Thursday, February 23, 2006

Considering victory conditions in the wider war (a repost) 

[Several months ago, I wrote a long post on the significance of ideology to victory and defeat in the "wider war" against Islamic jihad. Since then, I have read two books -- Mary Habeck's Knowing the Enemy : Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror and The Next Attack : The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon -- that emphasize the central role of political ideology in al Qaeda's war. While the two books describe that ideology in substantially similar terms (although with different methods -- Professor Habeck emphasizes the intellectual history of the movement and Messers. Benjamin and Simon focus on the means for disseminating the ideology and its consequences in the present day), they propose significantly different strategies and tactics for defeating al Qaeda. The two books together, therefore, raise the interesting question, how do we defeat an enemy powered by ideology? I am working on an essay that addresses that very question. In anticipation of the exciting day (probably this weekend) when I finish that post, I humbly suggest that you read (or even re-read!) a post I wrote before I read either of these books, "considering victory conditions in the wider war and the importance of ideology." It is republished below for your convenience. - ed.]

With all the talk over measuring "victory" and the absence thereof in Iraq, one is almost forced to think about the definition of victory in the wider war against Islamic jihad. It is always important to define victory in war, but it is especially so in a shadow war. This is because our leaders demand exceptions from usual constraints during war (such as, for example, the requirement for wiretap warrants or the availability of the writ of habeas corpus). We need to grant them certain of these exceptions, but we also cannot allow the war to become an excuse for the unwarranted concentration of power. We have to have some sense of when the war will end.

In a hot war between nation-states, the victory condition is usually obvious: the surrender of the other side. In a shadow war, though, victory is hard to define and therefore there is the risk that wartime exceptionalism will outlive its true usefulness.

It is not necessarily obvious how a shadow war will end, even during the waging of it. In 1950, the West had no idea that the Cold War would end 25 years later with the Helsinki accords, 39 years later with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 44 years later with the fall of the Soviet Union. Similarly, we cannot know today how the war against Islamic jihadism will end, or how clear it will be when the end comes that it has come. Nevertheless, the very ambiguity of this war makes it all the more important to debate the question of victory conditions. There will be no surrender ceremony on a battleship or signing of a cease fire agreement, so we need to know what to look for instead.

These questions have become especially acute in light of the present debate over balancing security and privacy interests. In that political argument, opposition to the Patriot Act and outrage over the NSA's dropping of eaves seems inversely correlated, however loosely, with whether one actually believes we are in a global war for our survival. Even those of us who accept the existence of the war, though, want to know what victory will look like, both so that we do not extend wartime exceptionalism beyond its useful life and so that we do not quit the fight too soon.

With that in mind, this post will discuss victory conditions in the wider war against Islamist jihad, and ways to measure our progress in the meantime.


About a month ago I published an updated version of Steven Den Beste’s famous “strategic overview” of the war on Islamic jihad and the position of Operation Iraqi Freedom within that struggle. At the time I said that the purpose of the exercise was “to organize my thinking about the war,” and that I would in all likelihood use it as the basis for other work. Much of the analysis in this post assumes that you have read that annotated strategic overview, or at least some of the source materials linked therein. You do not need to read that document in order to understand this post, but I would appreciate it if you would before you flog me in the comments. Nothing against comment flogging, but it should be informed.

One cannot articulate victory conditions for a war without defining the war’s strategy. While I have done that at length in the annotated strategic overview and in numerous disparate posts, here I propose a series of minimalist statements that may be made about the war against al Qaeda and Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the end, the victory conditions almost write themselves.

A note on Iraq

The most complicated and contentious part of the discussion involves Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom had many objectives, some of which were largely unrelated to the war on Islamic jihad (the elimination of Saddam Hussein and his sons as a strategic threat to the region, the ending of the sanctions regime, the securing of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the redemption of the United Nations Security Council), and some of which were very relevant. We have manifestly achieved the former, and in that sense have already "won." But the Iraq war is also a battle in the wider war, which we have not yet won. Most public discussion of victory conditions in Iraq fails to distinguish between these two different purposes, partly because the Bush administration has not done a very good job of articulating these purposes, partly because it has to some degree dissembled on purpose, and partly because the mainstream media and domestic and foreign opponents of the Bush administration have willfully ignored what the President has said. This post encompasses the battle for Iraq, but does not try to define victory in that battle independently of the wider war.

