How Will It Play Out?

How Will It Play Out?

How Will It Play Out?

Military analysis.
Oct. 24 2001 7:39 PM

How Will It Play Out?

Two scenarios for the next 12 months.

 

What will the world look like in October 2002? Slate asked experts on terrorism, strategy, the military, the Middle East, and the economy to describe how they think events will play out in the coming year. On a few major issues there was significant consensus: Osama Bin Laden will be killed or captured; there will be more attempts—not necessarily successful—at terror attacks on U.S. soil; Afghanistan will be America's sole major military campaign; there will be no resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; oil supplies will remain stable. The predictions, though, come with a caveat best expressed by Christopher Bassford, a professor of strategy at the National War College: "I believe the foreseeable future just ended." We have compiled the leading views into two main scenarios: a relatively benign prognosis and a "don't-read-this-right-before-bedtime" one.

The Good News: Back to Sept. 10 (More or Less)

Osama Bin Laden is dead—dispatched by either the Afghan opposition, the Taliban, the Pakistanis, an emissary from his own family, or U.S. special forces. He does not become an inspirational martyr. "At the moment he's a heroic figure, he stood up to the United States," says Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "If he gets defeated, he's a lot less heroic." Al-Qaida is largely wiped out, its leaders and operatives killed or jailed around the world. Those who are left don't have the means or leadership to carry out assaults on the scale of the World Trade Center or Pentagon and consider suicide bombing at malls or restaurants no longer spectacular enough, says Bassford. And because everyone is so vigilant, most attempted attacks will be thwarted anyway.

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If any do succeed, they will not produce nearly the death toll of the Sept. 11 catastrophes, especially if they take the form of biological warfare, because as the anthrax letters showed, such attacks don't easily generate mass casualties. As a result, Americans eventually recover their psychological equilibrium. By 2002, the United States will have adopted the model the British went to at the height of the IRA bombings. We will be on our way to having national identity cards, for example. But Americans will accept this—and security screening measures at public places—as a necessary, even reassuring means of increasing safety.

The demise of Bin Laden and al-Qaida will cool the furies of militant Islam. Yasser Arafat realized he was on the wrong side when he supported Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, and the crushing of al-Qaida will have a similar effect. "If it turns out terror is a disastrous way to go, we may get a different environment in that world," says Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He says the Arabs' failed wars against Israel in 1948 and 1967 provoked a period of soul-searching among them.

The United States does not wage another large-scale military campaign such as the one in Afghanistan. The next U.S. military moves are sending small units of special forces on quick in-and-out strikes in various other countries to kill members of terrorist cells. But the United States holds on to many coalition partners because its effort to dismantle terrorism proceeds primarily through law enforcement, financial, and diplomatic means. To counter anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, the United States invests in economic development programs in countries with moderate regimes and steps up pro-Western broadcasts throughout the region.

What will the Afghan government look like in 2002? It will be shaky—maybe a U.N. protectorate, maybe a U.S.-led mission to establish a working indigenous government. But the Taliban will be destroyed along with their terrorist training camps.

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As a result of the anti-terror coalition, the United States' relationship with Europe will be closer and more trusting than it was at the beginning of this Bush administration. The United States will have closer ties, too, to both China and Russia. The optimists also hold that except for Afghanistan, the regimes that were in place in October 2001 are still running things in 2002. While that may not sound like wholly good news, it also means that no governments, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have been taken over by militant Islamists. Oil prices remain steady, or even fall, since Gulf exporters are as dependent on oil money as the West is on oil. One thing that also remains the same is the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. No, not good news, but not an escalation into something worse.

There are two scenarios the optimists present on Iraq. In one, Saddam Hussein remains quietly in place only because he understands that for him to take any new military action or give traceable aid to the terrorists means that this time the United States will eliminate him. In the other, he takes new military action, or the United States traces his ties to the terrorists and eliminates him. His end comes either through direct U.S. military action or through U.S. cooperation with the Iraqi opposition. "Iraq could be dispatched easily, relatively speaking," says Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum. Unlike militant Islam, which is an ideology transcending national borders, Saddam's Iraq is a totalitarian state dependent on a single person. Even if Saddam is replaced by a thug, he will be a "chastened thug" says Johns Hopkins' Cohen—one who understands the consequences of provoking the United States.

In the absence of increased global unrest or major terrorist attacks here, the limping U.S. economy limps back. Interest rates are at historic lows, the banking system is healthy, and commodities are cheap. The economy has already absorbed the losses of the dot-coms. Unemployment remains stable due to growth in defense and high-tech and because thousands of people have been called out of the reserves into active duty, leaving their civilian jobs to be filled. Some sectors will even boom. You could do well investing in oil exploration stocks and companies that provide protection and recovery from cyberattacks.

To show just how back to normal life is, bipartisanship is dead. A year from now, says Clawson, Democrats and Republicans will be fighting over what to do about Social Security.

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And the United States will be feared. Says Cohen, "That's a healthy thing."

