28 February 2014

A Strategy for Dealing with the Islamic Jihad

by Gary Anderson

Journal Article | February 26, 2014 

http://smallwarsjournal.com/ jrnl/art/a-strategy-for- dealing-with-the-islamic-jihad


In the ongoing struggle against the Jihadists of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups, we need to stop believing that we are dealing with terrorists and recognize we are in a war with an adversary that has the capacity of a nation-state without being one. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are Fourth Generational Warfare foes. The term Fourth Generational Warfare (4GW) was coined in 1989 by a group writing in the Marine Corps Gazette to describe the reemergence of non-state actors who have the resources to wage war as effectively as some nations. We have not seen that phenomenon since the end of the Thirty Years War, but it is something that has existed in many forms since the dawn of history.

Al Qaeda and its partner franchises believe that are carrying on in the tradition of Moslem holy warriors begun by Mohammed in the Sixth Century. Mohammed did not command the army of a modern nation-state; he led an armed movement, and his would-be successors in Al Qaeda see themselves in that role. Al Qaeda is leading a 4GW Jihad, but its leaders believe that they will achieve a kingdom that combines both secular and religious governance in a way that transcends mere nation-states such our American republic. We need to understand that if we are to thwart their ambitions and marginalize them before they can do similar damage to that which they wrought on September 11th 2001. To trivialize them as mere terrorists or criminals is to underestimate them and their vision; we do so at great risk to ourselves. Despite the death of bin Laden and the elimination of many Jihadist leaders by drone strike and commando operations, Al Qaeda and its franchises continue to expand and to prosper despite the best efforts of the current administration and its European allies.

This article will be disturbing the cottage industry of counterterrorism experts that permeate our current national security establishment, and it will particularly disturb the legions of lawyers who have profited by treated the Jihadist threat entirely as a law enforcement problem. It is an assault on the conventional wisdom that has applied unsuccessful and counterproductive attempts at solutions. Fourth Generational Jihad can’t be solved, but it can be managed; more importantly, it can be marginalized without trivializing its danger.

Bin Laden’s Strategy

After the fall of the World Trade Center Towers, the attack on the Pentagon, and America’s subsequent destruction of his Afghan sanctuary; Osama bin Laden modified his strategy of chasing American and western influence out of Moslem lands realizing that a single strike would not decapitate us as he originally hoped. He developed a theory of psychological attrition in which he hoped we would attack Al Qaeda and its franchises everywhere that one of them appeared. The theory was that we would dissipate our wealth and will by chasing relatively insignificant targets all over Muslim lands. In Iraq, we did just that in attacking an Al Qaeda affiliate that did not exist; in reality, we created Al Qaeda in Iraq through the leadership vacuum we created in that county.

The pattern has persisted. The theory of Al Qaeda’s philosophers is that we will economically and psychologically exhaust ourselves. Al Qaeda’s planners see us as an elephant chasing chipmunks; to some extent, we have played into their hands to date. We fight mainly with drones and commando raids in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen; and these strikes don’t seem to achieve a decisive impact. In fact, they may be having the Darwinian effect of culling the heard of the slower and least adaptive of the Jihadist hierarchy and clearing the way for younger and smarter leaders. As we see this happen, we become frustrated, and question the wisdom of our approach; this is psychological attrition at its finest. It is time to develop a comprehensive strategic approach for dealing with 4GW Jihad.

The Weaknesses of the Al Qaeda Strategy

Every strategic approach has vulnerabilities, and the strategy of Al Qaeda and its affiliates have critical vulnerabilities that we can exploit.

Attrition Goes Both Ways. Anyone who adopts an attritional strategy assumes, whether psychological or political, that he can deal out more pain that his opponent is willing to absorb. This worked for the North in our own Civil War, and it worked for the allies in World War I. In the Vietnam War, North Vietnam correctly calculated that American elites in Congress and in the media would not accept the continued cost of casualties to defend South Vietnam; they were right.

The problem that Al Qaeda faces is that, after 9-11, they have not been able to generate the kind of casualties that would cause the United States and most of its western allies to throw in the towel. To be sure, there were exceptions; the 2003 bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad chased the UN out of Iraq, and a 2004 train bombing in Spain did the same for the Spain. To date, we have been made of sterner stuff, but our strategic approach has been badly flawed.

