Chaos as Political Strategy

By Daniel McGroarty

Call it "chaos you can believe in."

Al Qaeda, absent from the just-concluded American presidential campaign - remember the "October surprise" video some say cost John Kerry critical votes in the waning days of the 2004 campaign - appears to have gone active for the 2008 presidential transition period.

A spike in concern about a U.S. "terror spectacular" has New York police out in force on the Long Island Railroad this holiday weekend, while half a world away Mumbai reels from a series of synchronized terror attacks seemingly directed at spots popular with Western tourists.

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Is it certain the Mumbai attacks bear the al Qaeda stamp? The assaults - a dozen near-simultaneous attacks staged across the city – signal al Qaeda's signature style. With hostages taken at two of the sites – stories say the terrorists are looking for people holding U.S. or European passports - Mumbai is in lock down, with the entire nation on high alert.

Even as India's security services scramble to free the hostages and pursue the perpetrators, pressure will build for Indian authorities to explain how such attacks could happen. The opportunity to lay blame on al-Qaeda-affiliated cells supported by elements in Pakistan will prove tempting for an Indian government ill-prepared to accept the inevitable charges of a massive intelligence failure. Indeed, the Times of India is already reporting that a terror group with connections to the Kashmir region and a history of support from Pakistani sources is claiming credit. Whatever cell or splinter group initiated the attacks, we are sure to see tensions ratchet up between two nuclear-armed nations with a history of mistrust and enmity.

The tactics used - car bombs, indiscriminate automatic weapons fire, a bomb at a gas pump, grenades lobbed at first-responders, a taxi rigged to explode under a central city fly-over - may be decidedly low-tech, but at first look, this attack is strategically sophisticated.

In contrast to September 11th's diabolical transformation of civilian airliners into flying fuel bombs, the sophistication in Mumbai is evident not in the delivery devices but the strategy behind the assault. At a single stroke, it fans the flames under the ever-simmering conflict between India and Pakistan, disturbs the uneasy U.S. balancing act between the two nations, and drives a wedge between the current Commander in Chief and the victorious candidate Americans have come to see as proto-President even before the January 20th inaugural. It introduces a new complication into U.S.-Pakistani relations, as Islamabad's seriousness about combating al-Qaeda terrorists on its territory was one of the few international issues to register in the U.S. presidential debates. It exploits rifts between U.S. and Europe via country-coded hostage-taking that will cause capitals throughout Europe to be on the line to Washington to press for action to secure the release of their nationals, and to second-guess any failure.

Is it an oxymoron to call chaos a strategy? Not when the chaos unleashed serves largely to shrink maneuvering room for the terrorists' chief enemy and foments tensions between the U.S. and its allies. From the point of view of an on-the-run terror organization, that's quite a lot of bang for the buck.

Into the quiet of a Thanksgiving morning, a single set of coordinated attacks now reverberates into the American transition vacuum. TV images already reinforce this, as the attacks catch the President-elect in Chicago to celebrate the holiday, with the President-in-fact monitoring events from Camp David. The split-screen highlights our bi-polar presidency, and the extra layer of uncertainty it adds in time of crisis.

And so to the American debate of change versus continuity, an outside force adds a new element: chaos - and a sobering reminder that our chance to chart America's future is not in our hands alone.

Daniel McGroarty, principal of Washington-based Carmot Strategic Group, is a former White House speechwriter.

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