fact, a SWAT team's raid of a drug factory would not be possible without information from informants and undercover detectives. The raid would also prove ineffective or even counterproductive if the operation were not coordinated with local, state, or federal prosecutors, who took evidence seized in the raid to damage the criminal organization beyond a single day's disruption of operations.
If a SWAT team can work effectively with other police officers, the FBI, the local district attorney, and federal prosecutors, their counterparts in the military should have no equivalent problems working with diplomats, intelligence analysts, and other government officials outside their own unit. After 9/11, the op-ed pages and airwaves echoed the opinion that, in counterterrorism, military assets like American elite commando units needed to be somehow unleashed in some unspecified new way. While special operations forces (SOFs) involved in counterterrorism, such as Delta Force and the SEALs, faced serious obstacles doing their mission, the organization responsible for erecting these obstacles was not the CIA, the State Department, or the Justice Department. The chief opponent of America's elite counterterrorist units was, in fact, the US military itself.
While the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military heads paid lip service to the military branch of counterterrorism, they practiced a much different policy. Just as traditionally-minded military leaders saw counterinsurgency as a "fringe" concern, these same military chieftains opposed serious investment in counterterrorism. Lacking their own airlift capability, the Delta Force team sent to rescue the American hostages depended on US Air Force transport planes and pilots with whom they had not worked before. The resulting coordination and communications problems led to the disaster at the Desert One staging area, forcing the rescue team to cancel the mission. However, it was not until the Grenada invasion, a nominally successful mission, that patience in Congress with the military chiefs' hostility to counterterrorism ended, if in a somewhat indirect way. The Delta Force and SEAL teams involved in Operation URGENT FURY performed poorly, often arriving late at their objectives, suffering higher than expected casualties. The downing of a Blackhawk helicopter containing several Delta commandos was the iconic moment for legislators who had enough. The resulting Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen acts ordered the military to give the SOFs responsible for counterterrorism the resources and latitude they needed. These reforms, however, were not an effort to "unleash" the military in a way it hadn't before. The military branches were already involved in counterterrorism; they had just done a bad job of it.
The military and paramilitary aspect of counterterrorism is, therefore, a tool in a larger arsenal. It cannot do the job on its own, any more than the artillery in conventional battles can win the day alone. Police work, intelligence gathering, diplomacy, legal action, and military operations are the "combined arms" of counterterrorism. Governments learned to their regret in the 1960s and 1970s that the military arm of counterterrorism was far too weak. After much political and bureaucratic wrangling in some countries (for example, the United States), and far less arm-twisting in others (such as Israel), the specialized military units needed for counterterrorism asserted their rightful place alongside their colleagues in the common effort.
After three years of war in Iraq, Americans should not suffer any further illusions about Iraq somehow being the "central front against terrorism." That belief is wrong on many levels: for example, no Islamist militants were ambushing American troops anywhere except Afghanistan; today, roadside attacks and suicide bombings against American troops and civilians in Iraq is a daily occurrence. The aspect of the "central front against terrorism" illusion that's salient to this discussion is the obvious fallacy of the American military occupation: if there's a job for the US military to perform against terrorists like the Al Qaeda hijackers of 9/11, it is not going to be performed by conventional military units. The invasion of Iraq was supposed to seize the initiative somehow against America's enemies. Instead, it has put the US military on the strategic defensive against insurgents and terrorists operating in Iraq.
Military counterterrorist operations are always, to a significant degree, going to be reactive. Realistically, the government can never detect every act of terrorism before it happens. However, the US mission in Iraq can only be defensive—and expensive to a degree that dwarfs anything the US government could have done before 2003.
Without control of any region in which they are deployed, US troops are always going to be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Even if US, British, and Iraqi forces were able to secure the Iraqi landscape, the highly-motivated, operationally-creative terrorists would merely modify their methods and targets. Shipping and oil pipelines are still easy and attractive targets, and Iraq is not the only country where Americans make convenient targets. Given the amount of traffic across Iraq's borders with Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, and Iran, sealing the borders altogether—a political, economic, and demographic impossibility—would be the only way to ensure that terrorists did not slip across the border to strike at American targets. (That's assuming, of course, that a suicide bomber isn't going to kill the Americans at a border crossing anyway.)
Of course, nothing that happens in Iraq will have any effect on Al Qaeda's plans to strike within the United States. Islamist militants may be zealous, but they are rarely stupid. If they still plan to do harm to Americans on American soil, they won't sacrifice themselves in Iraq just for the hell of it.
Obviously, I could say more than a few words hear about how the Iraqi occupation has made the United States more, not less, vulnerable to another 9/11-like attack. However, the major point I wanted to make is how unlike the necessary role the US military plays in counterterrorism the mixed counterinsurgency/counterterrorism campaign in Iraq really is. "The central front against terrorism" is just a slogan—and not a very good one to begin with.