Tuesday, October 19, 2004

A Contrast In Strategies, Part I

Although a daunting task, I will try to provide a comparison of the relative strategies for fighting the poorly named "war on terror." I will focus on the respective approaches laid out by each presidential candidate, and where necessary, include third options and voices not attributed to either camp.

There are many components that make up the the various strategies for dealing with the menace of anti-American jihadist terrorism. First, there must be military action and, even more so, the effective use of intelligence and law enforcement assets to track down, imprison, kill and disrupt known terrorists and their organizational infrastructure. Military action is absolutely required for situations in which the terrorist agents become intertwined with the ruling government, as in Afghanistan.

Some have argue a more controversial position - that military force can be used to attack regimes with few ties to terrorism, and whose people show no history of involvement in terrorist activities abroad, as in Iraq, in order to implement regime change which would create a force for change in the region that could affect regimes and regions that themselves spawn the terrorists.

In either scenario, the efforts of law enforcement and intelligence assets will do the heavy lifting of actually tracking down the terrorists and neutralizing them wherever they reside, since they tend not to remain localized in any one area or nation, nor are they organized like an army - and thus the military remains too blunt a tool in almost all settings.

While these are crucial to the effort, much like the Cold War, they must be married to an ideological campaign, a war of ideas which is the only way to effectively stem the tide of new recruits that tend to make the military and law enforcement efforts an exercise in treading water, with little discernible progress.

The Nature Of The Enemy

Part of the problem with the "war on terror" is that it is overly vague. I quoted Ronald Bruce St John in a
prior post on this subject:
[The] White House [has] label[ed] almost anybody opposed to its policies as a terrorist organization. Groups as diverse in structure and objectives as Peru's Shining Path, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Basque Fatherland and Liberty, the Communist Party of the Philippines, and Hamas are on the State Department's list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

Early on, this approach served the White House well in its search for recruits in the war on terrorism. Opposition groups in countries whose support the U.S. deemed essential to winning the war were often labeled "terrorist" in an effort to curry support from host governments.

But over time, the failure to define terrorism has become a real liability.
Indeed, in one of the most striking examples of selective application of the definition of a "terrorist" occurred last month when the Bush administration granted access to four Cuban nationals convicted of committing acts of terror - which resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians in an effort to destabilize the Castro regime. Inconsistencies such as these give rise to cynicism in the Muslim world, and elsewhere, regarding our motives, and lend credence to the charge that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." They make the moral high ground we aspire to, that much more untenable which in turn undermines our cause.

While I think it is important that we remain consistent in our condemnation of all civilian targeting, no matter the political context, for the purposes of this discussion, I contend that the true enemy in our "war on terror" is al-Qaeda and its ideological brethren - groups that target American civilians in a religiously inspired jihad. That being said, understanding the goals, motivations and objectives of Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda and their ilk has also been a source of some confusion and disagreement.

President Bush famously declared about al-Qaeda that, "they hate us for our freedom." He did this in order to cast Bin Laden and his followers as a nihilistic, pathologically anti-Western group. While I do not condone their actions in any respect, a more comprehensive understanding of our enemy will help to forge a winning strategy. For that reason, let's abandon the overly simplistic and jingoistic declarations of our President and look at the reality of the situation. Career counterterrorism expert and CIA agent, Michael Scheuer, author of Imperial Hubris, made the following observations (via

Page 8: The fundamental flaw in our thinking about Bin Laden is that "Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than what we do." Muslims are bothered by our modernity, democracy, and sexuality, but they are rarely spurred to action unless American forces encroach on their lands. It's American foreign policy that enrages Osama and al-Qaida, not American culture and society.

Page 114-6: Bin Laden isn't a loose cannon trying to bring the world to Armageddon. He's an eloquent and rational actor, more CEO than gangster. He often blames Muslims for their failure to repel Western invaders. His analyses of al-Qaida's victories and defeats are often more cogent than Western leaders' tirades against him.
James Fallows in a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly had this to say about Bush's characterization:

There may be people who have studied, fought against, or tried to infiltrate al-Qaeda and who agree with Bush's statement. But I have never met any. The soldiers, spies, academics, and diplomats I have interviewed are unanimous in saying that "They hate us for who we are" is dangerous claptrap. Dangerous because it is so lazily self-justifying and self-deluding: the only thing we could possibly be doing wrong is being so excellent. Claptrap because it reflects so little knowledge of how Islamic extremism has evolved.

