Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Lift and Separate

Kevin Drum links to an illuminating George Packer article that tracks nicely with many of the themes that I have been pursuing for the past two-plus years. The article itself focuses on counterinsurgency doctrine in the era of the war on terror - and in particular, the scholarship of Australian Army captain David Kilcullen. Kilcullen proposes a paradigm shift in the way we view the current struggle:

Last year, in an influential article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Kilcullen redefined the war on terror as a “global counterinsurgency.” The change in terminology has large implications. A terrorist is “a kook in a room,” Kilcullen told me, and beyond persuasion; an insurgent has a mass base whose support can be won or lost through politics. The notion of a “war on terror” has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses.

This has been a position that I have been advocating since before I first quoted Francis Fukuyama saying much the same thing in August of 2004 (I have since recycled the quote ad nauseum, but I'm not above repeating myself):

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.

While Fukuyama correctly discerned the nature of the conflict relatively early on, Kilcullen takes the ball and runs with it. In particular, Kilcullen endorses a strategy of "Disaggregation" that is the essential first step in the policy of "Marginalization" that Nadezhda proposed last May (to which I subsribe wholeheartedly). Kilcullen with some background [emphasis mine throughout]:

“After 9/11, when a lot of people were saying, ‘The problem is Islam,’ I was thinking, It’s something deeper than that. It’s about human social networks and the way that they operate.” In West Java, elements of the failed Darul Islam insurgency—a local separatist movement with mystical leanings—had resumed fighting as Jemaah Islamiya, whose outlook was Salafist and global. Kilcullen said, “What that told me about Jemaah Islamiya is that it’s not about theology.” He went on, “There are elements in human psychological and social makeup that drive what’s happening. The Islamic bit is secondary. This is human behavior in an Islamic setting. This is not ‘Islamic behavior.’ ” Paraphrasing the American political scientist Roger D. Petersen, he said, “People don’t get pushed into rebellion by their ideology. They get pulled in by their social networks.” He noted that all fifteen Saudi hijackers in the September 11th plot had trouble with their fathers. Although radical ideas prepare the way for disaffected young men to become violent jihadists, the reasons they convert, Kilcullen said, are more mundane and familiar: family, friends, associates.

Hence, the fallacy of characterizing the "war on terror" in religious terms:

A war on terror suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to “disaggregate” insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan’s tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so that they aren’t mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad. Kilcullen writes, “Just as the Containment strategy was central to the Cold War, likewise a Disaggregation strategy would provide a unifying strategic conception for the war—something that has been lacking to date.” As an example of disaggregation, Kilcullen cited the Indonesian province of Aceh, where, after the 2004 tsunami, a radical Islamist organization tried to set up an office and convert a local separatist movement to its ideological agenda. Resentment toward the outsiders, combined with the swift humanitarian action of American and Australian warships, helped to prevent the Acehnese rebellion from becoming part of the global jihad....“It’s really important that we define the enemy in narrow terms,” [State Department official Henry]Crumpton said. “The thing we should not do is let our fears grow and then inflate the threat. The threat is big enough without us having to exaggerate it.”

By speaking of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the Taliban, the Iranian government, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda in terms of one big war, Administration officials and ideologues have made Osama bin Laden’s job much easier. “You don’t play to the enemy’s global information strategy of making it all one fight,” Kilcullen said. He pointedly avoided describing this as the Administration’s approach. “You say, ‘Actually, there are sixty different groups in sixty different countries who all have different objectives. Let’s not talk about bin Laden’s objectives—let’s talk about your objectives. How do we solve that problem?’ ” In other words, the global ambitions of the enemy don’t automatically demand a monolithic response.

The tendency to lump such groups together, using umbrella terms such as "Islamofascism" is counterproductive rhetoric that I have criticized repeatedly (see here, here and here). This is how I summed up my concerns in a comment to this related post:

[The use of the term "Islamofascism] tends to create a clash of civilization type of dynamic, and taint an entire religion. It instills the impression that we in the West paint Muslims with a broad brush - and an unflattering one at that (everyone from Saddam, to Arafat, to bin Laden, to Nasrallah, to Ahmadinejad are the same in our eyes).

Taking the time to distinguish between these groups that have, in actuality, significantly different goals, and labeling them accurately based on those positions, just seems smarter to me.