AL Qaeda’s philosophers are calling for small groups of likeminded Jihadists in America to create a series of random attacks on soft targets in America designed to drive the cost of homeland defense so high that Americans will refuse to pay the price and abandon overseas commitments. In that, they overestimate the Jihadist spirit of radical American Muslims and underestimate the resiliency of the American public. In short, the Jihadists don’t have the tools to make an attritional strategy work unless we continue to play into their hands.

We Couldn’t Surrender if We Tried. Let’s assume for a moment that, at some point in time, the American public tired of overseas commitments, particularly in the Muslim world. As we become more and more energy self-sufficient, it is entirely possible that an isolationist ticket could sweep into power and disavow all security ties to the Middle East and other Muslim regions. On paper, this would mean victory for Al Qaeda and its affiliates; or would it?

Many, if not most, of the multi-national energy companies that depend on overseas energy exploitation are based in the United States. They will not leave the Muslim lands, and they will use western security firms to protect their facilities; we American will be blamed for their actions, and the Jihad against us will continue despite our vote to opt out. We are in the Jihad whether we like it or not.

All Jihads Eventually Consume Themselves. Holy Wars burn their candles at both ends. This was true during the Crusades as well as with the Jihads that followed the death of the prophet Mohammed; infighting for leadership, doctrinal differences, and overreach are all contributing causes to the decline of any holy war; and the current outbreak of Jihadist fervor now appears to be consuming itself much more quickly than 1500 years ago. This is likely due to faster communications. Rivalries that once took years to develop due to the vast distances involved in the Muslim world can now go viral in a few tweets. Zawahiri is reportedly having problems with a number of errant Al Qaeda franchises in both Africa and Asia. Some Syrian radical factions are resorting to such stomach turning cruelty that shocks even the bloodthirsty Zawahiri. The Islamic Courts group in Somalia has proved to be downright incompetent at governance as did the Jihadists in Mali.

Jihadists are Vulnerable to Combined Arms Attack in the Areas they Infest. When Al Qaeda or its affiliates move into an area, they set up proto-governments and something resembling conventional military forces and police. These are not shadow governments; and have all the trappings of a government or corporation with departments, hierarchies and meticulous record keeping. To date, they haven’t been very good at winning the hearts and minds of the occupied populations. This was their undoing in their first infestation of Iraq’s Sunni populated areas, Somalia’s cities, and Northern Mali. In each of these areas, they offended the local population and particularly the local traditional tribal leadership. This makes them vulnerable to a modern combined arms force. Air power alone is insufficient because the Jihadists can hide from overhead assets by mixing with the population. However, a ground force supported by air power can use tribal opponents of the Jihadists to point them out can quickly roll up their governmental institutions and destroy their infrastructure as did the French in Mali and the African Union in Somalia. This is not insurgency, it is a conventional occupation and we know how to thwart occupations. This won’t work with the current Jihadist infestation of Iraq’s Anbar province for reasons that will be discussed later, but it will work in most places.

What This Means

Not succumbing to the temptation of falling into the trap that bin Laden tried to set for us by encouraging many small franchise operations is a first step. His vision that we would chase down each one in a series long term commitments in an unending series of occupations of African and Asian dust bowls would be negated. If we avoid the snare of over commitment, we can exploit the weaknesses of Al Qaeda’s strategy of psychological attrition by rendering this fourth generational Jihad irrelevant without reaching a culminating point ourselves.

We need to accept the fact that most of the Jihadists are foreign actors infesting a local area, but that when they do so, they become vulnerable to our strengths. We need to develop a comprehensive strategy of counter-infestation if we are to contain this threat and render it moot.

An Economy of Force Strategy Implemented with Counter-Infestation Operations

First, we need to stop trivializing the threat posed by these Fourth Generation Jihadists as mere criminal or terrorist actors. These people are not the Mafia or the bomb throwing anarchists of the 1970s. They are a transnational, non-governmental movement that aspires to eventually become a government. These organizations have resources, ideology, and a large pool of potential followers; we trivialize them when we treat them as mere criminals. We are in a war, and we need to accept that fact. However, not all wars need to be total.

The war between European-origin settlers and the native-Americans in the United States lasted nearly four hundred years. These conflicts were brutal at the point of contact, with atrocities committed on both sides, but they passed largely without notice to the American public. With the exception of occasional debacles such as the defeat of a US Cavalry regiment at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, few Americans took much notice. There was no rationing and the bulk of the American public was not actively involved. The United States fought five major conflicts against foreign foes in that period as well as a horrific civil war, and the Indian Wars still went on largely as a side show.

