The U.S. and others have been fighting al Qaeda and their ilk for going on 15 years. After countless drone strikes, special operations raids and two invasions, we have killed Osama bin Laden and scores of other key leaders. Our enemy may be disrupted periodically, but they are far from being dismantled or defeated. Why is that? Partly, it’s because they have proven to be more resilient and adaptive than we expected, but it is also partly because we are our own obstacle to taking effective counteraction. We still don’t understand the kind of war we’re in, haven’t structured a proper strategy to prevail and remain institutionally misaligned. Our self-imposed obstacles are three: intellectual, organizational and institutional.
Intellectually, our model for understanding war remains a conventional one: armies facing armies. We treat everything else as “not war” or “pseudo-war.” If we acknowledged we were at war, for example, we would identify a proper set of aims, ones that were neither expansive and unachievable, given the means available, nor so restrictive that achieving them accomplishes nothing worth the sacrifice. Then we would identify a set of military and nonmilitary strategies, policies and campaigns, all of which would contribute to attaining those aims. We would create the necessary set of organizations to make sure our decisions, and those of our allies and partners, could be translated into properly coordinated plans, executed in a coherent way and adapted quickly enough to address the uncertainties of war as it unfolds. We would see evidence of these behaviors if we were waging a war, but no objective assessment of the past decade and a half would conclude that this description fits our actual behavior. Rather, the more reasonable conclusion is that we are not really waging a war.
A decade and a half of fighting has been insufficient to move us from our default setting. Sometimes, the language our senior political and military leaders use is war language; at other times, it’s the language of law enforcement. We have yet to understand that, as Carl von Clausewitz says, “war is more than a true chameleon.” We have yet to follow his first principle: “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.” It’s no wonder, therefore, that we have been more successful tactically than we have been strategically.
When will we finally conclude that the enemies we face are waging some form of a global insurgency, a revolutionary war that seeks to seize the territory from those they call apostate governments and replace those “apostates” with a caliphate? Perhaps it was difficult to see this clearly at the start, but after 15 years of watching our enemies attempt to overthrow the government in Iraq, weaken Pakistan’s government, retake Afghanistan, create an Islamic state out of parts of Syria and Iraq, expand their influence in Somalia and other African states, and seize Yemen and Libya, the patterns of their war should be clearer. While they do not form a monolith, there is a pattern.
If we can put our intellectual bias behind us, perhaps we will be able to see reality as it is and set ourselves and our allies on a better strategic path. As long as our enemies wage some form of an insurgency or revolutionary war and we respond with a mixture of either a counterterrorist leadership decapitation and law-enforcement approach or an invade-and-rebuild approach—the two strategies that have gotten us to where we are—the strategic advantage will stay with our enemies.
Organizationally, we seem locked in a model that limits understanding organizational behavior as hierarchical: the higher-ups directing the underlings through echelons of leaders—the chain of command. The enemies we are fighting also have chains of command and sometimes work that way. An operation is planned, prepared and supported by “central al Qaeda” or the “headquarters” of an affiliate or spinoff. Then the attack is executed using the tools, money, training and equipment provided by the higher-ups. There are other forms of organizational behavior at play, however.
Discipleship is another way to understand how individual members of a group act on behalf of that group. In this model, individual members or small groups are inspired to take action by the power of the group’s narrative and belief in the group’s ideology. They don’t have to be directed to do anything; they act on the strength of their belief. Their commitment to their beliefs encourages them to act—even drives them to act in some cases—because not to do something would be a manifestation of the weakness of their beliefs. This kind of behavior is hardly “lone wolf”; rather, it is inspired by the pack. Often, there are no hierarchical command-and-control dots to connect in these kinds of cases other than the dots that create and grow a belief strong enough to form a determined and dedicated disciple.
Over 60 years ago, Eric Hoffer, when analyzing mass movements in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, said that “many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life.” He goes on to say that the chief preoccupation of the leaders of a mass revolutionary movement, therefore, is to “kindle and fan an extravagant hope” and “foster, perfect, and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice”; that is, they seek to create disciples, true believers, who will act—even alone, if necessary—to advance the cause.
Disciples and true believers are connected by “dots,” just not in the same way that conventional hierarchies are connected. Disciples and true believers still need motivation, leadership or inspiration, and they still need money, supplies, equipment or training. Some of these dots are vague and are often not clear except in retrospect, after an attack of some sort. We’re seeing this phenomenon in the wake of the Paris attacks. All too often, even if partially detected beforehand, the connection is insufficient for probable cause, let alone arrest. Even when disciples or true believers are arrested, the available evidence may not be strong enough to hold them very long. No crime has been committed. Therein we return to the first obstacle: Are we waging a war or fighting crime?
The intellectual model we select has practical consequences. If we are waging war, then the threshold for action is actionable intelligence, but if we are fighting crime, the threshold is sufficient evidence, which may never emerge. The difference between actionable intelligence and sufficient evidence is real. This leads to the last self-imposed obstacle: institutional.
We have separate, stovepiped institutions to deal with crime and war. This separateness rests upon an important understanding of the balance between civil liberties and common good. Departments or ministers of defense and intelligence agencies deal with war; departments or ministers of interior or justice and police agencies attend to crime. We also have another level of institutions that we hold responsible for our common safety and security: sovereign states. Such separation normally serves a democracy well.
The global insurgents or revolutionaries that we are fighting, however, like so many before them, slip back and forth from using criminal action, low-level terrorism, insurgency and formal military action, depending upon which tactic is most useful to attain their political aim. They operate in the institutional space between war and crime, using this gap to their advantage. They weave criminal and military action into one coherent whole. Our law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies—and those of our allies—have done yeoman’s work trying to stitch this gap, balancing the protection of their nation’s citizens with individual civil rights, but the gap remains.
If we were fighting a war, the stitching would be less ad hoc both internally to our nation and externally among the set of nations that face a common threat. We would have formed a real coalition or alliance, one in which the members of the alliance have a voice in the creation and execution of a long-term strategy, not one in which members are treated as if they were a posse going after bad guys with a U.S. sheriff. In addition, we would have sought to establish the kind of robust conventions, authorities and coordinative bodies that would facilitate coherent transnational action among allies. We would have conducted a counternarrative campaign aimed to erode the attractiveness of the insurgents’ motivational ideology. Finally, we would have educated the American people beyond bumper-sticker slogans.
Over the past 15 years, all of us have seen the common threat grow—not just in size, but also in modus operandi. How many more Paris-style attacks are necessary to convince us that we are at war and our mutual enemies are more than just criminals, even if they are not conventional soldiers? While the insurgency we face is not an existential threat to the U.S. in one sense, who can argue that their actions have not already altered the way we live at home and especially abroad? Who doubts that if they create the world they envision, it would be counter to the security and economic interests of the U.S. and our allies?
We have gotten better at killing those whom we identify as an enemy and uncovering some plots before they are hatched, but we have not yet reached “good enough”—not for ourselves as individual nations or as a set of sovereign bodies. Until we heed Clausewitz’ advice to fully adapt to the form of war that has been thrust upon us, we will continue to be our own impediment to effectively countering our enemies, thus allowing them to expand their influence and grow even stronger.
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Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, USA Ret., is a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq and a senior fellow of AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare.