Plan Of Attack
The Pentagon has a secret new strategy for taking on terrorists--and taking them down
On March 3, with little fanfare, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, signed a comprehensive new plan for the war on terrorism. Senior defense officials briefed U.S. News on the contents of the still-secret document, which is to be released soon in an unclassified form. Officially titled the "National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism," the document is the culmination of 18 months of work and is a significant evolution from the approach adopted after the 9/11 attacks, which was to focus on capturing or killing the top al Qaeda leaders. For the first time since then, Pentagon officials say, they have a strategy that examines the nature of the antiterror war in depth, lays out a detailed road map for prosecuting it, and establishes a score card to determine where and whether progress is being made.
The origins of the new plan lie in an October 2003 "snowflake," as Rumsfeld's numerous memoranda to his staff are called. Was the United States really winning the war on terrorism, Rumsfeld asked his commanders, and how could we know if more terrorists were being killed or captured than were being recruited into the ranks? Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's under secretary for policy, was told, along with the deputy director for the war on terrorism for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Brig. Gen. Robert Caslen, to find answers to the questions. "We sat down as a result of the secretary's snowflake," Feith recalled, "and said, 'How do we want to state some fundamental propositions about the war?' "
The initial result was a 70-page draft report, which subsequently went through over 40 revisions as it was shared with Rumsfeld's inner circle, then a larger group, called the senior-level review group ("Slurg," in Pentagon-speak), and then regional commanders and other agencies. The president was briefed on the report last January and presented with recommendations for presidential-level initiatives to be included in a government wide review of counterterrorism policy, which is still being conducted by the National Security Council. In March, the final 25-page report, plus 13 annexes, was signed and became formal Pentagon policy. Key features of the new plan:
The terrorist threat against the United States is now defined as "Islamist extremism" --not just al Qaeda. The Pentagon document identifies the "primary enemy" as "extremist Sunni and Shia movements that exploit Islam for political ends" and that form part of a "global web of enemy networks." Recognizing that al Qaeda's influence has spread, the United States is now targeting some two dozen groups--a significant change from the early focus on just al Qaeda and its leadership.
The new approach emphasizes "encouraging" and "enabling" foreign partners, especially in countries where the United States is not at war. Concluding that the conflict cannot be fought by military means alone--or by the United States acting alone--the new Pentagon plan outlines a multipronged strategy that targets eight pressure points and outlines six methods for attacking terrorist networks.
The Pentagon will use a new set of metrics twice a year to measure its progress in the war against terrorism. Commanders are to report, for example, on successes in locating and dismantling terrorist safe havens, financial assets, communications networks, and planning cells for each of the target groups.
The Pentagon's Special Operations Command is designated in the new plan as the global "synchronizer" in the war on terrorism for all the military commands and is responsible for designing a new global counterterrorism campaign plan and conducting preparatory reconnaissance missions against terrorist organizations around the world.
Under a draft national security presidential decision directive, expected to be approved next month, the White House would have greater flexibility to resolve turf battles in the government's overall counterterrorism effort.
The new Pentagon directive, General Caslen told U.S. News , has unified the military behind one counterterrorism plan for the first time: "Prior to the release of this document, everybody had their own idea of what the enemy was. Therefore, everybody had their own idea of how to fight it. We had different ideas among the services, among the commands, among the different agencies. Heck, we even had different ideas among the different organizations within this building."
Defining the enemy in precise terms was one of the first big hurdles in producing the new strategy document. "Since 9/11," Caslen said, "the relationships and interdependencies among like-minded terrorist groups have become clearer, and we assess [that] there are nearly two dozen terrorist groups with varying degrees of interaction with and/or interdependency on al Qaeda." But some officials were leery of painting the adversary with too broad a brush for fear of alienating the mainstream Muslims the new strategy defines as pivotal allies. "It's important that we point out that it's not a religious or cultural clash," Caslen says. "It is a war to preserve ordinary people's ability to live as they choose."
The final product reflects changes of profound significance, Pentagon officials say. First, the enemy is now defined more broadly than just al Qaeda. Second, the Pentagon has now officially moved away from what has been widely seen as a unilateral American approach. "It's not a military project alone," Feith explained, "and the United States cannot do it by itself alone."
