Labyrinth "Let's Roll" Scenario AAR, Part 1

By Volko Ruhnke


The following narrative is based on a two-player test game from early September 2009. Three previous playtests (of a hypothetical President Gore scenario) led to important changes to the US soft power and war of ideas mechanics. This playing resulted in two card-text clarifications but no rules changes. I played the US side, and my son Daniel (age 14) played the jihadists. Both of us opted for strategy focused on the long-term (conservative, with lots of investment actions) – one of us too much so.

The scenario is “Let’s Roll!”. It begins in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, with both US prestige and jihadist funding at high levels. The US power preference (Posture) is Hard. Afghanistan is under Islamist Rule. The jihadist side seeks to weaken and then violently overthrow Muslim governments to create a pan-Islamist mega-state; the US side seeks to keep a lid on all that while spreading democracy (Good Governance).

Each 2-player hand of cards in the game represents roughly a year in the conflict, so the narrative below tracks hands of cards by calendar years. [Text in brackets notes game-play representing the preceding portion of the “historical” narrative.]

Late 2001: Al-Qaeda Arsenal, Enduring Freedom, Beirut Tinder

Even as al-Qaeda put its attacks on the US Homeland into motion, it dispatches operatives to pursue contacts in Central Asia who offer to sell it former-Soviet materials for weapons of mass destruction. Kazakh authorities nab a cell seeking bioweapons, but a second cell succeeds in acquiring enough enriched uranium for the assembly of a nuclear device.

[Travel 2 cells Afghanistan to Central Asia; “Kazakh Strain” and “HEU” events.]

Meanwhile, the US works to line up allies in the war on terror about to begin: The UK immediately and Eastern European countries more reluctantly back a forceful US response. US forces invade Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda’s sanctuary, in a military move largely seen as an overreaction to 9/11. Nevertheless, immediate UN commitment to reconstruction and political development of post-Taliban Afghanistan makes surprisingly rapid gains. Even Tehran gets into the act there, carrying out covert operations against its old Taliban enemy.

[War of Ideas (WoI) in UK, EEurope twice, & Germany result in Hard, Hard, Soft, respectively (+2 Prestige); Regime Change—6 troops to Afghanistan, which goes to Poor Ally, -5 Prestige, Islamist Resources 1 to 0; “UN Nation Builing” on a 6 shifts Afghanistan to Fair; “Iran” removes 1 cell from Afghanistan.]

Further west, assassination of a popular anti-Syrian politician in Lebanon sparks democratic revival there (a so-called “Cedar Revolution”) while deepening repression in Syria. Kurdish jihadists build strength in Iraq, then cross the border into the Levant, perhaps to exploit the discontent in Damascus or to spike the liberalism emanating from Beirut. Victory by HAMAS in Palestinian legislative elections detracts attention (and funding) from al-Qaeda, so it urges cells in Lebanon, Syria, and Uzbekistan to prepare terrorist attacks to regain the jihad center stage. Bombings in the latter two countries succeed in refilling AQ coffers.

[“Hariri Killed”, Lebanon tests Fair, Syria to Poor; “Ansar al-Islam” on US play puts a cell in Iraq; recruit in Iraq adds second cell, travel to Syria & Lebanon; several Plots in Lebanon/Syria fail, 1 in Syria & 1 in Central Asia succeed and boost Funding to 9.]

2002: Central Asia Stews, the Homeland Secures

With the US’s poor post-invasion image, little progress can be made in stabilizing Afghanistan; Washington turns instead to improving its cachet. Unfortunately, politicians in Europe are keener to exploit anti-US feelings there, and Germany and France openly criticize US “bullying” in South Asia. Timely taunts from Bin Laden—whereabouts unknown—make the US military effort appear that much more misguided. US support along with much of the EU of Muslim aspirations in Kosovo help US prestige a little, but only at the cost of Serbian opposition to the war on terror. Diplomacy to mend fences with Berlin and Belgrade falls flat.

