Posted by lex, on January 15, 2005
I got an email recently from an occasional correspondent – someone whose opinions I would likely often disagree with, but who has always had the courtesy to correspond with me even on controversial issues on the basis of mutual respect.
And he asks, both literally and figuratively, if I think we can win the War on Terror:
My question, which is both literal and rhetorical, is “Can we win?”
Here is the literal part:
You have many years in the armed forces (I don’t), you went to one of the service academies (I didn’t), and you presumably have contact with those who have contact with those doing the fighting (I don’t). Do you Lex, based on your knowledge & experience, think that this is a war that we can be win?
Here is the rhetorical part:
Can we win this war? From my perspective, I don’t see how.
-What does ‘victory’ in a war on terrorism look like? Does that mean “most of the terrorists”? Does that mean “Nearly all of the terrorists”? Does that mean “all of the terrorists who want to kill Americans”? I don’t know the answer to this. President Bush has stated that we will keep at it until we stomp out terrorism, period. That’s my read on his position, anyway. I am less concerned with how *I* define victory, and more concerned with how the President defines it. The part that scares me is that I don’t think that his definition is any more specific than mine is…
As long as there is some dirtbag with a rifle who is willing to die to try and kill one of us (you or I specifically, other Americans generally), then terrorism will survive, simple as that.
-Isn’t “War on Terror in Iraq” a different way of phrasing “Defending our Homeland”, the only difference being the perspective of the speaker? What I am getting at here is that no one has ever won a war like this without being (forgive my sounding flippant; I can’t think of a better term) the Home Team. The British couldn’t do it here, nor could they do it in Afghanistan, the French couldn’t do it in Russia, the Germans couldn’t do it in the U.S.S.R, the French couldn’t do it in Indochina/Vietnam, We couldn’t do it in Vietnam, the Soviets couldn’t do it in Afghanistan. In Iraq, we clearly do not have the home court advantage.
-I believe that Robert McNamara came to the realization that Vietnam couldn’t be won at around ~6000 casualties (I can’t remember the source of this. Sorry for the lack of a footnote). He didn’t speak up about it until 10’s of thousands of casualties later. We just passed ~1400 casualties in Iraq, and I fear that it will be a long time until the powers that be arrive at the same conclusion. The fact that President Bush is famously resolute and unbending will make this realization that much more painful.
The question that remains in my head is this: How many Americans will die before we leave Iraq, victory or no? I don’t have an answer to this question. Once again, the scary thing is that I don’t think that President Bush or Secretary Rumsfeld have an answer either.
Like I said earlier, I know we have to be there. I know that we have no other choice. Now that Iraq is broken, someone has to fix it, and that someone is us. I am also very aware that I am not privy to the thoughts of any of the decision makers, and that I may have missed the proverbial mark in my comments by quite a distance. I am simply concerned about the cost in human terms, and I’m looking to you as a counterpoint to my perspective.
Again, my intent is not to start a pissing contest. I’m really interested in an articulate position that I imagine differs from mine.
Now that’s a serious set of questions, written by a concerned citizen with a far different point of view than mine, and worthy, I thought, of a serious response. And because it took me so damned long to write that response, I thought I’d go snacks with my correspondent by sharing our exchange here on the blog. (Hope you don’t mind, DM.)
This is a large and complex topic and I apologize if my reply seems in any place pedantic. Your questions, and the cultural divide they represent within this country come down at the last to a philosophical discussion about how we as individuals and collectively as a people see the world. It also reflects questions about how, having formed that world view, we choose to interact with it. The problem with philosophical questions is that they go to root of people’s belief and values systems, and are very difficult to change. From my perspective, as a career warrior (and southerner by birth) the question of “can we win?” is perhaps not even the right one to ask. Would we not, should we not, fight even if we could not win? If we’re having a hard time defining victory conditions, have we considered what surrender conditions might look like?
But I’ll give it a go anyway, because I believe you’ve asked the question seriously.
What does it mean to win the war on terror? First thing, in my humble opinion, is to recognize that “War on Terror” is in fact a euphemism. Terror is merely a tactic. It would have made as much sense to have called World War II a “War on the Blitzkrieg.” What we’re actually fighting is a political and ideological army, that of the Salafist jihad.