Going global. The new strategy, for the first time, formally directs military commanders to go after a list of eight pressure points at which terrorist groups could be vulnerable: ideological support, weapons, funds, communications and movement, safe havens, foot soldiers, access to targets, and leadership. Each U.S. geographic command is to follow a systematic approach, first collecting intelligence on any of the two dozen target groups that are operating in its area of responsibility and then developing a plan to attack all eight nodes for each of those groups.
Going after high-value targets like Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi, his emir in Iraq, is still a big part of the strategy but only a part. Three less direct approaches will now receive much greater emphasis: helping partner nations confront terrorism, going after supporters of terrorist organizations, and helping the State Department-led campaign to reduce the ideological appeal of terrorism. The latter category includes such things as military-provided humanitarian aid. U.S. aid to tsunami victims, for example, dramatically swung Asian public opinion from a negative to a positive view of America. Despite fears that the U.S. military is waging a duplicitous propaganda war, many military officials say that "information operations" are an inevitable dimension of warfare and must play a role, along with the State Department's public-diplomacy efforts. One particular area of emphasis: educating soldiers in religious and cultural sensitivities. Caslen showed a reporter two photographs as examples of what not to do--one of marines bivouacked inside Fallujah's Khulafah Rashid mosque after driving out insurgents, another of a soldier's rosary dangling from a tank barrel.
For a Pentagon that has been seen as primarily championing pre-emptive attacks against terrorist threats, the new strategy's enthusiastic embrace of foreign partners is a real sea change. Feith describes the reasons for it. "How do you fight an enemy that is present in numerous countries with whom you're not at war?" he asked. "The answer, in many cases, is we're going to have to rely on the governments of the countries where the terrorists are present. We can't do it ourselves, because you're talking about actions on the sovereign territory of other countries. . . . We need to have countries willing to cooperate with us and capable of doing the things they need to do to serve our common interests."
For whatever opposition they encounter, Pentagon brass know they must now rely more than ever on foreign partners; the insurgency in Iraq and the continuing violence in Afghanistan have stretched U.S. forces, simply precluding go-it-alone missions. Attempting to make a virtue out of a necessity, Washington has developed some promising relationships with countries that were previously wary or reluctant allies. The special operations commander for the Middle East and South Asia recounted several cases to U.S. News in which his forces, which traditionally work beneath the radar, have scored successes in Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and Saudi Arabia. In a rare interview, the Jordanian special operations commander said that his men are training Iraqi counterterrorism forces at three bases in Jordan, staffing a hospital in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, and sealing the Iraqi-Jordanian border against insurgents. "We have the most secure border with Iraq of any of its neighbors," Brig. Gen. Jamal al Shawabkeh said.
The head of U.S. Army special operations forces, Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger, says such partnerships need to be developed around the world. "If you don't take a holistic approach to this . . . you press on one area, and you get a bulge someplace else." He described how he saw his troops fitting into the new strategy: "What my forces have got to be able to do is work around the world, continue to train and work with host-nation forces and U.S. forces and other U.S. agencies to try to establish a global intel database so that that little piece of information that you may get out of some little area, say, in Rwanda, provides the key to a cell someplace else around the world."
The new Pentagon strategy gives several new responsibilities to the Special Operations Command, which oversees all American special operations forces. "One of the earlier criticisms of the war on terror," says General Caslen, was "that we had no one to look at this from a global perspective." Now Special Operations Command has that role. Annex C of the new Pentagon plan directs the Special Operations Command to draft a global campaign plan that will detail the new counter-terrorism operations to be launched and to "synchronize" the counterterrorism plans of the five geographic military commands. In an interview with U.S. News , Gen. Doug Brown, the head of the Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, said his command was selected for the new mission "because, quite frankly, we are a global command. We've always been oriented around the world." In June, Brown convened a meeting of special operations forces from 59 foreign countries in Tampa, where SOCOM is based.
Traditionally, the geographic commands have been reluctant to yield to SOCOM on counterterrorism issues, but that's no longer an option. While Brown's command is now in charge of the planning effort in the war on terrorism, it will lead actual operations only when directed to do so by the president or Rumsfeld. Which is certainly a distinct possibility--Rumsfeld has expanded the authority of SOCOM in a number of key areas since Brown took command last year. "Most of them were in his purview," Brown said of the new areas of authority, "and we got them quickly."
