James J. Na is a Foreign Policy Fellow of the Discovery Institute
The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were as unexpected and daring as they were murderous. There is no denying the resourcefulness of this adversary. But while initially successful, al Qaeda’s strategy nevertheless contained the seed of its defeat. There are parallels between the failed strategy pursued by Hannibal against Rome during the Second Punic War and that implemented by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
Like bin Laden, Hannibal was motivated by an almost pathological hatred of the superpower of his day. He had never visited Rome. Thus, although aware of the tactical weaknesses of its military, Hannibal set out for war ignorant of Roman politics, culture, and-more important-the people’s fortitude. Bin Laden, too, apparently was well aware of U.S. vulnerabilities, such as its open society. Like Hannibal, however, he launched attacks on a country and a people he knew only secondhand.
Hannibal gained a great victory over Rome at Cannae in 216 B.C. by luring the Romans into a trap. Although outnumbered two to one, his army killed more than 50,000 of them and captured another 10,000, while suffering about 6,000 casualties. The disastrous defeat temporarily paralyzed Rome. But Hannibal eventually lost the war. Cannae is called the perfect battle, a model of the weak overwhelming the strong through a brilliant strategem. Its paradigm seduces those who seek a quick, easy victory through a single climactic battle.
The 11 September 2001 attacks demonstrated that bin Laden and al Qaeda were mesmerized by this same wishful thinking — if they unleashed a singular disaster on the United States, it would lose allies and its appetite for a difficult war. So, instead of distributing its resources and mounting a series of asynchronous attacks to multiply fear and confusion before Americans could recover, bin Laden and al Qaeda staked everything on one perfect victory, and — having achieved a semblance of it — did not exploit it. Like Hannibal after Cannae, they sat on their victory and awaited a capitulation that never came.
In setting out against Rome, Hannibal marched from Spain, from which he drew men and resources. Roman General Scipio Africanus understood that Hannibal’s center of gravity was this sanctuary. Once assured Rome was reasonably secure, he set out for Spain to deprive Hannibal of his base of operations.
When President George W. Bush moved to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan, he emulated this classic strategy of taking the fight to the enemy’s center. Like Scipio, who recruited local Spanish tribes suffering under Carthaginian rule, the United States enlisted the factions that composed the Northern Front. With their help, U.S. forces achieved a swift victory with minimum casualties and drove al Qaeda from its sanctuary. By engaging al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy diverted its attention from further attacks in the United States, just as Scipio’s stroke in Spain weakened Hannibal’s attack against Rome.
The war against Saddam Hussein that followed was not an isolated war unto itself. Iraq was, in British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s words, “another act” in the struggle against al Qaeda and its worldwide allies. Scipio pursued a similar course in North Africa; he vanquished the pro-Cartaginian ruler of nearby Numidia and fostered pro-Roman elements there.
In the past two years, the United States has experienced no further significant terrorist attack from al Qaeda. But merely suppressing al Qaeda is not enough. Roman senator Cato the Elder ended every speech with Delenda est Carthago-Carthage must be destroyed. Al Qaeda too must be vanquished.
Al Qaeda is said to be an amorphous transnational group. Nonetheless, it must obtain fresh personnel and financial resources, and these must originate from somewhere within the boundaries of traditional nation-states. The United States can fight this shadowy enemy by pursuing the tangible sources of its power — men, money, and propaganda. There are indications that progress has been made in this regard.
Another U.S. advantage is its superbly trained and equipped military, backed by an extensive and well-organized logistics system. At the same time, improvements are needed. For example, many Iraqis escaped from the battlefield during the initial combat phase of the war and they remain to be dealt with.
The American people must not waiver in their determination to finish the fight. As Rome pursued Hannibal to the ends of the known world, the United States must vigorously pursue al Qaeda, using diplomacy where possible and acting with allies or even alone when it must. Above all, there can be no negotiated settlement. We cannot compromise with terrorists.
The price of freedom is courage. Our people must bravely prepare for a long, hard war against terror. It is a struggle that might see successes and reverses, but one that ultimately will result in the demise of al Qaeda — if we persevere. The Romans never forgot Cannae. Let us not forget 11 September in what Prime Minister Blair called the “many further struggles [that] will be set upon this stage before it’s over.” Delenda est al Qaeda.