On Strategic Surprise

Tuesday, April 30, 2002
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It's becoming clear now that there were two great surprises

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associated with the events of September 11, 2001.

One was the event itself, which certainly surprised its intended victims. The United States was as unprepared for what befell it as any target of an unexpected attack has ever been. Even December 7, 1941, was not this great a surprise because a series of escalating crises in the Pacific had preceded the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. War was known to be imminent; the surprise was where the attack came, not that an attack occurred. September 11 was not like this.

For despite several earlier attacks on Americans abroad attributed to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, most Americans would not even have recognized those names on the day their agents destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and probably targeted the Capitol or the White House. It was in every sense, right down to the color of the sky that morning, a bolt from the blue. "How did they do that?" everyone asked, astonished that three simultaneously hijacked airliners could be made to fly, almost simultaneously, into three separate buildings.

Americans aren’t the only ones, however, who’ve asked that question. The perpetrators of the attacks must also have done so as they’ve confronted the second great surprise that grew out of September 11, which has been the swift and—so far—successful counterattack. It may never be clear just what bin Laden and his associates had hoped to achieve with their terrorist spectacular, but it cannot have been to find themselves, within three months, holed up in caves fighting for their very survival against Afghans backed by American ground troops and bombers, as well as an international coalition of Islamic and non-Islamic states managed from Washington.

"How did they do that?" the beleaguered Al Qaeda must have wondered, as its members contemplated the sudden collapse of their Taliban "hosts"; the reluctance of any other state to try to save them; the enthusiasm with which ordinary Afghans shaved their beards, discarded their birkas, and welcomed the infidels; and—most unexpectedly of all—that the United States after September 11 has wielded considerably more influence in the world than it had for years before that event. Sometimes surprises work both ways.

Surprise, Signals, and Noise

I would define a surprise strategy as one in which force is used in an unexpected way at an unexpected time against an unexpected target, with a view to trying to achieve what more-conventional methods of warfare cannot. The nature of such surprises is that force must be applied asymmetrically: You search out your enemy’s weaknesses and deploy your strengths against them. Surprise ensures that vulnerabilities are not corrected.

Terrorism has always relied on surprise. As the weapon of the weak against the strong, it works by blurring boundaries between combatants and noncombatants, thereby complicating the task of those who would defend against it. For in such situations, there exist an almost infinite number of targets—many more than on any battlefield. And, as well, if not an infinite number of methods that can be used to attack them, then at least a sufficient quantity that anticipating them all is impossible.

This compounds a problem that is hard enough to avoid even in more-traditional forms of warfare, which is the signals-versus-noise dilemma. No one has written better about this than Roberta Wohlstetter in her classic 1962 book Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. The problem the United States faced in the fall of 1941, she concludes, was not too little information about Japanese intentions, but too much.

The cracking of Japanese codes, paradoxically, swamped American intelligence analysts with far more information than they could process. To solve the problem, they relied, even if subconsciously, on their expectations of what could or would happen. Because it seemed unlikely that the Japanese could, at such great distance, mount an attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans dismissed as noise what were actually signals suggesting that they would do so. Even after the attack had taken place, Wohlstetter notes, the Americans did little to defend against the bombing of bases in the Philippines that quickly followed. The reasons were similar—an assumption of incapability led to a discount of probability.

"The United States after September 11 has wielded considerably more influence in the world than it had for years prior to that event. Sometimes surprises work both ways."

This same assumption may help to explain September 11. There was plenty of reason before that date to think the United States vulnerable to attack on its own territory. The Hart-Rudman commission, which had repeatedly warned of this possibility, published its final report in March 2001. National security no longer meant simply deterring aggression elsewhere in the world, the commission insisted; it now also required preparing for attacks at home. Homeland security was national security.

Nor was there any mystery as to where such attacks might come from. Osama bin Laden’s record was clear enough—the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000—and there had already been an unsuccessful attempt on the World Trade Center itself, in 1993. There were warnings as well about the specific mode of attack: The hijackers had attracted attention while taking their flight training, and one of them—now alleged by the government to have been involved—had been arrested several weeks before September 11. There were even phone calls from one of the flight instructors employed by the hijackers reminding the FBI that an airplane could be used as a bomb.

But these connections are clear only in retrospect. They were not apparent at the time, for the same reason that the Japanese intention to attack Pearl Harbor wasn’t: The future isn’t as knowable as the past. No one had ever before combined a multiple hijacking with what amounted to a latter-day kamikaze attack—much less such a combination on U.S. territory. Hence, an assumption of incapability again produced a discount of probability: No one was searching for the particular signals that existed amid all the noise generated by all the other possible threats to all the other possible targets.

What’s to Be Done?

So what’s to be done to guard against surprise attacks in the future? We’ve already made it more difficult to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings. Not only is security tighter, but passengers now eye each other warily, ready to whip out belts and other means of restraint at the slightest sign of questionable behavior. We’re looking carefully at other areas of vulnerability—especially to chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks—and have probably rendered these kinds of surprises less likely, though by no means totally unlikely.

But the unfortunate truth is that there can never be complete safeguards against surprise attacks because the number of targets and the ways in which they are vulnerable will always exceed the measures that can be taken to defend them. The initiative here always rests with the attacker. That’s in the nature of surprise, and nothing we can do will change that.

If that’s the case, though, why haven’t there been more surprise attacks in the past? Their relative infrequency—and especially the infrequency with which those who’ve launched such attacks have achieved their objectives—is itself something of a surprise when you begin to look at the track record.

