U.S. is slow to act on lessons of new warfare

Conventional methods cannot defeat enemy, experts warn


WASHINGTON -- From the foiled London airliner bombing plot to the bloody street carnage in Baghdad and smoking wreckage of southern Lebanon came chilling reminders last week that the United States and its allies are locked in a long war with a ruthless, technically adept enemy, one the United States is ill-prepared to confront and cannot fully defeat, senior officials say.

Strategists call this "unrestricted warfare" to describe the way it is fought: outside the skein of international law and Western moral standards, by enemies that are dispersed in cells and networks and so enmeshed in religious sects and culture that they are difficult to detect - and almost impossible to deter.

Throughout the week's bloody crises and threats, most of the vast military resources of the United States sat idle, its nuclear missiles unable to deter terrorists or insurgents, its sophisticated jet fighters and warships and highly experienced ground troops unable to prevent suicide bombings in Iraq or to stop the death and destruction in southern Lebanon.

In recent years, American defense analysts have used various terms to describe unrestricted warfare: guerrilla war, low-intensity conflict and insurgency. It has been the subject of dozens of books, learned treatises, military manuals and conferences - and yet a clear comprehension of how it works and how to defeat it seems elusive.

"Our understanding of these new adversaries is limited," said Jim Thomas, a senior strategist for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

In an interview, Thomas likened the threat to a flu virus: You can fight off this year's strain, but you know a different type is coming next winter. In that sense, the virus wins by not losing, and there will be no conclusive fight-to-the-death battle that the military prefers.

"This adversary is not going to fight you that way," he said. Instead, this enemy "can metastasize, and we've seen that with al-Qaida, where you have lots of franchises or copycats. It can also mutate over time, with different tactics and capabilities."

Ultimately, the war on terrorism demands an indirect approach, winning the great "silent majority" of Muslims and marginalizing Islam's radical extremists, said Brig. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, until recently deputy director for terrorism on the Pentagon's Joint Staff.

"The biggest dilemma with insurgency or unrestricted warfare is that every time you use force to accomplish your immediate tactical objectives, and that force produces significant collateral damage, you move that population of Islam to the right, toward the radicals," said Caslen, commandant at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

"When you start destroying Islamic culture and families and ruining lives and that makes news - and they are experts at manipulating the media - then you start creating more jihadists than you are defeating."

That is the dilemma the United States has been unwillingly pushed toward in Afghanistan and Iraq, critics say, where the continued use of airstrikes, for example, seems to have accelerated resistance to U.S. forces.

"In fact, radicalization is expanding, and we haven't turned the corner on that yet," Henry Crumpton, the former CIA officer who oversees counterterrorism policy at the State Department, recently observed.

These gloomy assessments illustrate a growing realization that the U.S. response to al-Qaida, Hezbollah and their likely imitators requires a strategy and set of weapons and capabilities unlike those it has today. These include:

A new air power strategy, to make better use of intelligence and surveillance technology and miniature precision weapons.

In Afghanistan, after the Taliban and al-Qaida forces withdrew into the mountains in late 2001 and early 2002, U.S. forces were unable to find and strike them, according to a detailed study by Steven Biddle for the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The result was that Osama bin Laden got away and al-Qaida forces could regroup.

The Air Force declined to respond to questions for this article.

A new strategy for deterrence. The traditional threat of massive conventional or nuclear retaliation is impractical against a hidden foe with no fixed address and a set of values that might seem incomprehensible, according to specialists in strategic planning.

What is needed is what some call "tailored deterrence," which would threaten something or some place that each enemy holds dear. That approach requires deep intelligence and complex analysis at levels not commonly done.

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