of War Between the Wars?
Continued Turmoil Throughout a Troubled Year
By MICHAEL C. DUNN
Dr. Michael Collins Dunn is editor of The Middle East Journal, a
scholarly quarterly published by The Middle East Institute, and editor
and publisher of The Estimate, a biweekly newsletter of political and
security intelligence on the region.
The United States continued to fight its war on terrorism during 2002,
but there was a sense that it was a year of quasi-war between "real"
wars, with the war in Afghanistan having largely been won before the end
of 2001, and a prospective war with Iraq looming as the year neared its
Still one of the most overlooked aspects of the war in Afghanistan, except
in naval circles, was the projection of U.S. power from the sea into a
landlocked country of Central Asia. Naval and Marine aviation operated
from the Indian Ocean and other areas while U.S. special operations forces
were deployed from a carrier dedicated as a special operations platform,
also offshore. The century-old debate between the disciples of naval historian
Alfred Thayer Mahan and of the prophet of the geopolitical "heartland,"
Sir Halford Mackinder, would seem to have been resolved. Forward from
the sea, indeed, into a landlocked country far from any sea.
But the war in Afghanistan was, from the beginning, a very special case,
and planners are right to warn about not expecting too much of the "Afghanistan
model" in any conflict with Iraq. The Taliban in Afghanistan were
a particularly antimodern, unpopular, brittle regime with little infrastructure
and little domestic support, and they fell quickly. Rooting out the last
Taliban and al Qaeda fighters from the mountains and deserts of the country
will, however, take a very long time, if it is practical to do it at all.
One of the more important lessons learned from the war in Afghanistan
is that that country is different from almost any other likely venue for
a war. It is far from clear, therefore, that the same pattern--using air
power and special operations forces fighting alongside regional allies
and indigenous forces--could be adequate to bring down a more entrenched
and sophisticated regime. For precisely those reasons, the Afghan model
probably will not be used in Iraq.
The Middle East did see the continued mopping-up in Afghanistan in 2002,
and the beginnings of a political transition there. Throughout the region,
though, much was still fragile and uncertain: Assassination attempts and
plots against interim Afghan President Hamid Karzai were reported periodically,
and Karzai was only partially successful in bringing the rival warlords
of the country under his control. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued
to deteriorate, with the vestiges of the peace process in tatters. The
U.S. confrontation with Iraq persisted, while a debate over whether, and
how, to fight a war with Iraq continued within the Bush administration
as well as outside it. And one of the explicitly naval threats continued
to plague the Middle East--namely, the security of the sea-lanes against
terrorist attacks from small vessels (or against other threats, such as
More Cole-Style Attacks?
A continuing concern for the United States and allied navies in the Middle
East (and elsewhere) is the threat of additional small-boat attacks such
as the one that seriously damaged the Aegis guided-missile destroyer USS
Cole in Aden harbor on 12 October 2000. Throughout 2002 there were indications
that al Qaeda might be planning to replicate that attack, which remains
a classic case of asymmetric warfare.
Early in the year, a senior al Qaeda official captured in the fighting
in Afghanistan reportedly warned U.S. officials of a plan to bomb Fifth
Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain. Security was intensified then and on several
other occasions during the year. In June, several suspected al Qaeda operatives
were arrested in Morocco, reportedly for planning to attack vessels of
the United States and Great Britain in the Strait of Gibraltar. That plot
was foiled by their arrest, but the British press reported that the Royal
Navy moved two fast patrol boats from Northern Ireland to Gibraltar in
But on 6 October 2002, six days before the second anniversary of the
Cole bombing, a French-owned supertanker, the Limburg, was damaged in
an explosion that, after several days of uncertainty, was attributed to
a terrorist attack--which is believed to have occurred as the Limburg
was taking a pilot aboard while standing in to load oil at a port near
Al-Mukalla in eastern Yemen. Al-Mukalla is the port serving the Hadramaut
region, an area known to be used by al Qaeda because of its remoteness
(and because Osama bin Laden's ancestral roots are there). As the pilot
boat approached from the port side, crewmen reported seeing another small
boat traveling at high speed toward the ship's starboard side, where the
The attack on a commercial vessel was a reminder that military ships
are not the only potential maritime targets for terrorists, and the fact
that the attack was against a French ship served to remind Europeans that
they are not immune to the hostility of al Qaeda, which makes few distinctions
among the Western powers. Any attack on tanker traffic near the Gulf has
a tendency to make the oil markets jittery, and Yemen reportedly was losing
several million dollars per month, in port revenues alone, after insurance
costs for the ports of Aden and Hodeida were increased in the wake of
the attack on the Limburg.
