Are we victorious yet?

With the al-Qaida network shattered but Osama bin Laden still at large, "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden and other national security experts discuss when the U.S. will be able to declare victory over terrorism.

Published January 20, 2002 12:41AM (EST)

When will the war be over? Does the U.S. have to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar before we can declare victory? Or must we also eliminate terrorists in other dangerous corners of the world before the parades can begin? Salon recently put these questions to three terrorism and national security experts: Jessica Stern, a lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government; Mark Bowden,, author of "Black Hawk Down" and "Killing Pablo"; and Michele Zanini, former graduate fellow at the RAND Corporation now with a major consulting firm.

Do you think terminating bin Laden is essential for a U.S. victory in Afghanistan, or is his organization, al-Qaida, more important?

Jessica Stern

I think the organization is more important than he is. This is a really dispersed network of people and I think we have to think of it as a network of networks that includes not only al-Qaida and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad but all the groups that have been funded and inspired by bin Laden. In Indonesia there's Laskar Jihad; clearly Abu Sayaff [in the Philippines] is high on the U.S. radar screen at the moment; there are groups in Somalia, there are groups in Pakistan and those are only the groups that come immediately to mind. It's really a worldwide movement.

Certainly we were the laughingstock for the Europeans because of the prominence that we gave bin Laden, especially after the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998 with that most wanted poster. Now it turns out that our fears were more than justified. We perhaps increased his importance and popularity by focusing on him so much, but it turned out that he was preparing a more horrific attack than any of us really understood. So the people in Washington who focused so heavily on him and turned him into an evil bogeyman turned out to be correct and the Europeans making fun of us clearly were wrong.

How effective is it now to focus on bin Laden? Is he or his organization more important? Well, I think his organization is more important. And it's not just his organization, but the movement that he and others have inspired -- and that's what is going to require the long-term slog through intelligence and law enforcement.

Mark Bowden

I think it was probably a mistake to place so much emphasis on getting bin Laden personally, because I do believe that our success in Afghanistan has strongly diminished the ability of al-Qaida to function. I'm one of those who believe that if they were capable of doing anything further -- anything on a large scale -- they would have by this point. I do think it's likely that from here on out there will be isolated acts of atrocity committed against Americans.

But [by destroying the bin Laden organization and the Taliban in Afghanistan], we've probably scared any state with an ounce of sense away from being a sponsor of terrorist groups. That's a major coup that limits their capability in a major way. I think we've seen the worst from al-Qaida.

So yes, bin Laden was an important symbol for the terrorist movement. But it's more important to focus on the extraordinary successes in the last five months in rounding up terrorist cells across Europe in addition to what's happened in Afghanistan. Placing such a great emphasis on bringing Osama bin Laden to heel might have been wrong, because doing that in and of itself wouldn't necessarily have been as crippling a blow as what in fact has happened. Probably it was an unavoidable public relations mistake given the circumstances, but it was unfortunate.

He was a major symbol of terrorism and we needed one at the time but meanwhile we were quietly rounding up these terrorist cells in Paris, Spain, Bosnia, Algeria, Indonesia and Malaysia, among other places. They caught these people and put them out of action before they had a chance to move. To me that is a much more telling and significant achievement than if they had caught Osama bin Laden.

Michele Zanini

I think that bin Laden always had much more symbolic importance than a direct command and control role. Therefore whether he's dead or alive, it doesn't matter; his persona will always shine in the eyes of militants or people dear to his cause. I think in practical terms whether he's dead or alive doesn't matter that much to the movement.

It has been mentioned that he has quite a bit of money that he uses to support his movement. That may be true, but estimates of how much money he actually had after the embassy bombings [in 1998] when the U.S. started to seriously freeze his accounts were actually fairly low. So I don't know how much al-Qaida would have to depend on him financially. It's not the money, and it's not his military or his organizational skills --which are attributed to other people in the movement.

Locating him would be great; it would maybe allow people to reach closure on this, and it would give us a movie ending where the bad guy dies and people might feel good about that. But this is not a movement that is based on a great leader.

