In response to some posts which seemed unduly pessimistic, a reader and frequent commenter on my site suggested that there are actually many reasons to believe we are currently winning the War against Islamic fascism (though he doesn't particularly like that appellation.) He volunteered to put together his thoughts on the matter and succeeded far beyond my expectations. Owen Johnson is a retired career intelligence analyst and knows how to construct a position. His note to me is long and I am going to present it in several parts.
I am blessed with the ability to read fast and to retain a great deal of what I read and I have not seen, in the almost 5 years since 9/11 "changed everything", such a clear exposition of who we are fighting, what we are fighting, and how we are fighting, as what Owen so cogently put together. This is as good a summary as I have seen of the various issues involved in the war.
In this first part, Owen sets the stage for how 9/11 effected him, discusses the terminological difficulties we face in this war, and lays out the multi-pronged strategic approach to fighting and winning the war.
It may seem odd to begin a essay on strategy with a personal reminiscence, but I do so because it has relevance beyond the symbolic interpretation that immediately occurred to me. On 09/09/01, our beloved Newfoundland underwent a serious operation that our vet told us would result in profuse bleeding for at least a couple of days. We asked our vet what "profuse" meant. Before answering , he cocked an eyebrow and his face settled into that off-kilter expression that means, "You have no idea."
Why we write…
Indeed, we didn’t. A 150-lb dog has a great of a blood and since it was important that he be roused and walked periodically, it got everywhere. We covered most everything in our house with sheets and blankets and towels, changing them as they became saturated. Blood lay pools on our front porch and ran down the steps; the walk leading up to the house was covered with bloodstains; our backyard, a scene I cannot adequately describe. We slept in relays, and so it was I who woke on the morning of 9/11 into a house spattered with and reeking of blood to have my wife tell me that the Twin Towers had been attacked and several thousand Americans had been killed.
9/11 marked us all in different ways, according to our natures and circumstances. For me, those included being a career intelligence analyst. My shock and grief were compound by the realization that we had failed; that this was exactly what community I was a part of and the discipline I had dedicated my life to was supposed to prevent. This sense was heightened, not by a prior sense of foreboding but by the memory of how many times in the past eight years, and increasingly over the past four, I had looked at the priorities and tasking given us and said, (out loud or sotto voce, depending on who was in the room), "What the hell?"
And then I reacted according to my nature: I sat down and wrote what I thought we needed to do about this new war we had just woken up to. That is the genesis of this post.
I write the foregoing to give an idea of both the dislocation I felt and the sense of purpose that immediately followed; reactions that were common among my colleagues. The realization that "the dogmas of the quiet past are insufficient to the stormy present" and "as our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew" was forcefully brought home to us in a way we did not anticipate, and indeed, at no time in our history since the original speaker first spoke those words have they been so true. The responsibility to think anew that others might act anew fell quite heavily upon us, the intelligence community, and we were determined, even eager, to embrace it.
Thinking anew is always risky and never easy, and what was difficult for us has been even harder for others. This is a new type of war against a new adversary under circumstances that are unprecedented. We do not have a public vocabulary to adequately discuss it or much in the way of historical examples to lend clarity or use as a basis for reasonable expectations. Parts of the conflict occur at bewildering speeds; others seem unreasonably slow, and our ability to interpret events depends on information affected by a host of factors, many of which are distorting; some deliberately so. It is no wonder that our debate on the conduct of the war resembles nothing so much as the three blind men and the elephant, with the blind men engaged in rancorous debate and elephant taking sides.
These debates have gone off in all sorts of directions, from denying the threat to an extreme us-or-them mentality that sees all Islam as an existential threat and fears a devastating general war against an enemy who could be tens or even hundreds of millions strong. The middle ground sometimes seems a bleak a no-man’s land where idealists wander mumbling nostrums about democracy in the chilly company of moderate Muslims whose existence is elsewhere doubted if not denied.
