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Terrorism War: Long and Mostly Invisible

March 05, 2003|Robert Stewart | Robert Stewart, an Army intelligence analyst in 1990-94, is a writer based in Washington. E-mail:

The Bush administration, it turns out, can walk and chew gum at the same time. The arrest Saturday of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who many believe was responsible for planning the 9/11 attacks, was a significant victory in the war on terror. It was also a body blow to those who claim that President Bush has stalled the anti-terror campaign over the last year in favor of a buildup in the Persian Gulf region to attack Iraq.

With the homeland security threat level hovering between yellow and orange, critics seized on an apparent lull in the anti-terror campaign as grounds to argue against war in Iraq. But military inaction in Iraq will not prevent terror, and terrorists are surely not waiting for our decision in the Gulf. As shown by files and computers seized along with Mohammed, the next attacks already are planned.

The U.S. can both liberate Iraq and incarcerate terrorists. We can replace Saddam Hussein with hope, and we can replace sponsors of terror with protectors of freedom. We need not do only one or the other.

In this fast-food society, Americans expect instant results. We prefer our wars quick and without casualties. And why not? Kosovo, the Gulf War and the liberation of Afghanistan were relatively immediate in their victory, with few battle losses and nightly, even hourly, updates on television news.

This mentality has bled over into the fight against terror; there are people who think this new war will be like those in recent years. It won't.

Many today are too young to remember the years of struggle required to rid the world of Adolf Hitler, or to recall with any clarity the decades that were the Cold War. But they soon must learn that although there will be successes, the fight against an international behemoth without a home or borders will be neither antiseptic nor swift.

Bush prepared the nation for a long struggle in his address to Congress nine days after the terrorist attacks of 2001, though apparently not all took notice.

"This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion," Bush explained. "Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success."

There's the rub. Americans have grown accustomed to watching our victories on the nightly news. In Iraq, the war's outcome surely will be decided quickly, as fixed targets are destroyed or occupied. No such targeting is possible with Al Qaeda. Its members are mobile and spread across dozens of nations.

Covert operations, by definition, cannot be heralded on TV. There are thousands of operations and successes. As Bush said in January, "We're keeping them on the run. One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice."

But if we don't see it on television -- well, for a lot of people, it just didn't happen.

It comes as little surprise that many are concerned that the war on terror is being given short shrift. The CIA and FBI cannot "embed" reporters in their front lines as the Pentagon has. An operation to infiltrate an Al Qaeda cell cannot be covered by a foreign correspondent.

But such operations happen every day, will succeed every day that we are in Iraq and will continue every day thereafter.

Bush did include a bit of congratulations in the State of the Union to remind us that the campaign continues. Outlining a record of success against terrorists, Bush said: "All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way -- they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies."

That's about as verbose as he's been on the topic. Because of the tight-lipped nature of the campaign, few knew before the speech of the 3,000 who were arrested or those who met "a different fate." There have undoubtedly been even more about whom our intelligence assets don't boast, and there will surely be many more in the future.

Regime change in Iraq is not a detour on the road to ridding the world of terror. Rather, it is a major step toward the day when the threat level is moved, indefinitely, to the color green.

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