Every fight occurs on three levels: Tactical, Operational and Strategic. The tactical level could be defined as protecting the polling booth, government buildings, and critical infrastructure while killing every Salafist jihadi armed with an AK-47 or suicide bomb belt and minimizing casualties to friendly forces. This is the detailed execution piece down at the company/battalion level (I’m just talking military effects here). And you’re never going to, in any campaign, win everywhere and at all times. Even in battles we win, soldiers die. This is the least coherent form of any fight to the outside observer (and especially to the people actually engaged in combat) but it’s also where the media (which helps to form public opinion, a strategic center of gravity) tends to focus its lens. Here’s where you get your money shots, as a reporter. But coherence is an issue because victory conditions are met (or not) day to day, sometimes hour by hour, or even minute by minute. If you choose to focus on today’s car bombing, and link it to last week’s bombing that killed 36 in Kirkuk, and the one back in July that killed 58, you’ll develop one narrative (and this is the common one you’ll find in the newspapers – entirely without context or analysis). If you focus instead on Iyad Allawi’s continued survival today, the registration of voters and numbers of jihadis rounded up today, you come up with a different picture – by itself equally misleading and out of context. If we rounded up 30 military aged males at a suspicious gathering, have we prevented an explosion at a hospital tomorrow? Or have we alienated 15 fence sitters who will now take up arms against us as soon as they are released in three days time? We don’t know at this level, and really we never will – we lack perspective. This fight is detailed execution of the operational plan, in many places simultaneously.
At an operational level we develop a campaign to insert and sustain both kinetic and non-kinetic forces and effects to develop intelligence on where to find Salafists, fix them in place, deny them logistical aid and sanctuary, and kill them in detail, while winning the information operations campaign both in the court of public (Western/US) opinion and at least neutralizing the hostile elements in the Arab/muslim press. This part sounds simple, but it’s the critical bridge between high flown strategy (which will take us back to philosophy, in a bit) and the tactical fight, and synchronization of effort is critical. This is really where the war gets won or lost, since the strategy involves the decision (in this case) whether or not to fight at all, and that’s already been made.
Which leads us to strategy, and what is, I think the concern of many serious American critics of the war on terror: How is what we’re doing in Iraq aligned to the defeat of this ideology and defense of the homeland?
I think a lot of folks, both here and abroad, are tired of Americans waving the bloody sheet of 9/11 over our heads and using the deaths of nearly 3000 of our citizens as carte blanche to embark on all manner of international adventures. In Europe, the birthplace of modern colonialism, what we’re doing looks suspiciously familiar. But understanding what 9/11 meant to the national and foreign policy apparat now holding the reins in the US is truly is fundamental to understanding our current national strategy for survival (first) and victory (second) – realizing that while the second goal is desirable, the first is necessary.
So, when I speak of survival, what is it that I mean? What are we defending?
The historical West, taken to mean “Christendom” has been at war with Islam more or less continuously for over a thousand years. For much of that history, the West was on the defensive in nearly every way, militarily, culturally and in the realms of medicine, mathematics and science. Constantinople, the seat of Eastern Orthodoxy, was lost to the Turks, and remains to this day Istanbul. Islamic armies were repelled twice from the gates of Vienna in the Romantic era, rather than European armies from Istanbul, Cairo and Baghdad. Only in relatively modern industrial times has the civilization defined by Arabic Islamic culture (including the Turks) been thrown on the defensive, culminating with the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish Empire at the end of World War I. The reasons for the reversals of fortune leading to this collapse are too lengthy to share here – if you are truly interested (and have not already done so) I recommend reading Bernard Lewis’ “The Middle East, a brief history of the last 2000 years.” The important thing to realize is that a once vibrant, ascendant and messianic culture with a great deal of well-earned pride in its history of accomplishment was suddenly and comprehensively subjected to a civilizational reduction in stature that they were almost unable to assimilate, far less resist.