Can any real answers be extracted from all this? Do we have a strategy to fight this war? Is it realistic? To what extent is it working? These are the questions I’m going to try to address in this essay, or perhaps I should say begin to address. To address these questions as comprehensively as they deserve is beyond my information and probably beyond my means. But I do hope to clarify the major issues and if I cannot conclusively answer those questions, at least bound them, and perhaps provide a starting point for future discussion.
My ideas and opinions here are my own; they are not endorsed by anyone in any organization and I have consulted no one in the community on any of this. But neither are these just my personal notions of how things should be done. I am not a general of the armchair or any other variety. I am an observer and an analyst, not a strategist. What I write here is based on what I know of our overall strategy as it was formulated in the year after 9/11 (I retired in late 2002) and what I have observed since, interpreted according to my experience. So the following is my assessment of what we are doing and, for the record, what I think we should be doing. Any instances of factual error, faulty logic, and wishful thinking are therefore solely mine.
Naming our enemy has been a problem, and not just reason of PC sensibility. I don’t like the term "Islamofascist" because I doubt its accuracy and have a hard time spelling it. "Islamic terrorist" I think is too narrow; our foe has adopted terror as his main weapon, but I think to use that term may imply I’m talking just about the people who fly planes into buildings and not the larger infrastructure that supports them and the social elements that inspire and guide them. The situation is also complicated by there being two different, and in principle opposed, Islamist groups opposing us: Sunni, principally Wahhabi, extremists and radical Shi`ites. These two groups are based on different traditions but have adopted similar methods to broadly similar aims.
There are also Palestinian terrorist organizations whose motivations are substantially different than the Wahhabis or the Shi`ites, and while both of these latter have attempted to get some leverage out the Palestinian conflict, this is a tactical accommodation to benefit from what is essentially side issue. As such, my discussion is not going to consider the either Palestinian terrorists or the Palestinian question.
So I’m going to settle on "Jihadis," which I take to mean those who engage in or actively support war with us in the name of Islam. I will also sometimes call them simply: "the enemy;" and when I do, that is who I mean.
When talking about the people on our side of the war, I am simply going to say "us" as opposed to the US, America, the West, Western liberal civilization, etc. By "us" I mean anyone who stands with us in opposing the Jihadis, and even some people who don’t but that, because of civic duty, we are obligated to protect. I will use terms like the West or Western liberal civilization or culture when discussing historical factors or events as they relate to our past or current interactions with Islam. I trust this will not create confusion.
Fundamentally, we need to achieve three things in this (or pretty much any) war. We need to defend against enemy attacks, we need to destroy the enemy’s capacity to fight, and we need to ensure that in future new enemies do not arise to revive this threat. Our strategy must encompass each of these goals and must employ all possible means: law enforcement and traditional counter-terrorism, military force, and diplomacy, nation building, and promoting democracy.
In fact, although it is simplistic, it is not inaccurate to say that the first goal is primarily a counter-terrorism issue; the second, a military issue, while the third relies on it own triad: diplomacy, nation building, and democracy. That conception might lead some clarity to the ongoing debate over approaches: they are all necessary and they all ultimately reinforce each other.
There is a fourth element in our strategy that is not really separate from the other elements, but is part of each, while at the same time it operates outside of each and supports each independently: the information war (IW) component. It is the major IW component that gives this war much of its unprecedented character. Although I doubt IW is seen as a separate and distinct discipline in this war, because of its nature I will discuss it separately, hoping that will not introduce fatal confusion.
I think counter-terrorism is the most straightforward and easily grasped part of our overall strategy. It is the part we hear a lot about and that touches us most directly. It is also largely tactical in nature and the furthest from my particular expertise. So I will summarize it by saying that the objective of this part of the strategy is to detect and destroy terrorist cells and their leaders, and to thwart their attacks. Intelligence is key — rapid, timely, precise tactical intelligence — which employs all the methods we read about in the NYT and then some.
An equally important objective of the Counter-terrorism strategy is dealing with the infrastructure that supports the Jihadis. This includes mainly the people and organizations that finance and supply them; in effect the logistical tail of the Jihadi movement. (Jihadis seem to provide much of their own tactical intelligence, though they also get intelligence from their sponsor states.) Counter-terrorism methods may or may not be able to isolate or attack these elements, but they are important to at least finding them, and the golden rule of doing so is: "Follow the money." (Hence, the critical importance of the SWIFT operation that the NYT revealed.)
