Who Is the Enemy?

The UN bombing conveys a bigger message


In the days and hours following the explosion which obliterated UN offices in Baghdad the bombing was blamed on Sunnis, Shiites, Ba'athists, Ansar al-Islam, al Qaeda, visiting foreigners, surviving Husseins, Syrians, insiders, outsiders, fat kids, skinny kids, and kids who climb on rocks. Suffice it to say, no one really knows who did the deed.

The latest official stab in the dark is that a remnant of the secular Iraqi secret service farmed out its resources to the fundamentalists in Ansar who actually carried out the attack. If true, this would demonstrate that nothing unites a country quite like invading it.

"Of course, ideologically they are not at all compatible. On the other hand you sometimes cooperate against what you consider a common enemy," General John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, observed.

But uncertainty about the hands and motives behind the UN bombing did not stop President George W. Bush from drawing his own conclusions.

"Terrorists commit atrocities because they want the civilized world to flinch and retreat so they can impose their totalitarian vision," Bush declared in his weekly radio address. "The world will not be intimidated. A violent few will not determine the future of Iraq."

Fair enough, chief. But how do we know the international community, "the world," was the primary target?

More likely the central goal was to demonstrate to Iraqis that working with the foreigners is dangerous. Boom! Look they cannot even protect themselves. How are they going to protect you?

In fact, a previously unknown Iraqi group called the Armed Vanguards of the Second Muhammad Army claimed responsibility for the UN attack and specifically called for "acts of jihad against all those who help the Americans," according to a statement sent to the Arabic television channel, Al Arabiya.

The same kind of strategy can be seen at work in Afghanistan where ten policemen are among the latest victims of escalating guerilla activities there. You can bet that as soon as they get back from Hungary, those new Iraqi police recruits will be targets too. This is what insurgencies do and should not be mistaken for a sign of desperation, a claim that Bush also made.

Emphasizing the regime's impotence is the guerilla's blocking move to any "hearts-and-mind" campaign. That it is being undertaken in Iraq by someone reveals a level of strategic thinking that has yet to be fully appreciated by their counterparts in Washington.

No one expects one or two bombings to drive the U.S. out of the country. What it will do, in addition to making the populace afraid, is tempt the U.S. to hunker down and "harden" soft targets with troops. Such a defensive posture is a bad idea for a number of reasons.

First, as the Bush administration never tired of pointing out during the late, great WMD hunt, Iraq is a big, modern country. It is—all together now—the size of California, with thousands of inviting soft targets. So you literally couldn't harden but a handful of them.

Second, offensive search-and-destroy missions are the only proven counter to insurgencies. If you are sitting around guarding pipelines or international aid offices you are not on the offensive. Which brings us to the third big problem with trying to prevent attacks on soft targets: You wind up making your troops vulnerable to attack.

Abizaid seems to understand all this and has the stated goal of using all the willing Iraqis he can find for the internal guard-house/RPG target-dummy role while U.S. forces move about the country to interdict bad guys and weapons. This aim, of course, puts you right back at trying to win over the locals so you can complete your mission.

Accordingly, since the bombing proconsul L. Paul Bremer III has tried to prod the Iraqi Governing Council to take up more responsibility for running the country and providing basic security. Members of the council, of course, wonder why they should get out front of an American parade they do not control. In sum, is it worth painting a big bulls eye on your back to help Bremer look good in Washington?

That the unknown hands who targeted the UN understand this calculus implies that more such attacks are likely and that the ultimate outcome of America's Iraq adventure hangs in the balance.