What we may say about the war

Al Qaeda is an ideological movement with a deep philosophical history. It seeks to establish an oppressive regime run on roughly the same basis as the Taliban ruled Afghanistan -- anything less is "apostate." This “Caliphate” is to extend to the high water mark of Islamic conquest in ages past. In al Qaeda's vision, the Caliphate’s lands embrace essentially the entire world from al Andalus (you might call it “Spain”) in the west to East Timor in the east. In the extended version, the Caliphate eventually rules the entire world.

The Caliphate cannot emerge, al Qaeda says, as long as "apostate" regimes rule Muslim lands.

Accordingly, Al Qaeda’s primary enemies are the “apostate” regimes that rule the Muslim world under an authority or according to laws that are inconsistent with al Qaeda’s ideology.

The occupation of “Muslim lands” by Jews is particularly offensive to the jihad.

Al Qaeda believes that neither the apostate regimes nor Israel can defeat al Qaeda over the long-term without the support of the United States and its allies. Therefore, the United States must be induced to withdraw all support for Muslim apostate regimes and the “Zionist entity.”

Al Qaeda means "the base." According to its ideology, it does not intend to win the struggle itself, but to create the conditions under which the Caliphate can emerge.

Al Qaeda and its affiliated and allied organizations are networked. It disseminates its ideology over the web and its orders through routed messages and public pronouncements. If we destroy one part of that network, it will eventually route around the damage.

Al Qaeda’s resources are not, however, unlimited. It relies on supporters for money and people. Therefore, al Qaeda can raise money and recruit people only for so long as its ideology remains credible enough to attract money and people.

The credibility of al Qaeda and its ideology derives from victories against al Qaeda's declared enemies. Bin Laden and his old guard established their credibility against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and strengthened it since through victories in numerous attacks (e.g., Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya, Yemen, New York, Washington, Bali and Madrid).

Al Qaeda’s ideology has roots that go back a long time. This ideology has significant support throughout the Muslim world and some support in the West. This should not surprise us. Communism also long enjoyed considerable support in the non-communist world, until it was discredited. We should assume that al Qaeda's support will persist until its ideology is discredited.

Jihadis in al Qaeda’s networked war are embedded throughout the world, including in the West. Some of these jihadis were trained in Afghanistan during al Qaeda’s golden years, and others are locally recruited amateurs. Some jihadis are unrecruited amateur rogues who believe the ideology they hear from radical imams or read on the web and decide to act outside the network.

Al Qaeda and its followers are of greatly varying training and competence. A veteran of Afghanistan who can travel in the West is extremely dangerous. An untrained Dutch Muslim on the streets of Amsterdam can kill a few people, but probably cannot kill a great many people and certainly will not be trusted by the people in al Qaeda with that organization’s most precious secrets or assets.

It is therefore important to kill or capture al Qaeda veterans. Yes, others will spring up as long as the ideology remains sufficiently credible to attract new blood. But -- and this is a huge "but" -- the new recruits will take time to train (especially now that Afghanistan is interdicted) and an even longer time to earn the leadership's trust. Every new recruit is a potential spy, and will not soon be trusted with WMD even if the network acquires them in deployable form.

The interests of the United States in the Middle East are so deep that it will not be driven away by garden-variety terrorism. Even multiple bombings such as in London or Madrid would not do it. Only massive casualties might provoke a revision of American policy in the region. Everything else would stiffen American resolve rather than erode it.

Mass casualty attacks are tough to conceive, plan and execute. After September 11, they are even tougher for people who do not blend in well in the West. This means that well-trained Westernized jihadis are even more valuable than they were.

Recognizing that the collapse of the Twin Towers was a “lucky break” from Bin Laden’s perspective, mass casualty attacks are hard to pull off without "weapons of mass destruction" ("WMD").

WMD are difficult to obtain, develop, transport and deploy without the resources of a state and a refuge in which to operate.

There are many states in the world that would love to hurt the United States. These states need not support al Qaeda’s ideology to be willing to strike the United States through al Qaeda.

Nevertheless, many, if not most, of those states can be deterred from doing so, however much they wish it were otherwise.

