Al QUeda Global Offensive: Bulge or Tet?

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  1. From Stratfor:

    Al Qaeda's Global Campaign: Tet Offensive or Battle of the Bulge?
    By George Friedman

    A spate of attacks have occurred recently that we attribute to al Qaeda. In addition to the two rounds of attacks in London this month and the bombings at Sharm el Sheikh, we have seen ongoing suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq that targeted government officials, the bombing of a Sufi shrine in Islamabad, the abduction and murder of an Iranian security official and other killings in the Muslim world. In addition, we have seen an intensification of attacks in Iraq by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda-linked faction. We are not great believers in coincidence and therefore regard these incidents as being coordinated. The degree of coordination and the method whereby coordination is achieved is murky, and not really material. But that we are experiencing an offensive by al Qaeda is clear.

    At issue is the nature of the offensive. To put the matter simply, do these attacks indicate the ongoing, undiminished strength of al Qaeda, or do they represent a final, desperate counterattack -- both within Iraq and globally -- to attempt to reverse al Qaeda's fortunes? In our view, the latter is the case. Al Qaeda, having been hammered over the past four years, and al-Zarqawi, facing the defection of large segments of his Sunni base of support, are engaged in a desperate attempt to reverse the course of the war. It is not clear that they will fail; such counter-offensives have succeeded in recent years. The question is whether this is a Tet offensive or a Battle of the Bulge.

    To begin to answer that, we need to consider these two offensives.

    In warfare, as one side is being pressed to the point of no return, the classic maneuver is to marshal all available strength for an offensive designed to turn the tide. The offensive has a high probability of military failure and, therefore, would not be attempted until military defeat or an unacceptable political outcome appeared inevitable. The goal is to inflict a blow so striking that it throws the other side off balance. More important, it should create a crisis of confidence in the enemy's command structure and its political base. It should be a surprise attack, causing commanders to question their intelligence organizations' appreciation of the other side's condition. It should have a significant military impact. Above all, it should redefine the enemy public's perception of the course of the war. Ideally, it should set the stage for a military victory -- but more probably, it would set the stage for a political settlement.

    In December 1944, the Germans understood they were going to be defeated by the spring of 1945, when Soviet and Anglo-American forces would simultaneously smash into Germany. They gathered what force they had to attempt a surprise counterattack. Anglo-American intelligence organizations had concluded that the Germans were finished. The Germans took advantage of this by striking through the Ardennes forest. Their goal was the port of Antwerp.

    The fall of Antwerp -- or at least, the ability to interfere with access to the port -- would not have defeated the Allies. However, it would have constrained Allied offensive operations and forced postponement of the spring offensive. It also would have shaken the confidence in the Allied high command and both Roosevelt and Churchill. The unexpected nature of the offensive would have created a political crisis and opened the door to either a redefinition of Allied war aims or, possibly, a separate peace in the West.

    From a military standpoint, the attack was a long shot, but not a preposterous one. Had the Germans crossed the Meuse River, they could have approached Antwerp at least. In the event, if we consider the panic that gripped the Allied high command even without the Germans reaching the Meuse, their crossing of it would have had massive repercussions. Whether it would have had political consequences is unclear. As it was, the offensive failed in the first days. It was liquidated in a matter of weeks, and the war concluded catastrophically for Germany.

    A more successful example of a terminal offensive was the North Vietnamese offensive in February 1968. The Johnson administration had been arguing, with some logic, that the North Vietnamese forces were being worn down effectively by the United States, and that they were on the defensive and declining. The Tet offensive was intended to reverse the waning fortunes of the North Vietnamese. There were a number of goals. First and foremost, the offensive was designed to demonstrate to all parties that the North Vietnamese retained a massive offensive capability. It was intended to drive a wedge between U.S. commanders in Saigon and the political leaders in Washington by demonstrating that the Saigon command was providing misleading analysis. Finally, it was intended to drive a wedge between the Johnson administration and the American public.

    From a strictly military standpoint, Tet was a complete disaster. It squandered scarce resources on an offensive that neither reduced U.S. strength nor gained and held strategic objectives. After the offensive was over, the North Vietnamese army was back where it had started, with far fewer troops or supplies.

