Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Private Terror, Public Errors - To stop Al-Qaeda, anti-terrorist bureaucracies must be as adaptable.

Forgetting for a moment that the international effort to destroy Al-Qaeda is as close as one comes to a good versus evil confrontation, it also happens to be a valuable reminder of the ineptness of large bureaucracies.

A recent Washington Post article noted that Al-Qaeda had been better able to adapt to the U.S. military's tactics in Afghanistan than the other way around. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, was quoted as saying: "I think in a sense we've lost a little momentum there, to be frank. They've made lots of adaptations to our tactics and we've got to continue to think and try to out-think them and to be faster at it." He noted, in particular, that Al-Qaeda had adjusted its electronic communications to prevent intercepts, while also protecting the way it transferred money.

Myers didn't realize that he was making an implicit case for what can be called, somewhat inaccurately, private-sector warfare. He more or less admitted that in the context of the Afghan war, Al-Qaeda, like any good private enterprise, was much more flexible than his military units, which, like most state institutions, tend to be slow, awkward and unimaginative.

Oddly, Myers failed to draw the logical conclusion from his own critique. Having identified the malignancy, he offered an irrelevant cure: The U.S. must downplay military action, he proposed, and put more emphasis on rebuilding Afghanistan. A more prosperous and stable Afghan environment would place Al-Qaeda on the defensive. Where Myers erred was in assuming that the latter affirmation, which might very well be true, followed from, and therefore somehow affected, Al-Qaeda's adaptability.

In fact, nation-building on the model that Myers suggested would merely replace one cumbersome form of U.S. intervention with another. Instead of soldiers Washington would send bureaucrats, thousands of them, who might do wonders for the Afghans, spend billions of dollars as only bureaucrats can, and extend government patronage to unruly rural provinces, allowing tribal leaders to get fat at America's expense.

However, it is doubtful this would harm Al-Qaeda in any way. One thing it would do is create many more civilian targets among imported aid workers. It would also allow the U.S. military to disengage from a fight that successive setbacks have made it eager to abandon, meaning Al-Qaeda would have breathing space to enhance its Afghan presence. A third thing it would do is prove that when some officials, like Myers, are locked in statist mindsets, their proposed solutions tend to compound the problem.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda is doing what resourceful institutions do when under pressure: it is decentralizing decision-making and transferring operational power to shadowy and capable subordinates of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to press reports, authority has devolved to six commanders who can independently plan and conduct terrorist attacks, suggesting metastasizing parallel centers of power.

What chance does an anti-terrorist state bureaucracy have when facing such changes? In the long run a good chance, since its resources are immense. However, in the short term, when exploitation of these resources might be inefficient, valuable time can be lost. The lesson of Sept. 11 was less that the Bush administration was gulled by Al-Qaeda, than the fact that it misread, or failed to read, information indicating the possibility of air attacks. Al-Qaeda has repeatedly taken advantage of the gap between its enemies' means and ends. Until this is more rapidly closed, preventable attacks will continue.

Given these circumstances, it is easy to see why George W. Bush's intention to establish an Department of Homeland Security will likely do no more than add another layer of paper and hierarchy to an intelligence and security establishment that, to the contrary, needs reform and streamlining. If anything is to defeat Al-Qaeda, it is institutions that are as agile as it is.

Similarly, if anything is to triumph over Al-Qaeda, it is an anti-terrorist effort that embraces the litheness of the private sector, rather than the stolidity of public institutions. Profit will be measured in human lives saved.