Our ability to deter these states depends not on our capacity to retaliate (which is indisputable), but on the credibility of the threat that we would retaliate.

A few states have demonstrated such total irrationality that they cannot be deterred, or we cannot rely on the mere hope that they will be deterred. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was one of these regimes, as were the Taliban. Iran may not be deterrable, but is skillful enough at brinksmanship that it probably is (Iran is a lot of things, but it does not appear to be reckless, and recklessness is the most reliable indicator that a country cannot be deterred). Undeterrable states must be interdicted.

“Soft” considerations such as the alleviation of Arab Muslim poverty or a two-state peace in Palestine will have little or no impact on the credibility of al Qaeda’s ideology. There is no evidence that leading jihadis are now or have ever been poor. The sort of people who would be attracted to al Qaeda's ideology are not interested in peace with Israel, only its annihilation. Therefore, these otherwise positive developments will not weaken al Qaeda, at least not in the short term.

Al Qaeda is so embedded in the Muslim world that the West alone can neither destroy its organization nor discredit its ideology. We need help from Muslims, particularly Arabs, to separate the bad guys from the neutrals and the allies. Muslims must bear the brunt of this war, which is for the political heart of Islam.

In the long run, al Qaeda poses an existential threat to Muslim regimes. In the short run, they will respond in the war according to short-term interests. For example, for more than a decade the Saudis bought peace from al Qaeda. Pakistan's cooperativeness ebbs and flows with the pressure brought to bear on its government by the United States and the Islamists, respectively. Both al Qaeda and the United States coerce front-line states into cooperating with varying degrees of success.

For the United States, cooperation means deploying the assets of the state, including the police, intelligence agencies, and military, to fight Islamists, prevent sympathetic citizens from supporting the jihad, deny the jihad safe haven and support American counterterror operations.

For al Qaeda, cooperation means "neutrality," plus a refusal to cooperate with the United States.

Until September 11, the government of Pakistan cooperated with al Qaeda. Since then, it has cooperated with the United States within its political constraints. Those constraints include strong support for Islamists among its population and within its army and secret police. The United States pressures Pakistan whenever it waivers by playing the India card, which the Bush administration has done deftly.

Until the invasion of Iraq, the government of Saudi Arabia cooperated with al Qaeda. Since then, Saudi Arabia has waged a ferocious war against al Qaeda. This switch occurred because the willingness of the United States to put soldiers into the heart of the Arab Middle East redefined the credibility of America's threats, and constituted a commitment from which the United States couldn't easily withdraw. This meant that the United States was deadly serious about the war, as it had not been during the Clinton years, and that gave the Saudis assurance that we would not retreat behind our oceans when the going got rough.

Today's Muslim regimes cannot win this war in the long term. Most of them are absurd governments of kings and princes or brutal generals whose idea of succession planning is primogeniture. (Kings?!? How often do we Americans, who institutionalized lèse-majesté, consider how idiotic a system monarchy really is?) These kings, princes, sheikhs and generals-for-life are clowns, and anybody who views any of them -- even the "moderate" ones -- as better than contemptible is seriously deranged. History is against them, and every thoughtful person in the world knows it. The question is, what will replace them? The jihadis are fighting to install a Caliphate and lower a dark curtain over a fifth of the world. The United States and its courageous allies are fighting to create room for modern democratic governments based on popular sovereignty.

Since the region's clown governments lack credibility and citizens who are willing to take great personal risks to defend them, al Qaeda is able to create spaces in those countries in which to operate (see, e.g., southern Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's "tribal regions"). Where al Qaeda flourishes, it is able to cajole and coerce the local population -- the Average Abdul -- into cooperating. This creates a local base from which it can "vex and exhaust" the apostate regime.

We need Average Abdul to stop cooperating with al Qaeda and to start turning in the jihadis in the back of the mosque. Unfortunately, he won't turn in the jihadis because he is more afraid of them than the local regime and he will not bear any risk to defend the clowns. The jihadis will kill him and his family for blowing the whistle, but the clown regime will neither punish him for keeping silent or induce him to fight the jihadis out of patriotism. Average Abdul, simply put, is unwilling to risk his life for the clown regime, which has not earned his devotion, even for money.