It's not like the PLO, which was based on Arafat -- if you took him away from the PLO, the movement would have imploded in the past and now there would definitely be factional infighting. But in the case of this new terrorism, we're looking at loose collections of organizations and individuals that play different roles. Because of the network structure, bin Laden's node is certainly an important one, but I would not think from an organizational standpoint that it would be decisive to get him or take him out.

So if finding bin Laden is not decisive, can the U.S. declare victory? Where are we in this war?

Jessica Stern

Unfortunately, I think that we're still at the very beginning. I think the first stage of the war on terrorism, knocking out the Taliban, was the easiest part and that the more difficult stage is now beginning -- which is the really long, hard slog of intelligence and law enforcement cooperation to root out the cells internationally and their sources of funding.

Mark Bowden

Based on my conversations with people in the military, I always thought the Afghanistan part of this war was going to be, I don't want to say simple, I want to emphasize that it would be the simplest part, but the simplest part of what will be a very long and difficult war. I thought it would be the simplest part because it had a much more identifiable and achievable aim, which was to topple the Taliban. Before we started bombing, many people worried that we would get bogged down like the Soviets. But these people failed to realize that the aims of the United States were fairly direct and much simpler than the aims of the Soviet Union when they went into Afghanistan.

Where we are today is at the beginning of the real war against terrorism, which is a prolonged and tedious process of building an espionage network and intelligence systems throughout the world, particularly more effective types of human intelligence. Working with and developing relationships with other countries, with their police forces and their military, developing the kind of international security system you need to grab these people before they get far enough along with their plans to kill people.

And also targeting individual cells or individuals when and if we discover them wherever they are in the world. I think that's a process that's going to take place probably over the next five to 10 years or more.

The recently announced U.S. support role in the Philippines is an example of this. There we have a group of terrorists who have kidnapped a group of American citizens. Who have links to al-Qaida, maybe somewhat tenuous, but whom we clearly have every right to go after since they've kidnapped American hostages.

At his press conference this week, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was asked if in that particular case the American forces would be more "forward-leaning" because there were American hostages being held. And Rumsfeld's response was that America is forward-leaning, period. Which means to me that we're in a period where our military force will be much more proactive.

I mean, the special forces people have been urging this for years and are thrilled that they have an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do. It remains to be seen whether their tactics and what they can accomplish will succeed. But they're at least being given an opportunity to do it. I think so long as that kind of military action is intelligent and carefully targeted, it's probably the only way that we can fight back at these groups. And by the use of special forces I mean nothing on the scale of what's happened in Afghanistan. I think what we're talking about are when and if intelligence locates an active cell laying their plans or doing whatever they do, small teams of American soldiers conducting hits or raids.

It will probably be a replay of what happened in Colombia, going after the drug lord Pablo Escobar, which I wrote about in my last book. This is a very good model of what I think this is going to look like. They will work as much as possible with indigenous forces so that our special forces are not looking to take credit, they're just looking for results. They just want to accomplish their mission. It doesn't matter to them who killed Pablo Escobar, it just matters that Pablo Escobar is dead.

Michele Zanini

The U.S. is in an interesting situation now in Afghanistan and elsewhere because there's a tendency and desire by the Bush administration to pull out as soon as possible. But that would create a vacuum that would be filled by Afghan warlords, al-Qaida remnants and other organizations that would provide fertile ground for terrorism to grow again.

If the U.S. forces pulled out too soon, they might undermine the Afghan government that will still be weak. So I think that this idea of quick withdrawal is fantasy. The U.S. will be there for some time and Afghanistan will be out of control for some time. Like Afghanistan, there are so many dysfunctional countries and that list grows every year. As long as there are anarchic countries they will all potentially provide breeding grounds for terrorists.

People always talk about Somalia, Indonesia and the Philippines, but there are a lot of other countries, especially in Africa, that are bankrupt, failed states. Terrorists might find fertile ground in these states, and the U.S. might find it very difficult to operate there because there's no control there. It's becoming a very murky world and that's why I think this idea of war is ultimately misleading because war is traditionally understood as waged between fairly well-defined opponents like states, or between a state and a guerrilla movement, in a particular geographic area or a particular time. This war is different; it's really an array of shades of gray.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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Afghanistan Osama Bin Laden Terrorism