One such authority granted in the new strategy is for special operations forces to conduct "operational preparation of the environment" --more Pentagon-speak for gathering information in trouble spots around the world to prepare for possible missions. "It's becoming familiar with the area in which you might have to work," explains Thomas O'Connell, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict. "It's nonhostile recon. It's not intrusive. Others without a military background may view it as saber rattling, but it's as far from that as you can get." In the 1980s, O'Connell said, special operations forces spent lots of time preparing to respond to hijackings, kidnappings, and takeovers of embassies. To do that, they visited embassies and airports and examined possible helicopter landing zones and assault routes. In 1991, O'Connell said, the preparations paid off in the rescue of U.S. Embassy personnel in Somalia: "If one marine in that contingent hadn't just been in [as part of a survey team] and known that the embassy had switched, they would have assaulted the wrong compound."
Taking charge. While the new Pentagon strategy may have resolved some internal turf battles, other issues must await the conclusion of the National Security Council's review of counterterrorism policy. The Pentagon is floating one proposal that is sure to cause a stir in Congress and, probably, the State Department. Feith says there are good reasons to consider remaking the entire apparatus for aid and training for foreign troops, police, and other security forces. It was set up during the Cold War, he says, "more for building relationships and less for developing capabilities for partners to contribute to our military purposes." He cites the headache encountered when the Pentagon proposed to train and equip the Georgian Army in Central Asia after 9/11. "We had to tap five or six different pots of money," Feith says, "and it took over half a year."
Changing the system won't be easy. Congress has a long history of attaching all kinds of conditions to foreign aid. While the State Department administers most foreign security programs, its capability is small, and the Pentagon is restricted in training police forces abroad. A senior administration official declined to comment on the substance of the Pentagon strategy because it is still classified but said that it had been "invaluable to our governmentwide strategic thinking." At the White House, the official said, the National Security Council has focused its approach on "an ever growing number of willing partners . . . to address violent extremists operating within their borders."
Getting along. While there may be consensus on the broad approach, the devil will be in the hard bargaining over "who's in charge." The most important document to come out of the National Security Council review will be a new presidential directive that reconciles the conflicts among four counterterrorism directives. Two are from the Clinton era; two were signed by President Bush. Clinton's Presidential Decision Directive 39, signed in 1995, for example, gives the State Department the lead role in counterterrorism efforts abroad, but after 9/11, President Bush gave the CIA the lead for disrupting terrorist networks overseas. National Security Presidential Directive 9, signed on Oct. 25, 2001, directs the Pentagon to prepare military plans for eliminating terrorist sanctuaries. Similar overlapping jurisdictions exist for the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the new intelligence entities created since 9/11. Since many planks of the Pentagon's new strategy require it to work with these other agencies, resolving these intramural issues will be essential.
Officials say that the Pentagon has proposed that the new National Security Presidential Directive include a mechanism that would allow the president to delegate a particular task in a particular region to whichever entity he deemed best suited to execute it. Would such an approach end the chronic turf warfare that cripples the Washington bureaucracy? Americans are disheartened, according to a July Gallup Poll, in which only 34 percent believe the United States is winning the war on terror. Some commentators note that it has already lasted longer than America's participation in World War II. A more apt analogy, however, may be the Cold War, which was another long, largely nonmilitary struggle. "The president has said this will be a generational struggle," said a senior official involved in the National Security Council review. "We need to make the same kind of commitment."
Going after Osama bin Laden is still part of the plan, but the Pentagon is focusing on more than just al Qaeda's top leaders.
More than ever, foreign partners are key to U.S. success.
Despite progress, the turf battles may never really end.
Rooting Out Terror
These are some of the principal military exercises that the Department of Defense is sponsoring in 2005 to foster cooperation, train U.S. and foreign troops, and improve regional security and counterterrorism capabilities. The principal host country is named; other countries may also participate.
U.S. MILITARY REGIONAL COMMANDS
Covers Central and South America and the Caribbean
Covers Europe, Russia and Western Africa
Covers Middle East, Horn of Africa, South and Central Asia
Covers Southeast and North Asia
NEW HORIZONS (Central America and Caribbean): Annual cooperation and security exercises in Panama, Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Dominica, Antigua, and elsewhere.
UNITAS (South America): Annual naval exercise to increase regional maritime cooperation among South American countries.
PLAN COLOMBIA (Colombia): Counternarcotics and counterterrorism to fight Colombian narcoterrorist group FARC and others; also aimed at reducing potential for terrorists to seek safe havens in the region's ungoverned areas.