The Bad News: Apocalypse How

The United States can't find Bin Laden. Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, recently retired head of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, suggests Bin Laden might even try to capitalize on this by faking his own death. "I really believe that at some point in time, a 6-foot-5 charred body's going to be delivered somewhere," he says. "I would make sure we had DNA from the Bin Laden family." While many al-Qaida operatives are killed or jailed around the world, the organization lives on. There are too many people deeply embedded in too many countries, including the United States, for law enforcement to permanently cripple it.

Are there more attacks on the United States? Try these possibilities: a series of suicide bombings at fast food restaurants and malls. While there have been congressional hearings about the safety of the water supply, observes John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, "Have they had any hearings about food court security?" The result is that people are afraid to go to any public places. Some experts also see the possibility of assassinations of political figures, cyberterrorism that cripples electronic communications on a new scale, or truck bombings of big, symbolic places like FBI headquarters or the Supreme Court. Inspired by the shutdown of the U.S. transportation grid on Sept. 11, terrorists turn to infrastructure assaults on, say, ports or refineries, designed more to cripple the economy than to kill. Or the next move is attacks with chemical or biological weapons. "That's inevitable," says Gen. Zinni. "It's becoming less difficult to do. … It isn't going to be 500,000 casualties in New York City, but it could be 500 casualties somewhere." Or how about a nuclear device hidden in a suitcase and exploded in a skyscraper? "The United States has always said retaliation would be overwhelming if we were attacked with weapons of mass destruction," says Daniel Benjamin, a Clinton administration National Security Council staffer. "That's a good policy, but it's hard to do if you don't know who's attacking."

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While the United States is rocked by assaults, Muslim rage against us increases in intensity and arcs to an additional geographic flashpoint: Southeast Asia—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines.

The initial U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan was successful in that the Taliban was overthrown, but that country falls into chaos, and the United States is torn between being drawn into a nation-building quagmire or again abandoning Afghanistan and again reaping the consequences. And after the Afghanistan deployment, the United States is reluctant to engage in similarly scaled military campaigns against terrorist organizations or terrorism-sponsoring states. That reluctance—and the understanding on the part of militant Islam of how reluctant the United States is—empowers them. "We're fighting a limited war; they're fighting total war," says the National War College's Ilana Kass. "If your commitment is less, they don't need to win, they just need to outlast you."

Then there are the toppling regimes. The current Saudi government could fall, either taken down by street revolution in the manner of Iran's peacock throne or from an internal coup, with an anti-Western faction of the royal family taking over. Many pessimists agree that whoever runs Saudi Arabia will not turn off the oil spigot because that is the entire underpinning of its economy. But an organization like al-Qaida, bent on destroying the monarchy, would enjoy seeing the price shocks that result from destroying the oil fields.

What is more worrisome is the conflict between Pakistan and India. In aiding the United States, Pakistan's leader Pervez Musharraf "signed his own death warrant," says former Middle East intelligence operative William Cowan. Fundamentalists will assassinate him and take over the country. Then it's time for a game of all-nuke chicken. In one version, India decides not to wait to see what the Pakistani fundamentalists do but instead moves in with its superior conventional forces to take over the country. But before India can finish the job, Pakistan retaliates with nuclear weapons. Or, alternatively, a fundamentalist Pakistan, knowing that India will want to attack, launches nukes pre-emptively. With that going on, Saddam takes the opportunity to attack Israel with biological weapons. "Israel retaliates, and there's holy war all over the place," says Cohen.

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Let's just say all this doesn't cause the Dow to go up. As for consumer confidence, don't ask. Anyone remember stagflation? That happens when the economy is not growing, but the government is printing so much money to pay for deficits that it causes inflation. "Don't let anyone tell you wars are good for economies," says National War College economist I.J. Singh. "Wars are very bad, wars lead to uncertainty, and people don't want to invest." (World War II was an exception because it ended a pre-existing depression.) U.S. demand for goods has been the tractor pulling many of the young Asian economies, so with the United States in recession, they will be hit, too. Japan's economy will remain in the doldrums, and Europe will be hurt. That means a worldwide recession—and they tend to be long.

Finally, there is the ultimate doomsday scenario: We all die. But to Kass that is not the worst outcome. "The worst one is we just give up." She fears that some spectacular attacks could cause the United States to say: We'll do whatever it takes to make it stop. We leave the world stage and become weak and fearful. "We cease being who we are," she says.

Pleasant dreams!

Thanks to: Matthew Baker of Stratfor, Daniel Benjamin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Christopher Bassford of the National War College, James Blackwell of the Strategic Assessment Center, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Eliot Cohen  of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, William Cowan of System Planning Corporation, Ilana Kass of the National War College, James Kurtz of the Institute for Defense Analyses, John Pike of Globalsecurity.org, Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, Anita Sharma of the Woodrow Wilson Center,  I.J. Singh of the National War College, Howard Teicher of Expand Networks, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, Amy Zegart of UCLA, and Gen. Anthony Zinni.