United States must understand costs, risks of war

September 20, 2001|By Richard Parker and Bryan Bender

WASHINGTON -- Beneath the rubble in New York and Washington lies a terrible question: Will the most devastating attack on America in modern times lead to war? The answer is increasingly yes, in a war that will be fought abroad and at home.

There is little disagreement that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda carried out the operation. But this operation most assuredly enjoyed the support of a foreign government, likely Iraq's.

American bombs over Baghdad and Kabul will probably trigger terrorist bombs here in the United States. In seeking revenge, Americans should prepare to pay for it.

The most telling details emerge in the targeted cities: Washington and New York. The Bush administration is moving painstakingly slowly in crafting its next action. If this were merely the work of Osama bin Laden's network, cruise missiles, bombs and special operations forces would already have descended on Afghanistan.

Indeed, bin Laden's operatives appear to have left a series of clues behind that strongly suggest the help of a state intelligence service, most likely that of Iraq.

Israeli intelligence has reportedly told its government that Iraq probably financed the operation and may have provided other support. Early indications indicate that the people who carried out the hijackings entered the country with documents good enough to avoid detection; in the past bin Laden's network has often tripped up because of faulty passports and papers.

In addition, the operation displayed a high degree of deception; the electronic ears of the National Security Agency were attuned to significant amounts of traffic in recent months but all that traffic pointed to attacks abroad. This suggests that bin Laden's network has access to a secure communications network. If Air Force One was a target, then the operatives had command and control with which to threaten the president's aircraft.

Even the operational value of the targets in New York benefits both Iraq and bin Laden, according to sources in New York. The World Trade Center may have housed an office of the Central Intelligence Agency, though a more public office exists at One Federal Plaza. And sources have indicated in the past that billions of dollars in Kuwaiti gold, always a source of frustration to Mr. Hussein's regime, are in a vault now buried beneath the rubble.

For other strategic and political reasons, too, Iraq will make a handy whipping boy. The U.S. military was poised to launch a major air campaign just a few months ago. Aside from this case, Iraq has already rebuilt key portions of its chemical production complex. These plants were used to make chemical weapons in advance of the Gulf war, according to the CIA. The threshold of proof that Iraq is an enemy of the United States will be low.

It is unlikely that the next war with bin Laden and Iraq -- and anyone else who is defined as an enemy -- will be a one-sided affair that intrudes upon the lives of Americans only through their television screens. It will probably be a conflict both conventional and unconventional abroad, involving American aircraft and Special Operations Forces, who have long trained for such a mission.

The targets of American vengeance will react -- by trying to bring the war home to America. Islamic militant cells -- Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- have long operated in the United States, primarily to raise funds. The details of the attack last week strongly suggest that operational cells are in the United States, as well. This poses a vexing problem for the U.S. government, which must respect constitutional and civil rights while trying to forestall more attacks.

This is the truly dreadful discussion the Bush administration must now have: how to mobilize a population for war against unconventional, transnational opponents that will not only fight, but fight back.

American leaders, as a result, must consider the country's ability to conduct and absorb a conflict here at home.

The state of American defenses, despite staggering military and intelligence budgets, is not impressive. The U.S. military has played a small role in relieving the devastation of New York, despite years of thinking about how to play just such a role.

"The United States is very poorly organized to design and implement any comprehensive strategy to protect the homeland," the U.S. Commission on National Security recently concluded.

Assets for responding to attack are scattered across more than two dozen departments and agencies and all 50 states.

In a recent report, the Rand Corp. rated intelligence, threat assessment, information sharing, coordination of operations and health and medical capabilities as uniformly poor.

America will, and under international law should, go to war over the greatest massacre of civilians in American history. But at this moment, it is unclear that America's leaders -- and more important the American public --know what this war will really be like.

Richard Parker is a journalist who covered national security for Knight Ridder Newspapers. Bryan Bender is the former Washington bureau chief of Jane's Defence Weekly. Stewart Stoegel, a former NBC producer, contributed to this article.

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