Following the attack on the Limburg, Britain's new First Sea Lord, Adm.
Sir Alan West, told reporters that more such attacks "can be expected,"
and that Britain, for one, had begun arming its naval vessels with machine
guns--which can be used more effectively than missiles, torpedoes, or
naval artillery to stop attacks by small boats.
In November, the United States let it be known that it had captured 'Abd
al-Rahman al-Nashiri, suspected of being al Qaeda's senior operations
man in the Gulf area and the man directly responsible for the attack on
the Cole in 2000. (Experience suggests, however, that the arrest of one
operations chief does not significantly reduce the threat level elsewhere.)
Elsewhere in the region, and in a somewhat different context, Palestinian
suicide bombers detonated an explosive in a fishing boat after being intercepted
by an Israeli patrol boat on 22 November. The two Palestinians died, and
four Israeli sailors were wounded. The Palestinians, apparently from Gaza,
were intercepted shortly after entering Israeli waters.
It was not clear, however, that they were attempting to attack an Israeli
warship or (perhaps likelier) simply to land somewhere along the Israeli
coast. In response, Israel--already carrying out operations aimed at Gaza
and other areas under the Palestinian Authority--closed the waters off
Gaza to all Palestinian fishermen.
Pinpricks and Chokepoints
Clearly, these sorts of attacks--both on commercial shipping and on naval
vessels--are pinprick-style efforts that pose only a limited threat to
the major Western navies. But the use of suicide bombers against naval
vessels could prove problematical during large-scale military operations
such as a prolonged campaign in Iraq. The Middle East has always been
a classic region of naval chokepoints: the Turkish Straits, the Suez Canal,
the Straits of Tiran, Bab al-Mandeb, and Hormuz.
These narrow waters, vital to the world's petroleum traffic, also are
essential to the logistical support of any military operations in the
Persian Gulf region. The U.S. and allied Navies are far superior to any
regional naval forces likely to be deployed against them. But defense
against suicide bombings from small craft--which provide an asymmetric
threat against which it is hard to defend--is a much more difficult problem.
To take one example: Although a number of Middle Eastern states deploy
submarines, most cannot be considered a serious threat to U.S. operations.
The submarine forces of Turkey, Israel, and Egypt are friendly; Pakistan's
are mainly deployed to counter the Indian Navy. Iran possesses three Russian-built
Kilo-class diesel submarines, but the Persian Gulf is a shallow sea and
not good submarine country, and they probably would not be wasted challenging
the United States. So, despite the presence of some small submarine forces
in the region, submarines are unlikely to challenge U.S. access to the
Gulf. But the sort of small-craft attack used against the Cole and apparently
the Limburg could prove much harder to defend against than a submarine
threat, which the West has long understood how to counter.
Similarly, Iraq has few naval assets to speak of. It has only the narrowest
of seacoasts, in the Faw area, sandwiched between Iranian and Kuwaiti
territory at the mouth of the Shatt al-'Arab, the river that carries the
waters of both the Tigris and Euphrates into the Persian Gulf. Most Iraqi
naval units either were destroyed in 1991 or caught abroad and impounded.
No conventional Iraqi naval forces are going to challenge the U.S. Navy
if the countries go to war.
But either Iraq or its sympathizers and well-wishers abroad will certainly
recognize the vulnerability demonstrated by the attacks on the Cole and
the Limburg. The latter may in fact be the more cogent comparison, since
far more civilian tankers than American warships ply the waters of the
Gulf, and they carry few if any weapons for defense. It would take only
a few attacks on tankers to undermine the security of the world's oil
supplies, distort the global price of oil, and undercut the economies
of countries in the region friendly to the United States. A few small-craft
attacks like those on the Cole and the Limburg could very easily destabilize
the oil markets, therefore--and the economies of all the nations in the
Free World. This may be a vulnerability that an adversary such as Iraq
might seek to exploit.