Average Abdul will, however, risk his life for an idea, just as al Qaeda's jihadis do. Once, that idea was pan-Arabism, or Communism. Today, both are discredited. "Moderate Islam," whatever that means in a dusty town in Syria, Jordan or Egypt, obviously does not have the fire to motivate Abdul to risk his life to fight the Islamists. The only idea with the juice to do the job is popular sovereignty. Democracy. This is the realist case for the Bush administration's "democratization strategy."

The jihadis understand this, and fight against democracy in the Arab world with everything they've got, even if it costs them their Ba'athist allies.

In fighting against democracy in the Arab world, the jihadis polarize Arabs. While many decry this polarization as "instability," by its nature polarization creates more enemies of the jihad. Some of these new enemies of jihad will be disgusted with al Qaeda's mass casualty attacks. Others will be inspired by their last, best chance at representative government. Either way, enemies of the jihad pick up a weapon, walk a post and -- most importantly -- drop a dime on their enemy, even if they don't like Americans. Wherever a reasonably representative government emerges, Average Abdul will start to turn in the jihadis in the back of the mosque, now for his own reasons.

Of course, the clown regimes will also try to subvert the democracy movement, which is ultimately as great a threat to their longevity as al Qaeda. That is why they are at least tacitly supporting the resistance in Iraq and fighting political reforms in their own countries tooth and nail, hammer and tongs.

In Iraq, al Qaeda is so concerned that democracy might take root that it has drawn a line in the sand. Having fled Afghanistan and taunted the West with bloody but fundamentally low-impact attacks from London to Bali, al Qaeda has finally put its credibility on the line in Iraq.

Unfortunately for al Qaeda, Iraq is a strategic trap, because the conditions of the battlefield are forcing al Qaeda to inflict massive collateral damage. Its only tools are targeted assassinations, publicized atrocities (such as webcast decapitations) and indiscriminate mass casualty attacks. None of these is endearing al Qaeda to Arabs. It is one thing, after all, to slaughter Westerners, Russians and Jews, but Arab children are another matter entirely. And al Qaeda has no opportunity to build support by doing good in Iraq, as it did in the Taliban's Afghanistan (and as insurgencies from Indochina to Palestine have done). In Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world, the jihad cannot build schools or help the poor -- it is the Americans who are doing that. Al Qaeda can only lash out.

In Iraq, al Qaeda's indiscriminate violence does not stand a snowball's chance in Ramadi against 9 million purple fingers. Even its Sunni rejectionist allies will desert the jihadis once they have coerced the best deal they can get from the majority. Al Qaeda has staked its prestige on Iraq. If it is discredited there -- whether by our guile or its own lack of it -- so will its ideology be.

As al Qaeda suffers defeats, its ideology will slowly lose credibility, just as communism did. As its ideological credibility degrades, it will be much harder to attract recruits and money. Also, al Qaeda's ability to coerce the front-line apostate regimes will diminish, and those governments will increasingly cooperate with the West, hoping to preserve some measure of privilege once the war peters out.

So, progress in the war against al Qaeda consists of these elements:

Over the short-term

a. Arrest or kill the jihadis whenever and wherever possible. Yes, their network will route around the damage, but new fighters need to be trained and trusted enough to deploy. When we destroy the old guard we buy critical time.

b. Coerce Muslim states, including especially the clown regimes, into cooperating with the United States. If successful coercion requires that the United States stake its own credibility -- as in Iraq -- so be it.

c. Interdict states, Muslim or otherwise, that we cannot reliably deter from assisting jihadis to acquire and deploy WMD.

d. Do not lose a chance to humiliate al Qaeda on the battlefield.

Each of these methods will inspire -- and have inspired -- resentment in the Muslim world and, indeed, among anti-Americans in the West. While that resentment costs us something and more skillful management of the war might mitigate it, we cannot allow the resentment of others to stay our prosecution of the war.

