Twilight Struggle

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POLITICS OCTOBER 28, 2008

Twilight Struggle

On Sunday, U.S. helicopters accompanied by a special forces team struck in Sukkariyeh, Syria, just over the border from Iraq. It was a raid with enormous implications for the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror. The target of the raid was a man named Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih, better known in his circles as Abu Ghadiya. Since 2004, intelligence officials have been targeting Abu Ghadiya for his pernicious role in Iraq: helping fuel the Sunni insurgency by transporting foreign fighters, money, and weapons. Never before had Americans struck within Syria with such visible fingerprints. But officials believe that killing Abu Ghadiya justified that kind of action. One military official told me that the elimination of Abu Ghadiya represents a significant triumph over al Qaeda in Iraq. “The organization is pretty much finished now,” he told me.

That is a big story. But it doesn’t begin to capture the magnitude of the strike in Sukkariyeh. We have entered a new phase in the war on terror. In July, according to three administration sources, the Bush administration formally gave the military new power to strike terrorist safe havens outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Before then, a military strike in a country like Syria or Pakistan would have required President Bush’s personal approval. Now, those kinds of strikes in the region can occur at the discretion of the incoming commander of Central Command (Centcomm), General David Petraeus. One intelligence source described the order as institutionalizing the “Chicago Way,” an allusion to Sean Connery’s famous soliloquy about bringing a gun to a knife fight.

The new order could pave the way for direct action in Kenya, Mali, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen--all places where the American intelligence believe al Qaeda has a significant presence, but can no longer count on the indigenous security services to act. In the parlance of the Cold War, Petraeus will now have the authority to fight a regional “dirty war.” When queried about the order from July, deputy spokesman for the National Security Council Ben Chang offered no comment.

Strikes within Iran could be justified by the order, since senior al Qaeda leaders such as Saif al Adel are believed to have used that country as a base for aiding the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda affiliates in Iraqi Kurdistan. For now, however, any action inside Iranian territory will require at least sign off from the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff because of Iran’s capacity to retaliate inside the western hemisphere.

Why has the administration changed policy at this late date? For starters, the administration is genuinely worried about al Qaeda’s resurgence, not just in Pakistan, but across Asia and Africa. Within the administration, there is growing frustration with security services that are either unable or unwilling to root out al Qaeda within their borders. Pakistan is perhaps the best example of this. And even friendly services, like the one in Kenya, have made maddeningly little progress in their fight against terrorism.

When the administration first proposed this approach, it met with internal resistance. The National Intelligence Council produced a paper outlining the risk associated with this change in policy such as scuttling the prospect for better security cooperation in the future. And Admiral William Fallon, who preceded Petraeus at Centcomm, opposed taking direct action against al Qaeda and affiliated targets in Syria. But with the clock winding down on the administration, it has a greater appetite for racking up victories against al Qaeda--and less worries about any residual political consequences from striking. Roger Cressey, a former deputy to Richard Clarke in the Clinton and Bush administrations, says, “[W]ith the administration in the final weeks, the bar for military operations will be lowered because the downsides for the president are minimal.”

The big mystery now is whether the next administration will dismantle this policy or permit Petraeus to follow it to fruition. Obama has said nothing about Sunday’s strikes in Syria (a silence that has rightly earned him taunting from the McCain campaign). On one level, this new policy conflicts with Obama’s stated desire for opening up diplomatic channels to places like Tehran and Damascus. On the other hand, this is precisely the type of policy that he has repeatedly promised at least for Pakistan, whose territory is believed to host Osama bin Laden: If America has actionable intelligence on al Qaeda leaders, and the country housing those terrorist sits on its hands, we will act. His campaign rhetoric has now become the official war policy he will inherit. Is this a development that pleases him?

Eli Lake was the national security reporter for the now defunct New York Sun

By Eli Lake

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