Wednesday, October 24, 2007

From GWoT to A War of Ideas & Counter-Insurgency

Today's post is brought to you by Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations at the University of the Pacific. I met Bob on my trip to Israel to study Israeli counter-terrorism policy, and I think this is an excellent essay. Enjoy!!!

From GWoT to War of Ideas & Counterinsurgency
Since the start of the Global War on Terror (GWoT), the United States has implicitly treated its terrorist opponents as if they were states. American posture has long been structured around state opponents to US power. The US military would engage traditional warfighting against a country with a coherent military firmly controlling some space of territory with a ‘target rich’ infrastructure and population. In a Clausewitzian clash of forces, the US superpower would prevail, and the opponent would sue for a structured peace. In short, US planning has assumed and preferred opponents such as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Indeed, the US military’s primary engagement in counter-insurgency – Vietnam - left the Army particularly so scarred and battered, that future planning purposely focused on state opponents. Never again would the US military wade into a long-term guerilla conflict where US military comparative advantage (firepower, logistics, air dominance) would matter little. For three decades the US military has been structured around a large, Cold War-style contest

Hence when the GWoT began after 9/11 the American instinct was to ‘state-ize’ the opponent. The US military is good at defeating states but has a mixed record at counter-insurgency and finds it quite distasteful. What might have been a campaign against a few specific terrorists entities – most notably al Qaeda – became instead a ‘war’ on terror. The ‘axis of evil’ indentified rogue states as America’s primary opponents, and the US has fought or threatened with ‘regime change’ states like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.

Unfortunately this war paradigm mistargets the West’s opponent in this struggle. Defeating failed, postcolonial states is easy but will not reduce the actual Islamist threat, because the post 9/11 opponent is the slippery, transnational, radicalized edge of a contemporary Islamic revival. Terrorist groups are more like international nongovernmental organizations than states, and militarily reducing rickety Muslim-majority states only feeds the radicalism. National Intelligence Estimates suggest that the Iraq War may be pushing moderate Muslims toward the jihadis. Iraq and Afghanistan are now counter-insurgency efforts – ‘hearts and minds’ struggles in which legitimacy and moral authority trump ‘shock and awe.’ Tanks, artillery and other expensive, hard power assets are in less demand than good intelligence, cultural literate soldiers and black operators, and the restoration of US moral credibility after Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the ‘torture debate.’

A post-Bush strategy will more effectively match the shape of the force to the shape of the mission. Al Qaeda is not the Soviet Union, and few Muslim-majority states are openly balancing US power. Indeed, the GWoT is not really a war at all. It is a challenge by a medievalist wing of the current Islamic ‘great awakening’ to liberal modernity. And most Muslims reject this reactionary agenda. Hence the West’s goal is to win this contest of ideas – not crush rickety Muslim-majority rogue states because it fits the bureaucratic predilections of defense establishment. Force will occasionally be necessary, but in a discrete, focused counterinsurgency - tactics we must relearn despite the resentment over Vietnam. Israel’s struggle against local terrorism and asymmetric conflict, and Britain’s ‘emergencies’ in Ireland and Malaya provide a different frame for combating terror: a patient, fine-grained effort of special operations forces, special investigative and police powers, and intelligence, with the occasional backing of significant force – all couched a political framework of moral superiority to the guerillas.

1 comment:

Jacien said...

Excellent essay, I think that you hit the nail on the head with Malaya.