A Year of Little Progress
In December 2001, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sought--in a speech
pledging U.S. support to a Palestinian state if the Palestinian Authority
reformed itself and worked harder to prevent suicide attacks on Israel--to
restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For most of 2002
the United States was at least nominally promoting such a plan, but no
real progress was made. Israel continued to pressure Yasir Arafat and
his Palestinian Authority, and to retaliate for suicide bombings in Israel
and attacks on Israeli settlements in occupied territory. Arafat promised
new elections for January 2003, but conditioned them on Israel withdrawing
from areas it had reoccupied.
By December 2002, however, Israel was expanding its reoccupations, and
whether Palestinian elections would be held at all was unclear. Moreover,
even if the elections are held, it seems almost a certainty that Arafat
would easily win the presidency. In addition, efforts supported not only
by the United States but also, and more quietly, by several key Arab countries--e.g.,
Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt--to create the office of prime minister
and make Arafat a figurehead have not yet borne fruit.
Israel's increasing assertiveness late in 2002 was due as well to the
withdrawal from the National Union Government of the Israeli Labor Party.
The Labor Party had joined Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government and
two strong party leaders, Shimon Peres and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, held
the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry, respectively. As the intifada
worsened, pressure built from the left wing of the party to pull out of
Sharon's coalition. When Ben-Eliezer, facing a challenge to his leadership
of the party, did so, it left Sharon's Likud and a number of right-wing
and religious parties narrowly controlling the government. Sharon called
for new elections on 28 January, then fought off a challenge from former
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the Likud leadership.
Sharon won. But Netanyahu meanwhile had replaced Peres as foreign minister
and hardline former Israel Defense Forces commander Shaul Mofaz, who retired
from active duty in 2002, had taken over from Ben-Eliezer as defense minister,
despite a tradition that a retired general waits a few years before becoming
the "civilian" minister of defense.
Meanwhile, after departing the coalition, Ben-Eliezer lost his leadership
race to Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, a former general running on a dovish
platform promising negotiations with the Palestinians and a withdrawal
from the settlements. Although Mitzna, who is seen by many as a welcome
change from the same old familiar Labor leaders who have long dominated
the party, won considerable popularity, polls taken in early December
suggested that, unless circumstances change dramatically, Sharon would
easily win on 28 January.
Or, more precisely, Likud would win. After changing the electoral law
to allow the direct election of the prime minister in recent years, the
country has changed the law back, and now will vote only for parties.
In true parliamentary faction, the leader of the largest party will then
try to form a government. Ironically, Labor was the largest party in the
outgoing Parliament, but Sharon had won the prime ministership by direct
election in 2001.
Several Other Elections
The upcoming Israeli elections are but one of several helping to change
the face of a region where, as conventional wisdom usually has it, there
are no democracies. In Pakistan, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf sought
to reestablish parliamentary life, but with some restrictions, and in
a sense created an unforeseen situation when, by barring the two most
popular political figures from running (Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif),
he unwittingly increased the vote for an anti-Western extremist Islamist
movement that took control of the local government in the North West Frontier
Province and won a strong plurality in Baluchistan; both provinces adjoin
Bahrain held its first parliamentary elections in over a quarter of a
century and, although there were some complaints about the creation of
a new, appointed, upper house, the elections went smoothly and Bahrain
joined Kuwait as a Gulf emirate with a parliament. Unlike the situation
in Kuwait, women were allowed to vote in Bahrain, as they will be in Qatar,
which is now writing a constitution and also preparing for parliamentary
At the other end of the Arab world, Morocco also held new parliamentary
elections, and there was some surprise when, although the ruling Socialist
Party and the old-line conservative Istiqlal ran first and second, as
expected, a formerly fringe third party with Islamist elements ran third.
It will not, however, be part of the new government.
A Split in Turkey
Something quite different happened in the most resolutely secular of
Middle Eastern states: Turkey. Longtime Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's
health had been failing, and critics within his own Democratic Left Party
bolted, leaving the government without a majority. By the time the elections
finally arrived, all of the country's main centrist parties had failed
to do very well, and only two parties won the 10 percent of the vote necessary
under the Turkish Constitution to hold seats in Parliament: the newly-created
Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the Republican People's Party
The latter is the old party of Kemal Ataturk and, ironically, had failed
to make the 10 percent mark the last time around in 1999, and thus had
not been represented in Parliament. The AKP, on the other hand, is the
result of a split in the old Virtue Party, an Islamist movement that was
banned by the courts. The pragmatic wing evolved into the AKP, which became
the first party since the 1980s to win enough seats to govern by itself,
without a coalition.