After World War II, Christian Europe was physically, materially and morally exhausted, almost bankrupt. From the ashes rose a post-Christian orthodoxy of social support systems, democratic government and commercial materialism – our new “West” then, what we prefer to call think of as the union between democracy and modernity, is in gross cultural conflict with classical Islamic culture, which views with contempt the excesses to which our freedoms entitle us to choose, labeling it “Westoxification.” In the aftermath of the dual assaults of the Ottoman collapse and the creation of the state of Israel, Arab culture first turned to regionalized nationalistic socialism (the Ba’ath party) and pan-Arab nationalism – both turned out to be empty holes so far as progress was concerned and the West continued its long march on the path of modernity, while the Arabic civilization fell further behind. These fascist ideologies, while unable to evolve a greater standard of living for their citizens, at least proved capable of repressing their own masses through the well-known levers of the internal security/terror apparatus and externally focused propaganda. But that particular witches’ brew, through an almost Marxian dialectic, in turn created the Islamist, and eventually Salafist political and military movements that all of the Arab dictatorships have been so very busy ruthlessly suppressing on the home turf.
Which brings us up to the present, except with this important caveat – the technology with which the West has rocked the Arab Islamic culture back on its heels for the last couple centuries has reached a level of lethality and portability which would allow a stateless ideology to inflict potentially devastating destruction on the enemy culture – us. This is why the WMD issue was so very important, and why not knowing what Saddam was cooking up in the post-9/11 reality was so unacceptable. Here was a man that fancied himself the next Sala’ adin, unifying the Arab peoples under his banner and marching those unified armies together against their enemies. A man that had passionate reason to hate the US, and the resources of an actual, relatively modern state at his disposal. A man who was heartlessly using the crippling effects of international sanctions designed to proscribe his freedom to maneuver to bilk his people of aid and use their suffering as a weapon to end the sanctions against his regime. Prior to 9/11, all of our foreign policy efforts were designed around what looked to be a losing battle to maintain sanctions, making them more efficient under the “Smart Sanctions” regime, which was itself in grave danger of being blocked by both Moscow and Paris. After 9/11 we had to awake to the reality that there were people out there that not only hated us, but who hated us enough to slaughter our innocents in their thousands, and whose will to do so was limited less by the morality of the act than by the power of the weapons they could lay their hands on to fit the purpose.
So, there were clear-eyed, pragmatic reasons for seeing him gone, and checking for ourselves what happened to the WMD that we knew he had. That he had admitted to having. That there were programs of public record concerning. That he had previously used against his own people, and his neighbors. Fortunately for us (and for our own messianic vision of exporting democracy) there was also an opportunity in Iraq – the most modern and secularized of the great Arab states – to discover if the seed of democracy could take root in the Arab world, once a deeply entrenched and powerful dictatorship had been swept aside. So now we had not just a pragmatic reason, but a moral reason to feel good about ourselves while doing it. What we failed to recognize, in my opinion, were the importance of the tribal culture in Iraq, and the depth of fear the Sunni minority had of the Shia majority – fear they had earned through their decades of repression of those selfsame Shia.
In my opinion, the only possible off-ramps we had for this struggle were passed by in 1991, when George Bush (41) built his coalition to liberate Kuwait, and Saddam chose to retaliate by firing Scuds at Israel. If we had treated this as some issue not of our concern, a squabble among the wogs perhaps, then we wouldn’t have had to base troops in Saudi, thereby radicalizing and internationalizing the Salafist jihad. Then we wouldn’t have delegitimized Arab regimes (who spent propagandistic years redirecting the anger of their seething masses at someone, anyone but themselves) by associating them in the eyes of that street with our defense of Israel against an Arab attack. But all of that is in the past.
I don’t know whether this experiment will work. I wish I could tell you I did. We might well yet fail. But having failed will not eliminate the existential threat that the Salafist jihad represents – it will, instead, coalesce it. Our defeat will be their rallying cry, and the next fight, the next milestone on this thousand year struggle will be a fight for our survival rather than their freedom that will be all the more horrible because the balance of power is still so far out of their favor.
This is not a military fight, not a stand up fight, so much as it is a bloody clash of wills using military power on our side and asymmetric tactics on theirs. We will win when they realize that we will not be beaten. How many have to die for that to happen? I don’t know. Neither does the President. My feeling is that the Ba’athists are cold-eyed realists who have only made a marriage of desperation with the jihadis – once they know that their only access to the levers of power are through the democratic processes, they will join the table. As for the jihadis – I’m afraid that many of them will have to die.
But what, really, is the alternative? Soldiers fight so that civilians don’t have to. And when soldiers fight, soldiers die.
So anyway, that’s what I wrote him – awaiting his volley (and thanking him for the hard questions).