The significance of the successful assassination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq is that the American army, ponderous though it often is, has slowly but surely learned what it needs to know. The decisive factor in such an operation is the length of time during which the target is viable - the hours, minutes or often mere seconds during which it is possible to verify the information and kill the target, generally from the air.
After almost five years in Afghanistan and more than three in Iraq, the Americans are learning to adapt their resources to their goals. For instance, they identified a severe shortage of Arabic speakers; now any career soldier who can demonstrate proficiency in this vital tongue is promised an extra $1,000 a month, while reservists receive half that sum. This, however, is small change compared to the rewards offered for information on senior wanted men. For some 20 semi-senior targets, the reward is $5 million apiece. But the chart was topped - until yesterday - by three men with $25 million apiece on their heads: Osama bin Laden; his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri; and Zarqawi. Bin Laden, however, is worth slightly more than the others, because an American pilots' association has added $2 million to his reward, bringing the total to $27 million. With that kind of money, you can salve a lot of pangs of conscience.
At the political level, yesterday's achievement belongs primarily to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who ignored the objections of conservative officers (and overrode the Central Intelligence Agency) to grant primacy to the Special Operations Command, SOCOM, and encouraged it to act against the Zawahiris and Zarqawis. Two months ago, shortly after Zarqawi's pursuers had managed to get within about "two city blocks" of him (or, according to another version, "1,000 meters"), the weekly Army Times revealed how SOCOM's Task Force 145 operates in Iraq. Its commander, a colonel, commands Delta Force - the ground forces' elite special operations unit (similar to Israel's Sayeret Matkal) - which enjoys unlimited purchasing and operational authority. The task force is divided into four territorial subgroups, three American and one British, each commanded by a lieutenant colonel. Rumsfeld also brought a former commander of Delta Force and SOCOM, General Peter Schoomaker, back from retirement to serve as chief of staff of the United States Army.
The hunt for Zarqawi ended in a joint operation by the central Iraq subgroup and the U.S. Air Force. This is the system the Americans used in Afghanistan - a combination of special forces, local collaborators and air power - and the lessons are also being studied with great interest by the Israeli air force.
Senior SOCOM officers are in frequent contact with Israel Defense Forces officers who graduated from elite units such as Sayeret Matkal, the paratroops and the naval commandos (Shayetet 13). They have been briefed by, among others, the commander of the Gaza Division, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, and the Central Command's chief of staff, Brigadier General Moshe (Chico) Tamir. This week, the IDF is hosting another delegation from the Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), which is responsible for building the American forces.
One thing the Israelis have stressed in their briefings is that it is possible to fight terror when the territory from which it emanates is tightly controlled from all sides, such as the West Bank following Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002 and the Gaza Strip before last summer's disengagement. However, it is much harder to do so when the territory is wide open, such as Gaza now or Iraq along the Syrian and Iranian borders. The operational conclusion, which is still awaiting a political decision, is that the export of terror to Iraq - on top of the home-grown variety - will end only when military pressure, direct or indirect, is applied against Tehran and Damascus.
Rumsfeld has been both America's youngest defense secretary and its oldest defense secretary, and he is said to want to chalk up another record as well: that of its longest-serving defense secretary (a title currently held by Robert McNamara, who served under presidents Kennedy and Johnson.) He is due to achieve that in about another year. But the successful conclusion of the Zarqawi affair is liable to advance his departure - if he does not urge Bush to leave him in office until the military campaign against Iran begins.
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