Despite the fact that each of the AKP's predecessor parties had, in turn,
been banned for being against secularism, the AKP insists that it wants
to work within the secular system, and the powerful Turkish Army has indicated
it will not interfere--so long as the AKP does not violate the secular
nature of the state.
There is a catch, though: the AKP's leader, the charismatic Recep Tayyip
Erdogan, had been barred from politics, when he was Mayor of Istanbul
in the mid-1990s, for quoting a nationalist poem that the Army felt criticized
the military. As a result, although the AKP made a surprisingly strong
showing, the party's leader is barred from office. A deputy, Abdullah
Gul, therefore took over as prime minister. Meanwhile, Erdogan himself
made a tour of Europe to reassure Europeans about the AKP, and likely
will become prime minister once the Constitution can be amended to allow
him to serve.
Some analysts looked at the elections in Pakistan, Morocco, Bahrain,
and Turkey and professed to see an Islamist wave. But the differences
in the four elections are profound. Only in Pakistan is the Islamist party
particularly anti-Western. In Turkey, the AKP is in fact a strong advocate
of that country joining the European Union. The long history of extreme
secular laws in Turkey--for example, barring women from voluntarily wearing
a headscarf in any government building, including university classrooms--needs
to be kept in mind in understanding the backlash in Turkey. The AKP insists
that it is an Islamic Party only in the sense that the Christian Democratic
Parties of Europe are Christian: drawing on ethical and cultural norms
rather than seeking to impose Islamic law. It will apparently be given
a chance to prove its case.
The Continuing War ...
Meanwhile, the war on terrorism has continued apace, with U.S. forces
operating not only in the Middle East and Afghan-istan but also in Central
Asia, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa, and perhaps elsewhere.
Most counterterrorism activities receive little publicity unless a senior
al Qaeda figure is captured or there is a terrorist attack or major firefight.
However, U.S. Navy and Marine deployments in the Gulf region and the Mediterranean
have recently been stepped up, both as part of the antiterror war and
as part of the buildup for a potential war with Iraq; a U.S. Navy and
Marine presence, along with other special operations forces, has been
quietly assembled in Djibouti on the Red Sea, close to potential operating
zones in Somalia or Yemen. The apparent genuineness of a tape that would
seem to prove that Osama bin Laden is still alive, the attack on an Israeli-owned
hotel, and a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner in Mombasa,
Kenya, on 28 November were further reminders that the war on terrorism
goes on. If, as seems likely, the Mombasa attacks were linked to al Qaeda,
it would be the first attack by that group on Israeli targets.
Many of those who question the wisdom of going to war with Iraq, including
a number of former military people who have served in the region, point
to the fact that al Qaeda is still in the field as an indication that
the United States should not begin "another war"--not, at least,
until the bin Laden network is eliminated. Those who support a move against
Iraq, though, see it as a seamless continuation of the same global war
on terrorism and the rogue states that have supported terrorists.
... And the Next War
Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander, U.S. Central Command, has had to preside
over the continuing efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and pursue remnants
of the al Qaeda and Taliban forces, while also overseeing a major new
logistics buildup and the preparation of war plans for a possible attack
It is no secret that there have been divided counsels in the Bush administration
over a possible war with Iraq, and that there is something less than unanimity
in the uniformed services as well. The fact that advocates of an "Iraq
next" scenario initially argued for a virtually unilateral operation
that would bypass the United Nations helped sharpen opposition as well.
In the end, President Bush chose to seek adoption of a new Security Council
resolution, thus potentially permitting many countries that otherwise
might find it awkward to support a U.S. attack to accept it.
The United States has said that its goal is the disarmament of Iraq rather
than regime change, but there seem to be few who expect a genuine Iraqi
change of heart. Any renewed evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction
might allow supporters of a war to argue, not in favor of preemption,
but simply for a resumption of the previous hostilities--if, indeed, it
can be shown that Iraq has violated the conditions of the 1991 ceasefire
that ended U.S.-Iraqi hostilities at the time. As of year's end, however,
the final decision on a new, or renewed, war with Iraq was still in the