Counter-terrorism strategy is of the most immediate concern, especially to the general public, but in essence it mainly holds the line against the Jihadis. It can make it very difficult for them to operate and it can, with help, starve them of funds and supplies. But it cannot keep the enemy from reconstituting himself; one good counter to the counter-terrorism strategy is simply patience.
The objective of the military strategy is primarily to deal with hostile governments that support the Jihadis. It also operates against hostile insurgencies and organizations like the Taliban and Hezbollah that have significant combat power. Destroying the ability of hostile governments to support the Jihadis is important because the Jihadis are a transnational state-supported threat, not a non-state threat. Although the Jihadis also derive considerable support from social elements within countries that are nominally opposed to them, state support is more important.
Only states can give the Jihadis the type of sanctuary that allows them organize and train large numbers of fighters, or to maintain the type of organization necessary to plan, coordinate, and execute major attacks. Deprived of sanctuary, they must move frequently and focus on maintaining tight security, which means smaller groups, less communication, less coordination. Logistic support becomes both harder and more risky. Constantly operating in a hostile environment increases stress, erodes trust, and encourages mistakes. All these factors enhance our counter-terrorism capabilities and make that strategy more effective.
States also are obviously important sources of funds, weapons, weapons development, recruits, and intelligence. In recent years, some fascinating scholarship has evolved that shows what happens to the size and operational capability of groups that are not state supported. (Note: I’m afraid no link. I believe it was discussed over at the Belmont Club, quite sometime ago.)
Another critical point is that WMD, especially nuclear weapons, are state assets. It would very difficult for a terrorist group to get their hands on a nuke without state support any time in the foreseeable future. Chemical and biological weapons have a lower threshold, but they have their own characteristics that make obtaining and using them difficult without state support. Lack of state support therefore dramatically reduces the chances of the Jihadis obtaining WMD.
So eliminating state support is key. But operations just to topple a hostile government, such as Saddam’s previously or potentially Iran and Syria now, is not always sufficient. To make sure the deposed government does not reassert itself and resume support for the Jihadis, we may have to remain in-country and that probably means dealing with an insurgency.
Any deposed hostile government with a significant power base can try to organize an insurgency. It helps if the former power holders are ethnically distinct or have a religious or class identity that gives them a degree of natural unity, but most will have enough followers to make an uncomfortable degree of trouble.
Iraq of course had all the prerequisites for an insurgency, and I believe organizing one and fighting the invasion that way was Saddam’s plan, possibly from the beginning. I take nothing away from our military accomplishments in Iraq by saying this, as the insurgency plan may have been a fall-back and it is clear from the panic and disorganization among the Iraqis during the final days on the invasion that Saddam expected his military’s resistance to give him more time than it did and we no doubt disrupted his plans to no small degree. (I very much doubt that sneaking about and living in septic tanks was part of Saddam’s pre-invasion plan.)
I bring this up because it gives the lie to the theory that if we had done this or that — more troops, harsher crackdown, not disband the Iraqi army, or whatever — the insurgency could have been avoided. It could not. So our military strategy must consider the likelihood of an insurgency in future cases. (I’m not sure this was appreciated as much as it should have been in 2003, but live and learn.)
As important as it is, our military strategy cannot by itself prevent the Jihadis from recovering from even a quite severe military defeat. As with counter-terrorism, an effective counter to our military strategy can be patience. Military operations are expensive, taxing, and carry significant political risk. Waiting them out is easy, cheap, and under the right circumstances, foolproof. If they can, Jihadis will adopt this plan when the tide is strongly against them.
It should be noted however that our military capability does give us credibility; especially when it has been experienced up close. Demonstrated military strength, I think, gives us foothold in the Islamic imagination which allows us to begin to set the foundation for controlling the militant strain of Islam from which the Jihadis arise. This has been demonstrated in both Iraq and Afghanistan and should not be discounted.