"There are very few people in the world who are going to kill themselves so we can't vote in the Iowa caucuses," Michael Scheuer said to me. "But there's a lot of them who are willing to die because we're helping the Israelis, or because we're helping Putin against the Chechens, or because we keep oil prices low so Muslims lose.

...The distinction between who we are and what we do matters, because it bears on the largest question about the Iraq War: Will it bring less or more Islamic terrorism? If violent extremism is purely vengeful and irrational, there is no hope except to crush it. Any brutality along the way is an unavoidable cost. But if it is based on logic of any sort, a clear understanding of its principles could help us to weaken its appeal - and to choose tactics that are not self-defeating...

An article appearing in the Christian Science Monitor (via Tim Dunlop - my favorite Aussie blogger), details the emerging picture regarding al-Qaeda and the ideological underpinnings of the movement. The article describes how, acting at the Pentagon's behest, RAND terrorist analyst Brian Jenkins has compiled a summary entitled the "State of Jihad."

Among his points: Al Qaeda's objectives are broad - to Western eyes, so broad as to seem almost fantastical: The group wants to drive infidels from the Middle East, topple what they see as apostate regimes in Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations, and foster an Islamic religious revival. The goal is to build a following, not to take ground. The group is vague on when its goals might be reached. It has no road map for victory.
For the sake of facility, many have cast Bin Laden's goals as unmoored from political aspirations, or in the other extreme, rooted in a desire to take over the world. This is dangerously myopic. Bin Laden's message, if not his overall aspirations, are very much a result of political grievances. Among them, he has famously cited the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia following Gulf War I, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and others:

Bin Laden's rhetoric often focuses on perceived injustices inflicted on the Islamic world. He portrays Muslims in Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and the former Central Asian republics of the USSR as victims of a US-led crusade.

He seems to feel that his theological credibility rests on convincing Muslims that they are everywhere under attack. He tells Americans that he knows many are "good and gentle people," but that he is at war with their government. He even urges US citizens to convert to Islam so as to rid themselves of their "dry, miserable, and spiritless materialistic existence."
His objective is to create a pan-Islamic uprising that will expel the West from the Muslim world, end the perceived persecution of Muslim peoples by agents of the West, and restore a fundamentalist caliphate to unite the Muslim world and make it a potent force in the world. That is not necessarily the same as world domination or animosity to freedom - though he is surely no friend to representative government and individual rights.

Spencer Ackerman of The New Republic has penned an
invaluable article (non-subscribers can find it here) describing the foreign policy espoused by presidential candidate John Kerry. For any that remain agnostic about their choice for the upcoming election, and consider foreign policy and the "war on terror" important issues, this is a must read. I will use the following quote from the Ackerman piece to introduce an important concept:

When Kerry accused Bush of "diverting [his] attention from the real war on terror" against Al Qaeda by invading Iraq, the president's surrogates shot back that Kerry possessed an insufficiently broad understanding of the war. "The idea that somehow you kill Osama bin Laden, and maybe Al Qaeda wraps up, and then you're done with the war on terrorism could not be further from the truth," Condoleezza Rice told CNN. Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks dismissively wrote that Kerry "defined the enemy in narrow, concrete terms."

It's true that Kerry conceives of victory in the war on terrorism chiefly in terms of destroying Al Qaeda. But what Kerry understands--and the administration disastrously does not--is that Al Qaeda is not "narrow," nor, increasingly, is it "concrete." [emphasis added]
Ackerman picks up on a disturbing trend. The danger represented by al-Qaeda is evolving. What was once a finite group of actors, has become an ideology that is inspiring many copy-cat organizations and individuals. The landscape of the conflict is shifting. The article in the Christian Science Monitor notes:

Hard-pressed by US forces, bin Laden - a former management student - may have adapted by decentralizing his operation, says Dr. Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. Leaders who function as regional directors may now be charged with raising their own cash and planning their own operations.