[“Schroeder & Chirac” and “Bin Laden Audio” send Prestige to 1; “Kosovo” Prestige to 2; 2 WoI in Germany and 1 in Serbia leave both Soft.]

Meanwhile, the jihadists focus on recruiting, surging their numbers in several Central Asian states and exploiting Israeli withdrawal from Gaza to train operatives there and then infiltrate them into Lebanon to join accomplices waiting there. Russian security services—no doubt nervous about the growing jihadist presence in Russia’s “near abroad”—work with their friends in Central Asia to disrupt the cells there, but they do not even come close to countering al-Qaeda’s rate of recruitment.

[Multiple Recruit ops in Central Asia vs “FSB” results in 6 cell total there; jihadist play of “Gaza Withdrawal” places cell in Israel that travels to Lebanon.]

Washington, aware of Bin Laden’s acquisition of fissile material (though not of where AQ is keeping it) acts to secure the Homeland against another attack. Congress passes the Patriot Act to tighten US borders and increases appropriations for nuclear emergency and bioterrorism preparedness.

[US play of “Patriot Act” and “NEST” make it harder for cells to travel to the US and easier for US to block WMD Plots there.]

2003: Counterstroke in the Levant, Fire in the Horn

As al-Qaeda continues to recruit and train under the poor governance in Central Asia, the US and Israel conspire to strike a blow in Lebanon. As AQ ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is lured to take emirship of jihadists there, Mossad uses its reach into the country to launch counterterrorist operations that devastate the al-Qaeda presence. Recruiting in Syria lapses.

[3 of 4 Recruit ops Central Asia fail; US play of “Zarqawi” to Alert against Plot in Lebanon induces jihadists to place a 3rd cell there, “Mossad & Shin Bet” removes all cells from Lebanon; 2 Recruit ops in Syria fail.]

Meanwhile, jihadists open a new front in the global conflict even as Afghanistan heats up. Jihadist cells form in Somalia just as Mogadishu has developed a semblance of decent government, while volunteers from across the Arab world—attracted by the opportunity to fight US forces directly—pour into Afghanistan by various routes. US forces do a reputable job hunting them down and thwarting their terrorist attacks. But the fighting inspires Uzbek jihadists next door to organize a “Jihad Union”, adding to what increasing looks like Asia’s “Jihad Central” in their country.

[“Al-Ittihad al-Islami” places a cell in Somalia, which tests Fair; “Foreign Fighters” puts 3 cells into Afghanistan; 1 of 3 Afghan Plots succeed (2 failures each remove a cell); US Disrupts there to remove last cell and add 1 to Prestige; US play of “Islamic Jihad Union” to Alert against Plot adds a 7th cell to Central Asia.]

On the diplomatic front, US sanction under Patriot Act authorities of Muslim organizations that donate to al-Qaeda and the impact of Philippine Moro separatists entering talks with Manila finally trim jihadist finances to moderate levels. Efforts by Tony Blair to unite Europe behind the US are less successful, however, and Manila joins the ranks of those opposed to US military “adventurism”. While Washington leaning on Manila soon brings it around, the affair is widely viewed as a sign of waning global support for the war in Afghanistan.

[“Sanctions” and “Moro Talks” drop Funding to 6; “Tony Blair” WoI all fail; Philippines to Soft imposes GWOT Relations penalty of 1; 2 WoI Philippines to Hard, Prestige to 4 (Medium).]

Now the bombs really go off. Central Asia as expected sees terrorist violence. But it is the Somali cell that turns out to be the most skillful and highly motivated, carrying out a long series of destructive and coordinated bombings (though enough of them involve suicide operations that the cell largely eliminates itself). In none of these attacks has al-Qaeda turned to its nuclear capability—conventional explosives are working just fine. It’s all too much for the Somali government, which, despite valiant efforts to control the violence, ultimately disintegrates. Donations to the global jihad skyrocket.

[2 of 3 Plot ops succeed (Central Asia & Somalia); “Martyrdom Operation” adds 2 more to Somalia and removes the cell there; 6 post-Plot rolls against Somalia’s Governance just barely succeeds in worsening it to Poor; Funding maxes out at 9.]