History as a Deterrent

An earlier Japanese surprise attack—against the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in 1904—did lead to a victory in the war that followed, but that is the only such example in the twentieth century. The other major instances in which nations launched unprovoked assaults that relied on surprise—Germany against Belgium in World War I; Hitler against almost everybody in World War II; Japan against China, the United States, and Great Britain in that same conflict; North Korea against South Korea in 1950; Egypt against Israel in 1973; the Soviet Union against Afghanistan in 1979; Iraq against Kuwait in 1990—all produced either defeat or stalemate.

"Democracies do not generally fight one another, but they do fight those who attack them with particular tenacity."

Terrorism—which depends on surprise—has been almost as unsuccessful. It did help push the British out of Palestine and the French out of Algeria, but it’s likely that they would have left eventually anyway. It did accelerate an American withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983, but that too would have happened in any event. Terrorists have failed to achieve their objectives far more often than they’ve succeeded: Contested territories such as Northern Ireland, Israel, Quebec, Kashmir, Chechnya, Kurdistan, and the Basque region of Spain all remain under their original political jurisdictions. Terrorists with nonterritorial demands, such as the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the United States, the Bader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, and the Red Brigade in Italy, have tended—as they age—to fade away.

Why so many failures? Each case is different, but one thing that may link them is another asymmetry that works against those who seek to achieve surprise. It has to do with the proliferation of adversaries who are likely to resist whatever it is you’re trying to do. There are three ways in which this can happen:

First, surprise attack requires striking first, which normally means losing the moral high ground. It’s difficult to portray yourself as the innocent victim when you initiate the use of force. There was little to prefer in the respective moralities of Hitler and Stalin in 1941, but there’s also little doubt that Hitler, by launching a surprise attack against an equally odious regime, generated support for it and resistance, on a massive scale, to his own.

Second, blurring the distinction between combatants and noncombatants proliferates enemies because of the injuries it inflicts upon the innocent. Few principles in war are more durable than the idea that the innocent should be protected; when gross violations of this rule have taken place (even, arguably, with the Allied bombing of German and Japanese civilians during World War II), resistance has tended to increase as a result. Certainly few terrorist movements have found it possible to remain popular while blowing up people indiscriminately.

"Terrorists have failed to achieve their objectives far more often than they’ve succeeded. Contested territories such as Northern Ireland, Israel, Quebec, Kashmir, Chechnya, Kurdistan, and the Basque region of Spain all remain under their original political jurisdictions."

Finally, it’s a particularly bad idea, it seems, to surprise a democracy. Democracies do not generally fight one another, but, as Victor Davis Hanson has pointed out, they do fight those who attack them with particular violence, tenacity, and effectiveness. It was an entirely ordinary American, Ulysses S. Grant, who perfected the modern strategy of defeating enemies by annihilating them—even though they happened to be other Americans.

The Dangers of Disproportion

The United States, in fighting the war thrust upon it on September 11, has benefited from each of these tendencies, as well as from a fourth that is, so far, unique to this situation: the particular horror of an attack that inflicted such enormous damage at so little cost. The statistics are still shifting, but it’s reasonable to assume that in this operation the suicides (intended or not) of 19 hijackers produced the deaths of some 3,200 people and that expenditures of about $500,000 led to damages that could cost as much as $100 billion to repair.

Ratios like these—of 168 deaths for every hijacker enlisted and $200,000 in damages for every dollar spent—might seem an inducement to future terrorism, and it’s possible that they will be. But the first few months since September 11 suggest a different outcome, which is that the attacks of that day will come to be seen, from the standpoint of those who organized them, as having been too devastating. Everybody has buildings full of people over which airplanes fly. That simple fact has enlisted many more allies in the fight against terrorism than the United States could ever have done on its own.

"An American president who appeared as unqualified for leadership as Shakespeare’s Prince Hal has unexpectedly become—or so he appeared in his first address to Congress and the nation in the wake of September 11—King Henry V."

The state as we know it grew out of the need for protection against terror some five centuries ago—the terror that came from anarchy, together with the brigands, pirates, and marauders who thrived on it. In recent years, the combined pressures of economic globalization and political self-determination have eroded the power of states, but we may now be seeing a reversal of that trend. It’s already under way in the United States, where the attacks of September 11 have reversed a disillusionment with government that had been mounting for decades. If that can happen among Americans, historically the people most distrustful of state power, then the effects could be even greater elsewhere—and hardly what the terrorists intended.

To be sure, these patterns—of increasing authority for the United States in particular but also for states in general—may not hold up. There will probably be other terrorist attacks, if not directly orchestrated by bin Laden then by those who share his grievances and have learned from his techniques. The anti–bin Laden coalition may fragment once bin Laden is no longer there to hold it together. The leadership the Americans have provided may lose its focus as domestic priorities within the United States—and skepticism about government as well—gradually resurface.

What’s already happened, though, ought to be enough to make future terrorists think twice. The drift and dithering that characterized the American approach to the world during the post–Cold War years have come to an abrupt end. An administration that entered office with the shakiest of mandates, with no apparent geopolitical vision, and, it seemed sometimes, with a determination to alienate allies rather than to lead them, has suddenly found its purpose. An American president who appeared as unqualified for leadership as Shakespeare’s Prince Hal has unexpectedly become—or so he appeared in his first address to the Congress and the nation in the wake of September 11—King Henry V.

Our adversaries, in their caves, have every right to wonder: "How did they do that?" They need only look, for an answer, at themselves.