Editor’s Note: According to press reports, the
U.S. air strike on the remote Pakistani border village of Damadola may
have killed three or four senior al-Qaeda operatives, but the principal
target, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appears to have escaped. The death toll also
included about 18 civilians, including women and children.
The bombardment early in the morning of Jan. 13
provoked widespread anti-American demonstrations across Pakistan,
prompting the pro-U.S. regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf to object to the
An underlying question, however, is whether
assaults on suspected al-Qaeda locations – that also kill significant
numbers of civilians – create more terrorists than they eliminate. Ivan
Eland of the Independent Institute addresses this question in this guest
CIA’s recent botched attempt to kill al-Qaeda’s number two man, Ayman
Zawahiri, in Pakistan illustrates why the Bush administration’s overly
aggressive “war on terror” actually motivates terrorists to attack the
Certainly, capturing or killing the
brains behind al-Qaeda is an important goal. Unfortunately, in the U.S.
method of warfare—which unduly emphasizes attrition, heavy firepower and
sophisticated weaponry, even against guerrillas and terrorists—the
technology of killing has outstripped the quality of human intelligence
needed to hit the correct targets.
The CIA’s unmanned Predator drone
fired missiles that killed many Pakistani civilians, including women and
children, but apparently not Zawahiri.
Making things even worse, the killing
of women and children continues to spark public outrage all across
Pakistan, leading to mass protests in all of Pakistan’s major cities and
the trashing and burning of a U.S.-supported aid organization.
Such public ire will make it even
less likely that the United States will receive accurate future
intelligence about where Zawahiri and his boss, Osama bin Laden, are
hiding, even though the prices on their heads are substantial.
And to shore up the popularity of his
war on terror at home, which has been dragged down by an incongruous,
unnecessary, now unpopular war in
President Bush has combined these reckless military actions with cowboy
rhetoric, which only further stoke the flames of anti-U.S. hatred among
Bringing back the “clash of
civilizations” rhetoric used during the Cold War against the “godless
Communists,” the administration is now implying that those with “too
much god of an alien kind” are trying to build a worldwide empire that
could again threaten the United States.
The president has cast the war on
Islamic terrorism as a contest between the men in white hats who
advocate freedom and those with black headgear who want to create “a
totalitarian Islamic empire reaching from
Yet bringing back the caliphate—the
political and spiritual leader of Sunni Islam who ruled a united Islamic
world—is a long-term objective of even moderate Muslims. As a result, to
the Muslim world, the president’s war on terror looks much like a war on
Islam that threatens to make the clash of civilizations a
Yet even the unlikely uniting of the
Islamic world would not necessarily create a severe threat to the United
States. Arab countries, only a subset of the Islamic world, have not
even been able to unite against Israel, their mortal enemy.
It would be even harder for the more
geographically and ethnically diverse global Islamic community to unite
under one ruler. Even if the entire Sunni Islamic world coalesced
rapidly into one empire, any threat to the United States—which would not
be inevitable—would be tempered by the fact that many of the countries
uniting are economic basket cases.
In addition to shoring up flagging
public opinion at home, the president’s talk of an Islamic empire is
designed to mask the real reasons that al-Qaeda attacks the United
States. The core of al-Qaeda’s gripe with the United States is its
military presence in the Persian Gulf to guard U.S. oil supplies and
support for corrupt Gulf leaders who sell that oil.
In a recent videotape, Zawahiri
warned Americans: “…Your calamity will not end, unless you leave our
lands and stop stealing our resources and stop supporting the bad rulers
in our countries.”
But because the Gulf countries are
heavily dependent on petroleum sales for their revenues (oil deals make
up between 65 percent and 90 percent of their export income, depending
upon the country), they have every incentive to sell oil to the world
market, regardless of whether the U.S. stations military forces on their
lands or props up their despotic rulers. In short, U.S. forces are not
needed to defend Persian Gulf oil.
Even if they were necessary, the job
could be done with no permanent U.S. military presence on Muslim lands.
In Gulf War I, Persian Gulf oil was successfully defended without a
prior land presence in the Gulf. Land forces were brought in only when a
threat arose. And since then, the threat to oil has decreased.
President Bush should ratchet down
the war on terror to make it more effective. The United States should
improve human intelligence and strike al-Qaeda only when the information
More importantly, to reduce
terrorists’ motive for attacking the United States in the first place,
the administration should quietly withdraw the unneeded land forces from
Persian Gulf countries and its support for their authoritarian, venal
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.