In conventional wisdom, diplomacy is seen as an alternative to military action: a means by which conflicts can be resolved through a political solution, or hostile governments can be contained or even brought down by economic sanctions, international pressure, or internal pressure through encouragement of dissident groups. Such measures are almost entirely useless against religiously motivated enemies who are uninterested in political solutions, largely immune to international opinion, and generally unimpressed by, or not subject to, economic sanctions. Under such circumstances, diplomacy acts mainly to enable our counter-terrorism, military, and nation building efforts, rather than as a means of direct action.
Our diplomatic strategy, as I see it, is therefore comprised primarily of these things:
- Maintaining the coalition of our allies.
- Enhancing cooperation with our "semi-allies", especially in intelligence activities.
- Pressuring non-hostile governments to curtail support for the Jihadis from elements within their borders and to cooperate with us in identifying and disabling local terrorist groups.
- Buying time in the international arena for our military and nation building activities.
- Laying the diplomatic groundwork for future action.
Note that I don’t mention combating anti-American feeling abroad as part of our diplomatic strategy. Frankly, I don’t think it is. Contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that anti-American feeling abroad has been seriously increased by Iraq or our other efforts against the Jihadis. The apparent upswing is due mainly to an increase in noise level by governments and social elements who have been persistently anti-American for decades, and subsequent exaggeration by anti-war elements in the media. Largely ignored and therefore under-appreciated are the governments with which our ties have been strengthened since this war began. On the balance, I think our international position may actually be somewhat improved compared to the last years of the Clinton administration.
Regardless of these factors, the crucial point is that our overriding concern is defeating the Jihadis and most of the anti-Americans overseas are themselves targets of the Jihadis. Because of this, anti-American feeling does not preclude important cooperation. It just means that cooperation may be given as unobtrusively as possible.
Nation Building and Democracy
Nation Building and Democracy
I have lumped nation building and democracy together here not because they are the same thing or have the same goals, but because they support each other and often operate side by side.
Nation building is not a term I much like, but it has common currency so I will not try to coin another. By nation building, I mean establishing a degree of security, repairing infrastructure, and helping to set up or revive the social institutions necessary for stability, economic growth, and a return to public life. Such achievements make promoting democracy possible; without them "promoting democracy" is reduced to holding meaningless elections.
Neither nation building nor democracy are necessarily aimed at what many think of as "winning hearts & minds" in that the goals do not include getting the population to love us or even like us very much. The goal is to get them to take ownership of their society and economy, and to make sure that they have something to take ownership of. If that happens, people will naturally gravitate towards a government that does not promote war or terrorism, in order to hold on to what they have achieved. Often they will see representative government as the best means of doing this. That is why our strategy is to promote democracy by creating the conditions that encourage it, not by imposing it, as some have said.
Many people have legitimate doubts about that premise, or that representative government is a panacea. Those doubts must be taken seriously because, as the previous paragraph makes clear, nation building and democracy are the means by which we intend to achieve final victory. But even if the doubts are well founded, nation building and promoting democracy play an important role even if their ultimate success is in doubt.
Recall that one of the more effective counter-strategies for the Jihadis is simply patience: if our strategy is limited to counter-terrorist and military means, time is on their side. Nation building and democracy counters that by threatening the Jihadis with a transformation of their society that would destroy them. It presents them with a serious dilemma: either lay low and wait to see if the transformation is being successful or not, by which time it may be too late, or fight both us and the transformation of their society.
Therefore, nation building and efforts to promote democracy seek to accomplish three things, all of them important:
- Engage the population’s self-interest to resist the Jihadis and deny them support.
- Present an ideological challenge to radical Islamist ideology.
- Put time pressure on the Jihadis, enhancing our military and counter-terrorism operations.
It short, these efforts, although difficult and time-consuming, form the foundation of our overall strategy and make it what it is. If that premise is wrong, our strategy is built on sand. That of course is the central question I will take up in the final section.
In Part II tomorrow Owen addresses Information Warfare