For all the talk of a united front, a rift is opening between US and British security chiefs over how best to tackle the global terrorist threat. Over the past month, American officials have been selectively briefing that the Bush administration has had a change of heart and that the war on terror proclaimed after 9/11 has been replaced by a more subtle approach. One would have thought European chancelleries would greet this news with relief. Instead, the response filtering back has been sceptical.
On 8 June special forces commanders and intelligence directors for the US and its closest allies were summoned to the Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to discuss the new anti-terror theology. General Bryan D Brown, special operations commander and a favourite of Donald Rumsfeld, gave the conference the wistful title Partners in Security. Brown and other senior security and military figures announced that the Global War on Terror, or Gwot, was over. In its place has come Save, the Struggle Against Violent Extremism.
The meeting followed a speech a couple of weeks earlier by Rumsfeld to the ultra-conservative World Affairs Council in Philadelphia. The US defence secretary’s message was similar: the strategy against terrorism had failed. He declared: “First, this conflict cannot be won by military means alone. And second, this struggle can’t be won by any single country.” The points were echoed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard B Myers, who said tackling terrorism required “all instruments of our national power”, and that the approach should be “more diplomatic, more economic, more political than it is military”.
Since the beginning of the year Frances Fragos Townsend, Bush’s personal adviser on terrorism, has been reviewing the overall strategy, while Condoleezza Rice’s former special adviser Philip Zelikow has consulted allies in Europe. A favourite Bush aide, Karen Hughes, has just been switched from the White House to the State Department to lead new “public diplomacy” initiatives to the Middle East.
British professionals, however, do not believe that the Americans understand what it takes to put this into practice. One senior British special forces representative who attended the sessions says: “The primary conditions for successful coalitions are unlikely to be met in the present circumstances.” He believes that the US and UK have great difficulty agreeing on missions and objectives, from Iraq and Afghanistan to potential theatres for military action. The Pentagon in particular finds it hard to mount a truly interna-tional intelligence operation to deal with Islamist extremists. It also finds it difficult to establish local partnerships. “The problem is that even among close allies there is no common ideology on this, and no agreed concept of operations.”
The British fear that, despite the rhetoric about social and economic engagement, US commanders still believe in military force as a first resort. At the Tampa conference one of the UK’s special forces commanders warned: “We should not be fixated by the ability to execute kinetic operations. The critical judgement is getting agreement on the political devaluation of the consequences of kinetic action: put simply – kill five, recruit how many?”
The British officer argued that the US failure in Fallujah underlined the limitations of military force. Despite destroying large parts of the city and making all but 20,000 of its residents refugees, US forces felt compelled to carry out a major operation in Fallujah again last month.
British egos are still tender over the de-ployment of special forces under US command in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001. This led to two whole squadrons of SAS, nearly half the strength of the regiment, having to fight their way out like standard infantry companies on the slopes of Tora Bora, as the Americans failed to close the net on Bin Laden.
The British Directorate of Special Forces has argued in a follow-up paper to the Tampa meeting that the Americans now face the dilemma that the UK government faced in the early days in Northern Ireland, with heavy-handed tactics such as internment and Bloody Sunday mirrored by the mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Bloody Sunday proved there could be no military solution: the army was made subordinate to the police, intelligence had to be reformed, and a social and economic investment programme was launched.
The UK paper concludes: “The ‘civil war within Islam’ has to be resolved by the Islamic world itself. The US would not be in charge [but] as the world’s only superpower, they are resistant to being in the supporting role.” A long-term strategy involving soft power, investment and co-operation with local people “does not fit the US psyche, particularly one still smarting post 9/11 . . . This approach requires strategic patience; it does not fit the political/electoral timetable.”