    From the political point of view, however, it was wildly successful. A chasm opened between the civilian leadership in Washington and Gen. William Westmoreland in Saigon. Westmoreland's rejection of intelligence analyses pointing to an offensive undermined confidence in him. Far more important, Johnson's speeches about lights at the end of the tunnel lost all credibility, in spite of the fact that he wasn't altogether wrong. The apparent success of the Tet offensive forced a re-evaluation of American strategy in Vietnam, Johnson's decision not to stand for re-election and a general sense that the U.S. government had vastly underestimated the strength and tenacity of the North Vietnamese.

    Declining military fortunes force combatants to consider political solutions. At that point, military action becomes focused on three things:

    1. Demonstrating to all concerned that you retain effective offensive capabilities.
    2. Convincing the enemy that a military solution is impossible.
    3. Creating a political atmosphere in which negotiations and/or military victory are possible.>

    In their Ardennes offensive in 1944, the Germans failed in the first goal and therefore could not achieve the others. In the case of the Tet offensive, Americans became convinced that the North Vietnamese could still mount offensives, could not be defeated and therefore had to be negotiated with. The negotiations and truce bought the North Vietnamese time to regroup, reinforce and bring the war to a satisfactory solution (from their standpoint).

    Vietnam's guerrilla warfare bears little resemblance to the massed, combined arms conflict in World War II. Neither even slightly reflects the global covert offensive mounted by al Qaeda, nor the asymmetric response of the United States. Nevertheless, all wars share common characteristics:

    1. A political object -- for example, domination of Europe, unification of Vietnam, creation of radical Islamist states in the Muslim world.
    2. All use the military means at hand to achieve these goals.
    3. In all wars, one side or the other reaches a point beyond which there is only defeat. That point calls for the final offensive to be launched.
    4. The offensive is not hopeless, but its ends are primarily political rather than military. Its goal is to redefine the enemy's psychology as well as bolster the spirits of one's own forces.

    The key to success, at that point, is two-fold. First, the offensive must appear to be an ongoing operation. It cannot appear to be a hastily contrived, desperation move. The Germans didn't succeed in this at the Battle of the Bulge. The North Vietnamese did at Tet. Second, the offensive must have the desired psychological effect: It must reverse the enemy's expectation of victory. The claims by civil and military leaders on the other side that the war is under control must be discredited.

    It has been our view for months that the United States is winning -- not has won -- the U.S.-jihadist war. Events in the recent past have reinforced our view. In Iraq, for example, the decision by a large segment of the Sunni leadership to join in the political process has posed a mortal challenge to the jihadists. They depend on the Sunni community to provide sanctuary, recruits and supplies. If any large segment of the Sunni community abandons them, their ability to wage war -- on the scale it is currently being waged -- is undermined. They will, however, be able to sustain a much smaller and less politically significant scale of operations.

    In the broader, global fight, al Qaeda continues to face this reality. There has not been a single revolution overthrowing a Muslim government in favor of a radical/militant Islamist regime. In fact, the bulk of the Muslim states are actively cooperating with the United States. The primary intent of the radical and militant Islamists, which is to create a caliphate based on at least one significant Muslim state, has been completely thwarted. This point has not been missed in the Islamic world.

    At this point, al Qaeda needs to launch a counteroffensive on a global scale that is designed to demonstrate its viability as a paramilitary force. People tend to denigrate the complexity of terrorist operations. The complexity is not in the willingness to blow oneself up, however -- the complexity is in acquiring explosives, transmitting messages internationally and generally going undetected. The 9-11 attacks were a superbly executed operation. Al Qaeda has set a standard of credibility for itself, and to create the reversal of fortunes it requires, it must carry out an operation on that order.

    Yet since the Sept. 11 attacks, the scale of al Qaeda's operations outside the Islamic world has declined. Al Qaeda badly needs to re-establish its credibility and recapture its earlier momentum by mounting an attack on the scale of 9-11 or beyond. There is not only no need to delay, but every incentive to move as quickly as possible. They need this for political reasons, but also because the pressure from national intelligence agencies is such that to wait is to risk losing the operational team (if one is ready to strike). If they have a nuclear weapon, for example, the longer they wait to use it, the more likely it is to be captured in transit to its target. The pressure is on for al Qaeda to act as quickly and as effectively as it can.

