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November 17, 2006
Notes from the Pentagon

Sniper threat
Military officials often say the insurgents in Iraq are a "learning enemy" -- able to adapt to tactics and defenses used by U.S. and allied troops.

As defenses against improvised explosive devices improve, insurgents are turning to sniper attacks.

One technique they apparently learned from the United States is the method used by murderers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area in 2002. Muhammad and Malvo killed 10 persons and wounded several others by firing rifle shots through a hole in the trunk of their 1990 Chevrolet Caprice.

Now the insurgents in Baghdad are using the same technique. Military officials recently discovered 40 vehicles modified for sniper attacks. The vehicles had holes drilled through the sockets for two taillight bulbs. "One hole was for the scope and one was for the barrel," a defense official tells us, who noted that they appear to have picked up the technique from the D.C. snipers.

Magic bullet
We asked a senior adviser to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld about the search for new options in Iraq by the Iraq Study Group, Joint Chiefs of Staff and all national security agencies.

"If we had a silver bullet," the aide said, "we would have fired it a long time ago."

Warner's reviews
Loyalists within Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's Pentagon are not happy with the performance of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, in his final year as chairman.

They say that while Mr. Warner practiced bipartisanship, he let his friend and colleague, Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, pursue partisan objectives. An example, they say, is Mr. Levin's belief that Pentagon officials somehow broke the law when they did their own intelligence analysis after the September 11 attacks. The Pentagon has provided Mr. Levin thousands of documents, yet he keeps asking for more.

Pentagon officials also did not like Mr. Warner summoning Army Gen. John Abizaid, top commander in the Iraq region, to come to a hearing just weeks before the election. The hearing produced what the Pentagon thinks was the press' biggest misquote of the war. Gen. Abizaid testified Iraq could possibly move to a civil war but thought the elected Iraq government would stop it. He was widely quoted as predicting a civil war, delivering more negative news about the Bush administration in an election year.

Look for more investigations of Iraq after Mr. Levin takes over the committee in January.

Great expectations
The Pentagon is wondering what will happen to people in the pipeline handpicked by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for higher posts. Two things might happen to scuttle them: Incoming Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates might nix them in favor of people he favors; or he may decide a new Democratic Senate would not approve their nomination.

We are told that Mr. Rumsfeld has a favorite for the next commander for U.S. Special Operations Command, whose troops play a major role in the war on radical Islamists. He is Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who now commands the secretive U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and spends most of his time in Iraq hunting high-value targets.

Al Qaeda still dangerous
CIA Director Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden told Congress this week that the al Qaeda terrorist group is still planning attacks on the United States, despite "significant losses" since 2001.

Even though a major portion of the leaders of the group have been killed or captured, "the group's cadre of seasoned, committed leaders has allowed it to remain fairly cohesive and stay focused on its strategic objectives," Gen. Hayden said.

"Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri continue to play a crucial role in inspiring jihadists and promoting unity," he said. "Their demise would not spell the end of the threat, but probably would contribute to the unraveling of the central al Qaeda organization." The loss of leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh has been "mitigated" by the terrorist group's "deep bench" of lower-level leaders who are assuming leadership roles.

"Although a number of individuals are new to senior management in al Qaeda, they are not new to jihad: They average over 40 years of age and nearly two decades of involvement in jihad," Gen. Hayden said.

The group still has a safe haven in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, which provides "physical and psychological space needed to meet, train, expand its networks and prepare new attacks."

Locals in the region have ties to al Qaeda dating back to the 1980s. Finding and rooting out group members have been made difficult by the rough terrain and the local culture, which is opposed to outsiders.

"The safe haven not only gives al Qaeda and the Taliban a venue for terrorist plotting, but also serves as a jumpoff point for its guerrilla forays into Afghanistan," he said.

"Our open society presents an almost endless source of targets, and the enemy has demonstrated its ruthlessness through a willingness to attack civilians -- including other Muslims -- a preference for spectacular, high-casualty operations, and its own adherents' desire for martyrdom," Gen. Hayden said.

DIA on Iraq
Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, added his voice to other military leaders who say a pullout of U.S. troops is a bad idea.

"DIA judges the continued coalition presence as the primary counter to a breakdown in central authority, which would have grave consequences for the people of Iraq, stability in the region and U.S. strategic interests," Gen. Maples told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

Iraqi political leaders do not favor a civil war or the partitioning of the country, and most political and religious leaders continue to seek restraints on their communities.

"Moreover, DIA judges that Iraqi Arabs retain a strong sense of national identity and that most Iraqis recall a past in which sectarian identity did not have the significance it does today," he said. "Although leaders across the political spectrum who are participating in the government continue to talk and search for a positive way forward, the challenges to bringing stability and security with a cohesive, unified, and effective government remain significant."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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