Responses to Tilly’s “Predictions”

Professor Goldstone responded to the emails written by Charles Tilly immediately following the attacks of September 11. The following are his responses.

FROM 9/15/01

Dear Chuck,

Thanks for an interesting challenge. Two areas in which I differ from your views:

(1) “But no single organization or single leader coordinated Tuesday’s action.”

I heartily disagree with this. The degree of planning and coordination to have two planes hit the World Trade Towers within minutes of each other, much less have two other simultaneous skyjackings, for a total of four actions, each by a cell of 4-5 actors, each with at least one trained pilot – such things do not happen by chance or competition among separate groups. Someone gave the signal to act precisely on this day, on those flights, against these targets; someone who had funded and planned for an event like this long in advance.

Moreover, despite the amorphous character of these terrorist cells and networks, ALL of the major attacks on U.S. facilities in the last five years — the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the attack on the U.S. embassies abroad, and the attack on the destroyer Cole — all appear to have been planned and executed by the same “team” coordinated by Osama bin Laden. While there is much terrorism, acts of this degree of sophistication and impact are quite rare. We should be very careful not to equate the actions of a Palestinian liberation fighter strapping a bomb to himself and detonating it in a crowded marketplace with the actions of a group of several dozen who have planned and trained for years to execute a complex, multi-faceted plan of destruction.

(2) “Bombing the presumed originator(s) of Tuesday’s attacks and forcing other countries to choose sides will therefore aggravate the very conditions American leaders will declare they are preventing.”
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Chuck seems to be concerned that cold-war type actions by the U.S. could bring to pass something like Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” I never put much stock in that idea, and I don’t think responding vigorously to these attacks will make it real. I say this for the following reasons:

A. First, “bombing the perpetrators” is not likely to be effective in any event. If the U.S. is to act, it will have to take measures to force the Taliban out of power and install a pro-Western or at least non anti-Western Afghan nationalist regime. The Taliban is, if my Afghan friends are correct, something like the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia – a brutal, ideological absolutist and merciless regime, hated and feared by its own people. Just as Vietnam did not reap any horrendous pan-Indochinese opposition for acting against the Khmer Rouge, I doubt the U.S. or any other partners it has will suffer for acting against the Taliban.

B. Recall that the Taliban has already thumbed its nose at the world on two recent and public counts — international aid was used to build a soccer stadium that is now used as an execution field; and the destruction of world artistic treasures. I believe these attacks are the last straw. It was one thing for bin Laden and his network to attack overseas or military outposts of the U.S., such as the African embassies or warships. But to use civilian aircraft to attack office towers crosses a line — if this is allowed to stand, and anyone connected with this to go unaffected, what are the possibilities: A British Airways jet piloted into Big Ben? Air France into the Eiffel Tower? Air Egypt into the Sphinx, the Pyramids, or the Aswan Dam? In short, no country in the world that operates commercial airlines can afford to accept the possibility that if it antagonizes terrorists (and recall that the government of Egypt, for one, is already fighting against such groups), its civil aviation will be used against it as a weapon of mass destruction.

C. There are precedents for Islamic governments acting against Islamic terrorists who have gone so far that they threaten the stability and aims of those governments. Twice, the PLO was expelled by Islamic governments (from Jordan and by Syria from Lebanon) because they were drawing too much counter-terrorist activity into those nations. If the costs of continuing to support the Taliban or terrorists becomes too high, then many countries will join “our” side, or at least become neutral or supportive of counter-Taliban measures. The Saudis have already announced that they will stabilize oil prices as needed. Pakistan has agreed to allow U.S. to fly over its territory to take counter-measures. I think this momentum is not likely to reverse.