EUROPEAN COMMAND (also covers Western Africa)
FLINTLOCK (Saharan Morocco, Algeria, Chad, Niger, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria): 1,000 U.S. troops, including 700 special operations forces, trained 3,000 African soldiers in airborne operations, border patrol, and marksmanship to fight, among other things, terrorist threats, including al Qaeda-linked groups. One quarter of foreign militants in Iraq come from Africa.
TRANS SAHARAN COUNTERTERRORISM INITIATIVE (Saharan Morocco, Algeria, Chad, Niger, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria): A $500 million, five-year program to train battalions of 500 soldiers and equip them with trucks, radios, and global positioning devices to track terrorists. After 9/11, the first stage began with U.S.10th Special Forces Group training and equipping six companies of 150 soldiers.
GEORGIA TRAIN & EQUIP: Since May 2002, U.S. Special Forces and U.S. Marines have trained 2,600 soldiers and support staff to fight transnational terrorist cells from Chechnya and Uzbekistan.
SORBET ROYAL (East Mediterranean): NATO's maritime effort to fight international terrorism. In October 2001 eight NATO ships contacted 1,000 vessels to search for terrorists.
IMMEDIATE RESPONSE (Bulgaria): Bilateral training with U.S. forces; U.S. European Command tests its rapid deployment.
TRIAL HAMMER (Germany, France): April 2005. NATO's first demonstration of joint signals intelligence capability.
EBONY FLAME (Djibouti): Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have used the Horn of Africa for safe haven and transit. Americans train and patrol with Djiboutian forces to help secure their borders with Somalia, believed to hold al Qaeda training camps.
NOBLE PIPER (Kenya): U.S. Special Forces 3rd Group trained with Kenyan Rangers; joint sea patrols with the U.S. Navy were conducted to stop al Qaeda from crossing the Gulf of Aden.
EAGER TIGER and EAGER LIGHT (Jordan): The primary U.S. joint exercises with Jordan in 2005 focus on counterterrorism, border security, and expanding Jordan's role as a center for regional cooperation.
EARNEST LEADER (Saudi Arabia): Annual exercise with Royal Saudi Land Forces and Third U.S. Army to practice command and control of coalition operations and to foster regional security and peacekeeping.
INSPIRED VENTURE, GAMBIT, SIREN, UNION (Pakistan): Exercises, including sea patrols and air-assault training held in tribal provinces, where al Qaeda leaders are believed to hide.
SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND
HQ: Tampa, Florida; TROOPS: 51,000
Acts as "synchronizer" of regional commands' counterterrorism plans; writes global campaign plan; prioritizes deployments; conducts global "operational preparation of the environment;" carries out counterterror ops with special operations and other forces as directed; FY06 budget $6.5 billion
BALIKATAN (Philippines): Annual exercise to improve joint combat readiness, shore up Philippine defenses, and confront terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiya. The United States conducts some 20 exercises annually with the Philippines. In 2005, Balikatan included 300 American and 650 Philippine forces; Thailand, Singapore, and other Asian countries also have participated.
COBRA GOLD (Thailand): Some 400 U.S. Special Forces, Rangers, and Marines trained with the Royal Thai Army's Special Warfare Command Center staff, Special Task Force, and Rangers to instruct Thai forces in combat and counterterrorism skills. Long-standing military ties increased after 9/11 as intelligence showed increasing ties between Southeast Asian Islamist radicals and al Qaeda.
TALISMAN SABER (Australia): 11,000 U.S. and Australian forces joined in June's exercise for security, counterterrorism, and humanitarian scenarios in Asia. Force-on-force and live-fire exercises were carried out on land and sea. Australian forces have participated in both Afghanistan and Iraq coalitions.
FOAL EAGLE (South Korea): 17,000 U.S.-based troops and 7,000 based in South Korea conducted the week-long exercise in March 2005 along with South Korea's military to deter North Korean aggression and increase regional security cooperation.
Sources: Joint Chiefs of Staff, GlobalSecurity.org, centcom.mil, eucom.mil, pacom.mil, southcom.mil, socom.mil, and news reports
REPORTING: LINDA ROBINSON
GRAPHIC BY ROD LITTLE AND STEPHEN ROUNTREE
This story appears in the August 1, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.