2004: Central Asian Revolution, South Asian Containment

The war in Afghanistan grinds on. Efforts to develop the ability of the government—reasonably effective within Kabul—to provide services in the countryside are disappointing. International support for the US mission is sufficient, however, for NATO-led forces to augment US troops there. That support does not include Pakistan, however, which tilts toward the Islamists. In Washington, meantime, domestic counterterrorist authorities are consumed by investigation into the delivery of anthrax-laced letters through the US Mail.

[WoI Afghanistan fails, “NATO” marker placed there; “Kashmir” Pakistan to Adversary; “Amerithrax” discards US 3 card.]

Without further warning, the seeds al-Qaeda planted as it sought former Soviet weapons sprout. The jihadists’ sizable army of guerilla fighters built over the previous 2½ years comes down from the Uzbek and Tajik hills, and the corrupt and ineffective post-Soviet governments of Central Asia fall like dominoes. The black flags of the mujahidin fly over Tashkent and Dushanbe, and the Islamist regime begins to send fighters south to strike the Infidel in Afghanistan. Further south, the Kashmiri-jihadist Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LT) build strength in pro-US India and in the sanctuary of Pakistan.

[Fully successful 3-value Jihad in Central Asia leaves 8 cells there, Central Asia Poor Neutral to Islamist Rule Adversary, Islamist Resources to 2; “Lashkar-e-Tayyiba” places cells in India and Pakistan, India tests Hard; 3 cells travel Central Asia to Afghanistan.]

The US-led Coalition now faces a choice between an immediate counteroffensive and containment of the Central Asian caliphate. With resources still committed to an unsettled Afghanistan, it chooses containment. India disrupts the LT cell within its borders. Tehran—as worried about the Sunni extremist power in its neighborhood as is the Coalition in Afghanistan—uses its agents in that country to hunt down Tajik mujahidin. Meanwhile, Coalition forces take advantage of jihadist attempts to strike US facilities to root out others.

[Disrupt in India removes cell there; “Iran” removes cell in Afghanistan; 2 of 3 plot ops there fail, removing 2 cells.]

Unfortunately, US focus on the plotting in Afghanistan prevents it from supporting what might have been a reform movement in Pakistan. And one plot in Kabul does succeed, causing substantial US casualties and turning allied malaise to defeatism. The blasts kill not only “infidels” but also Afghan bystanders, however. Muslim media coverage of that aspect of the attacks—together with new US Treasury sanctions—brings outside funding for al-Qaeda to a historic low.

[Jihadist play of “Benazir Bhutto” canceled by use for the above Plot ops; “Backlash” on 3 Plot in Afghanistan—Prestige sinks to 1 but also Funding down to 4 (just above Tight).]

With the Islamist drive south just about spent, the jihadists attempt one more plot in Afghanistan, then shift their crosshairs onto Syria, where US forces will have much more trouble reaching them. Recruitment there resumes, and a major attack against Western presence in Damascus comes off, and the flow of terrorist finance is partially restored. The US uses the respite in Afghanistan and the reinforcement from NATO to bring some weary troops home.

[2 Recruit ops adds a 2nd cell to Syria; 3 plots there and 1 in Afghanistan fail, a 4th plot placed in Syria resolves and bumps Funding back up to 7 (Ample for now but will drop to Moderate with standard -1 Funding at end of hand). 2 of 6 troops in Afghanistan Deploy to US Troops track (still at War) while there are no cells to keep them in the Regime Change country.]

2005: Pulling Up Tent Stakes, Spreading Contagion

While South Asia solidifies further for the Coalition—Islamabad opens talks with India, an abrupt turn away from its heretofore irredentist and anti-US politics—the Central Asia Islamists remain focused on the Levant. Recruiting in Syria continues, as well as attempts to infiltrate the country directly from the Uzbek-Tajik caliphate. In response, the US signs the King of nearby Jordan up for the war on terror.