(3) My own prediction. A “war on terrorism” as such is hyperbole. Terrorism will continue, and cannot be stamped out by war. Syria and Saudi Arabia will continue to allow funds to sponsor incidents of terrorism that advance their interests. However, the PARTICULAR terrorist network that has been funding operations requiring millions of dollars, years of training and planning, and mass coordination among dozens of individuals to attack US targets over the past ten years, and its sponsors among the Taliban, can be targeted, and probably eliminated. Indeed, precisely to protect their ability to continue to sponsor limited terrorism, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Syria are likely to join this attack on this particular organization, which has now become a danger to them and to all.

(4) If it is true that what bin Laden is counting on, or hoping for, is a confrontation with the U.S. that will lead to a war of Islamic nations vs. the West, he will find himself sorely mistaken, and probably deserted. It is simply not in the interest of any major Islamic or Arab country — not Iran, not Iraq, not Pakistan, not Syria, certainly not Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia — to get drawn into a major military confrontation with the U.S. Without any “counter” superpower to support them, Arab countries have no ability or interest in confronting the world’s only true superpower. The lessons of the Iraqi war, and perhaps Serbia, is that the U.S./NATO can destroy targets at will. This may be irrelevant for Afghanistan, where there are no targets of significance; but it is certainly not true for any other Islamic or Arab countries. The aggression of Iraq against Kuwait found no defenders in the Islamic or Arab world; I don’t believe this act of terrorism will either.

(5) Finally, much is bandied about regarding the difficulty of combat in Afghanistan, and how they beat the Russians. The Russians are a third-rate military that still cannot subdue Chechnya, a much smaller and closer target. Moreover, the Afghans had enormous logistical, weapons, and financial support from the U.S. and Pakistan (we, in fact, contributed to training and arming bin Laden’s supporters). A war against the Taliban, undertaken by a U.S./Allied coalition, with the Taliban cut off by a mutual sealing of borders by Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asian powers, is a far different matter.

So I have rather different predictions than Chuck. I think these terrorist actions threatened “business as usual” for most Arab and Islamic states as well as the West, and therefore all these nations will find common cause in eliminating this particular terrorist organization. If that requires pulling down the Taliban as rulers of Afghanistan, then I believe the coalition will find a way to do so.

All the best,
Jack G.

FROM 9/18/01:

Dear Friends,

With so much debate in the media paralleling the debate started by Chuck, I thought I’d share some views on where this debate seems to be going. I claim no special insights, and am of course swayed by my own biases. But I welcome any critical replies:

THE NEW DEBATE

Two schools of thought seem to be forming in regard to our reaction to the WTC attacks.

One school (what you hear from our President when he talks about this) holds that there is a huge network of “evil-doers” out there, all bent on “terrorism.” This is a big and pervasive threat, that will not end with killing bin Laden or any other single person. Instead, what we have to do is revamp our whole society and approach to defense to declare “war” on all terrorists. These people argue that the WTC attack was just the first of what will be more events, some with biological or stolen nuclear weapons; and that we may have to reduce our civil liberties, give the government sweeping powers to investigate and detain U.S. citizens, and so on to deal with this threat.

The other school (what you hear from Colin Powell) holds that there are terrorists, and then there is the gang who went too far by using civilian aircraft as weapons against civilian targets. In this view, the people who strap bombs on themselves and walk into crowded markets in Israel –however much they share in viewpoint or aims with the bin Laden gang — are of a different order of magnitude from the kind of well-financed, highly-organized, long-planned terrorism that we see in the bin Laden group. Bin Laden and his group has pursued a series of intricate, sophisticated, attacks on the U.S. — the 1993 WTC attempt; the attack on U.S. embassies in Africa; the attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen; and now this — that have been steadily expanding in magnitude and complexity, and which have no parallel in other acts of terrorists or terrorist groups. These people have systematically invested millions of dollars in training, planning, and pursuing coordinated attacks on U.S. targets for years. In this school’s view, it is this particular organization, plus the Taliban who has sheltered it, that is responsible for all the really significant attacks on U.S. targets in the last decade, and if they can be eliminated, those attacks will stop.

