The United States holds an enormous stake in Iraq. Although initiated to counter a perceived terrorist threat, the U.S. presence in Iraq has in many ways made near-term gains in the war on terror more difficult and thrown America's homeland security into question. But a creative solution with roots reaching far back into American history may be the answer.
Today, the presence of coalition troops in Iraq provides terrorists with a virtually constant training ground to develop battleground experience. As when Mujahedeen battled the Soviets in Afghanistan 20 years ago, which spawned Al Qaeda's evolvement through the 1990s, Iraq today has itself become a "cause for Jihad."
In fact, Iraq has eclipsed Afghanistan as a terrorist seedbed. A recent CIA report suggests that the urban nature of the war in Iraq affords assailants opportunity to learn how to carry out assassinations, kidnappings, car bombings and other kinds of attacks that were never a staple of the fighting in Afghanistan during anti-Soviet campaigns.
Today, insurgents in Iraq average 90 attacks daily - the highest amount since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
The length of engagement and nature of daily conflict provide rich propaganda for terrorist recruiters - especially al-Qaeda and its associates - to use in the all-important battle for hearts and minds among the youth of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The advent of the Internet ignited terrorist communications. The CIA's National Intelligence Council finds that terrorists are enabled to converse, train, and recruit through the Internet, and their threat will become "an eclectic array of groups, cells and individuals that do not need a stationary headquarters." According to a study by Gabriel Weimann, a professor at Israel's University of Haifa, terrorist websites have increased from around a dozen to 4,500 in the last four years.
The July bombings in London further bolster the notoriety of terrorist organizations. British engagement in Iraq was among several reasons cited by those claiming responsibility. This sort of propaganda upends the notion that by fighting terrorists in Iraq, we avoid facing them in the streets of New York, Atlanta or Los Angeles.
The stresses are internal, too. While America's military in Iraq struggles in this context, it is composed largely by an overstretched National Guard and Reserve Force. Repeat call-ups, extended tours, low recruitment and re-up rates, and poor supply reflect a massive crack in the system. The Army National Guard recruitment for 2005 missed its goal by more than 12,000 and the Army Reserve recruitment was off by more than 5,000. Moreover, troops at home are not fully equipped for homeland security scenarios because the inventories from non-deployed units are being sent overseas.
The original purpose of the Guard has transformed - so should its organization, supply, and support. If the military draft was the Achilles' heel to the Johnson war effort, the overextension of Reserves and National Guard may become ours today.
A home-front strategy is perhaps the most important aspect in a layered defense, regardless of how Iraq fares. President Bush should convene a group of bipartisan best minds to increase credibility with the public and Congress about the looming crisis in our military. Recognizing that we never anticipated and prepared for the new kind of warfare that came with 9/11, this bipartisan group will review home-front capabilities, mobilization, tactics and strategy. This bipartisan group should collaborate with the Commission on National Guard and Reserves, recently established by Congress.
Without waiting for the commission, however, the president should dramatically reinforce the National Guard.
This is not just a matter of changing policy and practices. The National Guard touches every community in the nation, their small businesses and families. A strengthening of the National Guard and Reserves should include their support groups, families, small businesses, the wounded, and the children and spouses left behind. An emergency grant from Congress matched with a review of existing laws and programs should provide better support structures, such as medical services to those most affected by deployed National Guard units.
The president also needs to make a call for national service. Doing so requires creating a voluntary, well equipped, well organized, congressionally funded and locally based corps. A non-expeditionary "Home Guard" is a strategic solution rooted in American history. Today's application should be composed of citizens from the community, who wear uniforms, train on weekends, and help prevent the chaos from a natural disaster or a weapon of mass effect. In the case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster, there would be an immediately deployable group of trained citizens from each community under control of the state governors ready to share the burden with the Red Cross, police, FEMA, local fire departments and National Guard.
A Home Guard would help mobilize the nation as we did during the Second World War. In some communities, where a percentage of first responders are in Iraq, such a trained force would help manage the shock following a terrorist attack or major natural disaster. Trained in the elements of security, engineering, civil affairs, and basic medicine, the Home Guard would recruit citizens already possessing these critical skills as well as individuals retiring out of the National Guard, active military and the Reserves. For the shorter term, enlistments in the National Guard could be followed by extended duty in the Home Guard. Citizens would have the opportunity to shift experience while retaining earned rank. Even more efficient would be the use of medically discharged or disabled veterans, who can still offer knowledge, skill and low-intensity service.
The untapped talent in the Civil Air Patrol and Coast Guard Auxiliary could serve as a starting point for building the Home Guard. Along our border, it would become a constructive outlet in place of ad hoc voluntary militia attempting to provide border protection in some states. Leaders drawn from their local communities would be trained in crisis communications and crowd control.
Hurricane Katrina proved the lynchpin role played by the National Guard and Reserve. The poor federal response underlines the need for a Home Guard. The aftermath also gives America some idea of the necessary preparation to react following an attack with a weapon of mass effect. This Home Guard would connect the first responders with the very people they serve. In fact, the Home Guard would become a highly organized group of newly recruited first responders
David Abshire is president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington, D.C. Jonah J. Czerwinski is senior research associate and director of homeland security projects at the Center for the Study of the Presidency.