A funny thing happens when you pool people together into one group and criticize them as such, even if they traditionally have animosities, inconsistencies and incongruities. They tend to begin to think like a group, defend the entire group and [become] siege-minded. Here, that dynamic could be exacerbated by the fact that the phrase can be seen by those [Muslims] not aligned with these groups as targeting them as well.

As Kilcullen, and another scholar-cum-bureaucrat, Montgomery McFate, take pains to emphasize, the global counterinsurgency effort must view the various actors in narrow, culturally specific terms. Consolidating them into larger groups does bin Laden's work for him. In this way, we can tailor tactics, as well as the crucial dissemanation of information, to meet the needs of a particular group/region.

After September 11th, McFate said, she became “passionate about one issue: the government’s need to actually understand its adversaries,” in the same way that the United States came to understand—and thereby undermine—the Soviet Union. If, as Kilcullen and Crumpton maintain, the battlefield in the global counterinsurgency is intimately local, then the American government needs what McFate calls a “granular” knowledge of the social terrains on which it is competing. [...]

Montgomery McFate noted that the current avatars of right-wing Cold Warriors, the neoconservatives, have dismissed all Iraqi insurgents as “dead enders” and “bad people.” Terms like “totalitarianism” and “Islamofascism,” she said, which stir the American historical memory, mislead policymakers into greatly increasing the number of our enemies and coming up with wrongheaded strategies against them. “That’s not what the insurgents call themselves,” she said. “If you can’t call something by its name—if you can’t say, ‘This is what this phenomenon is, it has structure, meaning, agency’—how can you ever fight it?” In other words, even if we think that a jihadi in Yemen has ideas similar to those of an Islamist in Java, we have to approach them in discrete ways, both to prevent them from becoming a unified movement and because their particular political yearnings are different.

In response to sage advice as offered by Kilcullen, McFate and others, the counterargument regarding the intrinsic, intractable nature of anti-American animus is frequently proferred. According to these overly categorical and simplistic narratives (which I have attempted to rebut here and here), no matter what we do, "they're" going to hate us anyway.

As I have pointed out, though, it is quite possible to make gains even if we do not convince all potential detractors (this is not an all or nothing game after all), and even where we come up short in winning over converts to the cause of 'democracy, whiskey, sexy,' we may still lessen the intensity of the anti-American sentiment as espoused by those that call us an enemy. It's one thing to have a group of young Muslim men venting and complaining in a cafe in Cairo, and quite another to have them so enraged as to enlist in the cause of violence in the name of Islam. Kilcullen takes this analysis even further:

Drawing on these studies, Kilcullen has plotted out a “ladder of extremism” that shows the progress of a jihadist. At the bottom is the vast population of mainstream Muslims, who are potential allies against radical Islamism as well as potential targets of subversion, and whose grievances can be addressed by political reform. The next tier up is a smaller number of “alienated Muslims,” who have given up on reform. Some of these join radical groups, like the young Muslims in North London who spend afternoons at the local community center watching jihadist videos. They require “ideological conversion”—that is, counter-subversion, which Kilcullen compares to helping young men leave gangs....A smaller number of these individuals, already steeped in the atmosphere of radical mosques and extremist discussions, end up joining local and regional insurgent cells, usually as the result of a “biographical trigger—they will lose a friend in Iraq, or see something that shocks them on television.” With these insurgents, the full range of counterinsurgency tools has to be used, including violence and persuasion. The very small number of fighters who are recruited to the top tier of Al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups are beyond persuasion or conversion. “They’re so committed you’ve got to destroy them,” Kilcullen said. “But you’ve got to do it in such a way that you don’t create new terrorists.”

In what has become a distressingly familiar scenario, we have sound advice from seasoned experts that could greatly assist our efforts in the global counterinsurgency against violent extremism. Sadly - inevitably - this advice will be ignored by the Bush administration for its failure to reinforce the wrongheaded, counterproductive policies employed to date. Packer passes along this observation:

According to the expert, an American diplomat with years of experience identified another obstacle to American outreach. “Let’s face it,” he told her. “All public diplomacy is on hold till George Bush is out of office.”

Not just public diplomacy. Counterinsurgency too. Wake me in 2008.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?