This school has no illusions that we can stop “terrorism” per se; madmen with bombs will continue to be local threats. However, this school believes that we can stop the kind of activity that involves dozens of men, years of planning, and millions of dollars of support to carry out.

My belief is pretty strong that the second school has it right. I say this from the historical pattern: the bin Laden group has always developed a meticulous plan of action, chosen a major target, carried out its attacks with fair success (excepting only the 1993 WTC car bomb attempt, which was a VERY near miss), and then retreated to plan its next major mission. This was the pattern with the Embassy bombings, the Cole attack, and now this. So just as those prior events were discretely planned and executed, rather than part of a wave of terrorism, I don’t think there will be more attacks planned by this group. That’s not to say that copycats may not want to show how big and important they are by trying to emulate them; so all the security we’re doing now seems both justified and able to stop exactly the kind of poorly-prepared nut who would try to copy what bin Laden’s trained experts pulled off. I agree that the current security measures would probably not stop another such expertly planned and executed attack; but I don’t anticipate more of them right away. If past practices hold, the bin Laden gang will change their target and approach to catch us off guard, rather than repeat the same pattern.

So I think the most reasonable and effective strategy will be to try to isolate and eliminate the bin Laden gang, and those governments that provide it the most effective sanctuary. I don’t doubt that other groups will try to move into bin Laden’s place, or that Iraq or other renegade states will still funnel money to anti-US terrorists. But the degree of skill, coordination, and audacity shown in these attacks over the last decade strikes me as exceptional, and not easy to duplicate.

I do not believe that bombing Afghanistan is therefore an answer to anything; that will likely only incur anger among Muslim states and not disable the terrorists. What is needed is for an allied force to target, isolate, and capture or destroy as much of bin Laden’s network as possible, including ideally getting the leader himself (although making it impossible for him to access funds or move freely would be almost as good). Freezing all of the Taliban’s assets abroad until such time as bin Laden is turned over is thus fairly potent. If the Taliban wants a war, then it will take ground troops as well as air to destroy their hold on Afghanistan. Although that, to my mind, is a worthwhile humanitarian goal in its own right, similar to getting the Khmer Rouge out of power in Cambodia, or kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

I think that Colin Powell has this all down, and I hope his views will prevail. If so, I’m confident we’ll make progress and I hope, within a matter of months, eliminate the worst threats to the US.

In general, from my study of contentious politics, I’m persuaded that violence — whether by states or opponents — is only effective if it is NOT perceived as arbitrary or excessive. If it is so perceived, it backfires by delegitimizing the perpetrator and increasing opposition. So in judging the consequences of actions by terrorists or opponents, I would try to stick with this rule.

FOR THE TERRORISTS:

Attacks on embassies, navy ships, and other exposed clearly government or military targets are neither arbitrary nor excessive. However, the WTC attack was both. It killed Pakistani, Dutch, British, and many other citizens, including many Muslims; and it put in peril all civilian aviation everywhere in the world. If major US airlines start to go bust due to fear of flying, what about French or British, or even Pakistani or Saudi flights into New York or Washington DC? I think this attack went way too far, and will delegimate the terrorists behind it even in the eyes of many who previously sympathized or at least tolerated their attacks.

FOR THE ALLIES:

Attacks that clearly target the terrorists or their supporters are likely to be seen as justified and reasonable; that is conflict and war. HOWEVER, attacks that mainly kill Afghan or other civilians, or that collectively punish Muslim or Arab governments or populations, are likely to be seen as arbitrary and excessive and thus be counterproductive.

Perhaps too optimistically, I believe that this terrorist attack, and a measured and careful response, will give the Allies the upper hand. However, this could be lost if the Allies embark on excessive and loosely targeted attacks, and the Taliban/terrorists respond with attacks focused on military targets. This would turn things around again.

As Chuck wisely says, we can’t predict the future; we only guess at the future, and hope to learn from it.

All the best,
Jack G.