Over the long-term

x. Give the average Muslim an idea worth fighting for. Average Abdul need not "like" the United States or give us "credit" in any way, shape or form for this strategy to work. He only needs to want to choose his own government and have an idea how to do that.

y. As the winds of history sweep away clown regimes, see that credible, serious, non-jihadi governments take their place. These governments need not be secular, and their institutions do not have to be instantly mature. But they need to be credible and serious, and derive their legitimacy from a broad swath of the population willing to defend them against jihad.

z. We must do what we can to humiliate al Qaeda on the battlefield and foster the repudiation of jihadi ideology in the Muslim world. While public diplomacy may help, one lesson of Iraq is that al Qaeda will discredit itself if we goad it into fighting in the Muslim world rather than in the West. By some accounts, bin Laden wanted the United States to invade Iraq, thinking that it would be a strategic trap for the Americans. If al Qaeda fails to stop the new democracy there, however, Iraq will have been a strategic trap for bin Laden.

The victory condition

Once sufficiently discredited, the ideology of the jihad will no longer attract money and volunteers. We will have won when al Qaeda no longer has the human and financial resources to develop or acquire mass casualty weapons and deploy them in the West or against Western interests in the Middle East.

A final observation

There are more lessons in the Cold War than Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft ever will admit. Like jihadism, communism was conceived 70 years or so before it established its first regime. Thereafter, like jihadism, it enjoyed considerable support even within the countries of the West that opposed it. Nevertheless, after most of a century, communism as anything other than a name was discredited everywhere that mattered, and could no longer attract money or volunteers or even favorable coverage in university newspapers. It will take much less time to discredit the jihad because its first regime was Afghanistan, not the largest Great Power of its age. But we will not have won until we have done so.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 23, 10:12:00 PM:

I agree with what you say, but there is more involved than simply a focus on the Muslim or Muslim nations. The war is a global war. Addressing the incorporation, re-education, or removal of radical Islamic elements in western nations is also critical. Many Europeans are finally beginning to understand the threat that radical Islam poses to their tolerant and open societies. As long as the West prostrates itself to Islamic rage at perceived insults by curtailing the rights of its own citizens, the war against radical Islam cannot be won. The cowardly behavior of Spain in the face of the mass murder of its citizens and the self-censorship of the press in many western nations are certainly not signs of a strategy that can ultimately defeat Al Qaeda. The more time it takes to address, the larger the population of unassimilated and intolerant Muslim populations becomes (especially in Europe). The question must be asked: Will the West rise in unison to eradicate this world view from the face of the earth, or will it slowly fall into subjugation, chaining itself to a sinking ship named ‘Tolerance’? I cannot honestly see any middle ground. Our worldviews are completely incompatible. We are already at war. The question remains whether or not the nations of the West will mobilize their populations to defeat this patient, cunning, and ruthless enemy.

CPT Aaron Kaufman  

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Fri Feb 24, 08:39:00 AM:

TH -

I think we have to continually pressure and inflict defeats upon Al Qaeda, but its ideology is in fact self defeating. By imposing pressure on the jihadists, we simply hasten its demise.

Their ideology is inherently morally bankrupt; most critically, it is a minority, totalitarian theocratic political construct. Al Qaeda seeks to impose theocratic rule over all Muslims --forget non-Muslims. Iraqis have demonstrated their lack of interest in this. So have the Jordanians -- the Amman hotel bombing made clear the bankruptcy of al qaeda strategy and tactics. Al Qaeda won't win any elections because they kill too many Muslims. They are a gang...the Mafia in turbans.

Having said that, Iran stands as the Shiite example of what al qaeda might achieve in a Sunni or Wahhabi state. That is to say, without constant western pressure, radical Salafists could impose via a coup theocratic rule in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, or another Middle Eastern (or African) nation. A coup in any of those unstable autocratic nations bereft of democratic norms could lead to a Sunni/Wahhabi analog to Iran. Not a great state of affairs if that happens. If you think about it, the Muslim Brotherhood killed Sadat at roughly the same time Khomeini was ascendant in Iran. I don't think this is precisely coincidental.

For the moment, the US has demonstrated quite forcefully that it is committed to ensuring that Salafist theocracy is not imposed anywhere. 9/11 stimulated the US to reverse this tide, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. It is a tragedy we failed to act preemptively in this way with Iran in 1979. As a result, we are faced with a menace there.

Ultimately, the White House is banking that democracy, representative majoritarian rule, will trump al qaeda. Perhaps the best empirical evidence that this is likely to work is that Al Qaeda has demonstrated that it ain't much interested in elections...  

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