[Recruit op brings Syria to 3 cells; 1 Travel Central Asia to Syria fails; “Indo-Pakistani Talks” precondition met by Fair governance in Pakistan, Pak to Ally and further “Kashmir” and “LT” blocked; “Abdullah” sets Jordan at Fair Ally (containing jihadism from Syria, as Lebanon also remains at Fair), slight increase to US Prestige and decrease to Funding.]

As Syrian authorities are kept busy chasing terrorist plotters there, events elsewhere are generally unhelpful to the Coalition. Islamic extremism builds in the Sunni population of western Iraq, offering a future safe haven to Syrian jihadists should they need one. A military clash between Israel and HAMAS stokes anger against the US and contributions to al-Qaeda and siphons US resources but does distract support from the Taliban. Yemen distances itself from Washington’s global war. Jihadism is discovered and disrupted in England, discovered and left to fester in Indonesia. US diplomacy does score a success in patching things up with Serbia, and Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been quiet enough to bring home some US troops from the Arab Peninsula.

[“Gaza War” sends Prestige back to 1, Funding to 6, discards “Taliban” from US hand; jihadist play of “Saleh” sets Yemen to Fair Adversary; US uses “Al-Anbar” for War of Ideas in Serbia, event marker placed between Iraq and Syria, Prestige to 2; “Homegrown” places a cell in UK, which Plots unsuccessfully and then is Disrupted with US play of “Jemaah Islamiya”, which places 2 cells in Indonesia/Malaysia and tests those countries as Poor Neutral. Syrian Alert removes a pending plot there, other plots there fail to mature. 2 troops Deploy from Saudi Arabia to Troops Track, US still barely at War.]

2006: "Safer Now"

As the jihadist contagion spreads, al-Qaeda off-shoots test the waters in Egypt and Turkey and find the government in the latter disturbingly competent. But troubles with the Kurds undermine recent reforms in Ankara while, in Lebanon, Hizballah skullduggery aborts the budding democratization there.

[“Regional Al-Qaeda” places cells in Egypt (Poor) and Turkey (Fair); “Kurdistan” worsens Turkey to Poor; “Hizballah” worsens Lebanon to Poor.]

The US Administration, while secretly undertaking renditions of jihadists detained in Afghanistan to third countries that might better exploit their information, publicly makes “safer now” a slogan for the mid-term elections. The celebration of 5 years without a Homeland attack does point out to the world some apparent success in the United States’ war on terror, but the campaign has the unintended effect of dampening the US electorate’s — and Congress’s — enthusiasm for hard tactics against terror. Stung, the Administration responds with softened pronouncements — to the bemusement of allies overseas who have invested domestic political capital to buttress the US hard line (or perhaps truly believe that a US hard line remains warranted). As if to emphasize their point, a series of truck bombs rocks Damascus, to the benefit of jihadist finances.

[“Renditions” causes jihadist discard; “Safer Now” raises Prestige to 4 (Medium), US Posture to Soft and with it GWOT penalty to 3; 3 Plot operations in Syria all succeed and go off, sending Funding to 9.]

The US begins its repair effort with allies, managing to convince the understanding East Europeans that new times demand new tactics. Consistent with the domestic mood, the US brings more troops home from Arabia. It also pursues cooperation in earnest with Russia to secure its WMD arsenal against any acquisition attempts from the nearby caliphate. The caliphate, for its part, continues its efforts to infiltrate operatives and fighters into Syria. The campaign of terrorist attacks in the latter country continues, while suicide attacks strike Jakarta and Bali.

[WoI leaves Serbia Hard but shifts EEurope to Soft, Prestige to 5, GWOT penalty to 2; 2 troops Deploy from Gulf States to the Troops Track, US at Low Intensity for an extra card; “CTR” to Russia; 1 of 3 Travel Central Asia to Syria succeeds; 1 Plot in Syria and “Martyrdom Operation” in Indonesia resolve, keeping Funding at max.]

End of Part 1. To be continued....