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A reconsideration of Den Beste's strategic analysis

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*** warning - LONG post ***

I came across Tigerhawk's excellent update of the Den Beste warblog's overview of the Long War against the jihadist terror, and of the Iraq campaign in particular. IMHO this should be interesting to the more knowledgeable people in this forum.

It will definitely be targeted by those who see the political circus in Washington as the more important war to fight.

Hopefully it will instead elicit far more thoughtful and considered responses on both its strengths and weaknesses of analysis vs. known outcomes.

Reconsidering victory conditions in the wider war

Today's news brings an unusually thoughtful wire story from Alfred de Montesquio of the Associate Press bearing the title "Rift Grows Between al-Qaida, Muslim Groups." The article is interesting for the point made by the title -- that Islamist groups are rejecting and even denouncing the tactics of the violent jihadis -- and for its claim that the United States has done a poor job of distinguishing between mere Islamists who do not blow people up, local groups who blow people up but only in accordance with national or territorial objectives (e.g., Hamas), and the "international revolutionaries" -- such as al Qaeda -- "who excoriate not only non-Muslims but also Muslims who fail to follow their views." The story includes this very encouraging bit:

"The rift is widening, partly because most governments have become more open to engaging in a dialogue with hard-line Islamic voices if they give up violence," he said in a telephone interview.

And in most Muslim countries, he said, the population has been more willing to engage with national radicals than with "millennial" movements that view Israel and the West as apocalyptic enemies. In Lebanon, for example, al-Qaida-style groups had little support, but Hezbollah became the leading political force among Shiite Muslims, he said.

By cracking down on al-Qaida but allowing more freedom to political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood — a rising force in Egypt with more than 80 lawmakers in Parliament — Arab states were in effect "creating more daylight" between revolutionary and reformist radicals, he said.

For the reasons discussed below, this "daylight" is the key to victory in the wider war, for it hints at the weakening credibility of al Qaeda's ideology, which is the real basis for that organization's ability to attract new recruits, money and weapons.

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 flagging support for the war in Iraq and the raging debate, at least among the chattering classes, 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 gravity 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 six months 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. Most of this post is not backed up by links, but if you read the strategic overview (not a short document) you can find deeper arguments to support the points I make here.

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 intentionally dissembled, partly because it has failed to refine the distinction discussed in the linked article at the top of this post, 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 -- by which I mean the organization itself and its networked allied groups -- 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 “Spainâ€) in the west to East Timor in the east. In the extended version, the Caliphate eventually rules the entire world. (The most accessible book-length treatment of this subject is Mary Habeck's Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, which I highly recommend.)

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.â€

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 weapons of mass destruction (of which more in a moment) even if the network acquires them in deployable form.

At least until the end of the petroleum era, 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 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. The jury is out on Iran. 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. (Of course, al Qaeda will exploit Arab grievances over Palestine in its propaganda, but that does not mean that recruits who volunteer for al Qaeda, as opposed to national movements such as Hamas or Hezbollah, will cease doing so once Palestine reaches its full potential as a nation.)

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 create "daylight" between the neutrals and the allies. Muslims -- including the millions Islamists who may hate the United States and Israel but do not support the international obectives of al Qaeda -- 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 clown regime. 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" (although it is not entirely clear how many people inside the Bush administration understand the realist case for their most important 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, or they will be "national aspiration" Islamists who are threatened by the jihad's internationalist reach and ambition. Others will be inspired by their last, best chance at some form of 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 the bombing of mosques) 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 and holy places 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 even Islamist "national aspiration" insurgencies, such as Hamas, 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 and the revulsion of the average Iraqi. Even its Sunni rejectionist allies are deserting the jihadis. This is powerful evidence that the credibility of al Qaeda's ideology is declining. 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 happened to communism. As the jihad's ideological credibility degrades, it will be much harder for al Qaeda 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 against the United States 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. In this regard, we should not be afraid of "national aspiration" Islamist movements. These organizations are hostile to Israel and the United States, but as long as they aspouse popular sovereignty they are rejecting al Qaeda's vision. That rejection is more important than their acceptance of the United States and Israel.

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.

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