Al Qaeda "has become more of an inspiring ideology, rather than maybe an organized network," says Dr. Post, who also ran the CIA's psychological profiling unit.
While we must certainly continue to track down, imprison and kill known members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the task is in fact much more complex than that alone. Al-Qaeda has become amorphous, a confounding hydra that will keep attacking us despite our efforts to decapitate its myriad vipers. Although necessary to insure success, victory exists apart from these tangible gains. This perhaps marks the conceptual stumbling block so many encounter while pondering the true nature of this war. Human nature leads us to desire observable manifestations of success, like battles won, territory gained and armies vanquished. Those instincts betray us in the current conflict.

"We regard war as a finite process, with a beginning, middle, and end. For our jihadist foes, it is a perpetual condition," said Jenkins at a recent RAND terrorism conference in Washington.
There is a battle raging for the future of the Muslim world, and the safety and stability of the world hang in the balance. It is not occurring on a battlefield though. An article appearing in Foreign Policy described Bin Laden's role thusly:

Bin Laden is a propagandist, directing his efforts at attracting those Muslims who have hitherto shunned his extremist message. He knows that only through mass participation in his project will he have any chance of success. His worldview is receiving immeasurably more support around the globe than it was two years ago, let alone 15 years ago when he began serious campaigning. The objective of Western countries is to eliminate the threat of terror, or at least to manage it in a way that does not seriously impinge on the daily lives of its citizens. Bin Laden's aim is to radicalize and mobilize. He is closer to achieving his goals than the West is to deterring him.
Neoconservative dissident Francis Fukuyama described the situation with thusly:

...It is hard to see how we can deal with [the terrorists] other than by killing, capturing or otherwise militarily neutralizing them.

But the radicals swim in a much larger sea of Muslims - 1.2 billion of them, more or less - who are not yet implacable enemies of the United States...for the broad mass of public opinion in Muslim countries, we are disliked or hated not for what we are, but rather for what we do. What they do not like is a familiar list of complaints about our foreign policy that we somehow continue to fail to take seriously: our lack of concern for the plight of the Palestinians, our hypocritical support for dictators in Muslim countries, and now our occupation of Iraq.

The War on Terror is, in other words, a classic counter-insurgency war, except that it is one being played out on a global scale. There are genuine bad guys out there who are much more bitter ideological enemies than the Soviets ever were, but their success depends on the attitudes of the broader populations around them who can be alternatively supportive, hostile or indifferent-depending on how we play our cards. As we are seeing vividly in Iraqi cities like Fallujah and Najaf, counter-insurgency wars are incredibly difficult to fight, because we must somehow destroy the enemy without alienating the broader population and making things worse. Counter-insurgency requires a tricky mixture of precisely targeted force, political judgment and extremely good intelligence: a combination of carrots and sticks.
Ackerman believes that Kerry appreciates the stakes:

"For Al Qaeda, this war is a struggle for the heart and soul of the Muslim world. We will win this war only if the terrorists lose that struggle," he said in a recent speech at Temple University. "We have to preempt the haters. We have to win the war of ideas." Which is not to say that a Kerry war on terrorism would be a purely ideological exercise. Kerry proposes to redouble U.S. military efforts to "defeat, capture, and kill those who commit terror"--and promises not to be distracted by the supposed state-sponsors of terrorism that have fixated the Bush administration. In planning both to kill the jihadists and to prevent new ones from taking their place, Kerry is presenting the victory strategy for the war on terrorism that has eluded Bush.
Bush's supporters claim that the president understands the stakes too, and that is why he chose to invade Iraq. The theory is that through the creation of a stable democracy in Iraq, democratic forces for change will spread through the Middle East like the tumble of dominoes. Furthermore, where democracy flourishes, terrorist ideology withers in a zero sum game. Therefore, it is argued, spreading democracy will in itself serve to defeat terrorism. I will discuss this phase of the strategy in the war on terror in my next post.

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