    The London attacks were a failure. It's not only that the Tube attacks lacked the ferocity of 9-11. However tragic the loss of life, the first attack was a work of mediocre effectiveness, while the 7/21 attempt was a joke. The attacks elsewhere, particularly at Sharm el Sheikh, were more effective, but still didn't rise to the levels required to establish credibility.

    What al Qaeda has demonstrated is that its available assets, particularly outside the Islamic world, lack the skill and sophistication to even come close to the level of the Madrid attacks, let alone those in New York. Their attempt to increase the tempo of operations has led them to use untrained and unsuitable personnel. They have not achieved the psychological ends they wish.

    Al Qaeda has one hope. If the ability to mount modest terrorist operations with increased frequency convinces its enemies that it is more viable than was thought, at that point they will begin to be successful. That perception will transfer to the Muslim world and with that, al Qaeda could recover the credibility it needs to continue to wage war. At the moment, however, that doesn't seem to be happening. The major political result of London, for example, has been a tendency among Muslim leaders to condemn the attacks in numbers and vehemence rarely seen before. Al Qaeda's glory days seem to be behind it.

    Which means that al Qaeda must up the ante if they can. We do not believe they will be able to do so. More precisely, if they had the ability, there have been so many other moments to have acted, it seems odd that they didn't. We also doubt that they have recently acquired the means to attack. They are under heavy pressure, and it is harder for them to grow than it was before. There are al Qaeda sympathizers, but al Qaeda has maintained its internal security by not growing. They are relying on untrained sympathizers to carry out missions. It is hard to believe that they have much left in their kit.

    Still, the outcome of any last-ditch offensive is uncertain. The very fact that it is happening can panic enemy forces or drive a wedge between the government and military, and between government and the public. Bush's popularity is slipping, and the perception that al Qaeda is waging a successful and unstoppable offensive could suddenly undermine his position. He is vulnerable at the moment. But thus far, the attempt at a global Tet offensive has failed to rise to the level of credibility required. Al Qaeda must do something of substantial significance before the summer ends, or see its position in Iraq and in other places deteriorate rapidly.

    As with the Germans and Vietnamese, al Qaeda's time of mortal crisis is their time of maximum available effort. We doubt that they can pull this off, but we will wait until September to see.
  2. Both analogies are fatally flawed. The NVA and the Wehrmacht were both well defined organisations with hierarchical structures, clear chains of command and well defined objectives. AQ on the other hand is a bunch of loosely affiliated groups who share some vague dream of an Islamic Caliphate - more of a communal belief than a targetable organisation.
  3. I'm unable to make a decision, but it was a good read :)
  4. Auld-Yin

    Auld-Yin LE Reviewer Book Reviewer Reviews Editor

    IMHO and that is quite open to challenge, both the scenarios deal with the US and how they approach matters.

    The Bulge caused anxiety in the high command which was lead by US officers. The Commendser who area was attacked - Bradley - was that rear HQ and suffered the 'scared rabbit' syndrome which took over that HQ. Montgomery who was in the field reacted quickly and effectively (although he could not keep his mouth shut after) and Patton, who believed the intel had changed his direction before being ordered to do so and was therefore in a position to act also quickly and effectively. The point being rear HQ panicked and front HQs did not. All actions taken during the Bulge action were based on how this would look in good ole US of A.

    Same for Tet. NVA recognised that they were struggling but that they were, even at that point, winning the media war. That, again IMO was their aim which was very successful - to win the media war. When the US forces were hit during the 'ceasefire' they were not hit purely by guerillas but by regular, well trained and experienced troops, fighting in what was basically their own country. Both sides put up a great struggle and did well with what they had and what they could do. It was the the 'death knell' for the Americans in Vietnam though and I am sure that this was taken into consideration by the North Viets when they launched the tet offensive knowing their chances of winning anything was slight in the remote.

    In both of these cases the attacks have been based on America's reactions - and they are pretty predicatable.

    I don't think Al Q are at the end of their tether yet but they will attack either allies of US or other targets which will bring people on to their side. They may, or may not, attack US directly but the remoteness of the American continent is a major factor.

    To use the Bulge and Tet to explain what is happening now is a mistake - the world is a hugely different place now.

    Sorry for the rant.