Of necessity, the United States used a conservation of force strategy, applying military power on the periphery of its expanding domains. The forces involved were first territorial militias, but after War of 1812 they were increasingly fought by the professional troopers of the US Cavalry. The majority of Americans gave little thought to the cavalry or the rest of the miniscule US Army, and had less concern for the Native Americans. The Indian Wars were indeed economy of force operations; the price of westward expansion was considered a bearable expenditure for American manifest destiny. When diplomacy could be used, it was, but when an Indian outbreak did occur, it was dealt with as much overwhelming forces as the overstretched US military could muster at the time.

This is not an argument of moral equivalency. The Native Americans were badly treated, and many soldiers were morally outraged by the policies that they were forced to implement. However, this long conflict was one that was rendered palatable to the American public because it was largely out of sight and out of mind. Like Islamic atrocities, the Indians did not lend themselves any more lovable by their treatment of prisoners or the bodies of their fallen foes. We Americans remember this, and it is probably one of the reasons why atrocities, such as urinating on the bodies of dead enemy fighters is treated so harshly by the American military as well as by the public at large. Ironically, this model of warfare may be the type of fourth generational war we need to conduct to suppress the new Jihadists. This 4GW war needs to be fought hard, but economically.

None of this is meant to trivialize the sacrifices of our soldiers and civilians who fight what we used to call the War on Terror; I have been one of them, but it does recognize that no all conflicts require the amount of commitment on the part of the American people that the two World Wars demanded.

Four Basic Strategic Guidelines for Conducting Such a War

This is Not an Insurgency; Don’t Treat it as One. If a Jihadist infestation appears to be creating a sanctuary that could be used as a launching pad for transnational attacks or to seriously threaten a regional government, it should be ruthlessly eliminated by conventional military attack. Such incursions should look more like a large scale raid than a nation-building effort. The time on the ground for such efforts may be as long as three to four months, but the point is this is not long-term counterinsurgency. It should be an effort to root out a foreign influence as well as to suppress its local supporters. The goal should be to destroy the foreign infestation and its accompanying infrastructure nation-building is too expensive to become a military tool.

This does not mean that when our forces withdraw we cannot leave behind trainers and counterterrorist teams, but the point is that this is not a long term nation-building effort; it is a surgical effort to eliminate the infestation. We should not embark on these efforts lightly. The acid test for deciding on a commitment should be to confirm that local security forces and regional security mechanisms cannot control it. Here, the French intervention in Mali may provide a model. In Mali, the national government underestimated the strength of a home grown insurgency when it became combined with an infestation of foreign Jihadists. The French intervention crushed the ability of the foreigners to provide a credible threat to the survival of Mali’s central government. The insurgent threat remains, but absent the foreign presence, the insurgents are manageable.

This does not mean that the treatment may not need to be reapplied if the foreigners return in strength, and this is a point that we need to understand. This conflict will not be a war of quick and decisive victories, but it should not be a war of long term American occupations. That would be to wander into bin Laden’s trap.

From a standpoint of acceptability to the American public, such raids are much preferable to long term grinding occupations, but we need to ensure that we are in fact going in after a foreign infestation and not an actual home grown insurgency. If we don’t accurately diagnose the problem correctly, we will end up playing “whack a mole”, when what is really needed is a counterinsurgency strategy that can be implemented by local or regional authorities to deal with home grown Islamists.

Don’t Treat This as a Criminal Problem. Fourth Generational Jihad is a war. When its combatants are captured, they should be treated as prisoners of war, and that includes US citizens who follow Zawahiri’s injunction to create terrorist acts in the US; if captured, they can and should be treated as enemy combatants and detained until the group that they claim allegiance to makes peace with the United States. If their actions result in deliberate injury or death of innocent civilians, and that will usually be the case, they should be tried as war criminals. Guantanamo should not be closed; it should be re-designated as a prisoner of war camp. This does not mean that we cannot do prisoner exchanges, but we need to remember that a disconcerting number of Guantanamo detainees that we have unilaterally released have returned to the battlefield. This will mean that we have to forget the “no negotiations with terrorists” nonsense; this is especially true if the outcome of such operations is to create diplomatic methods of modifying Jihadist behavior.

These people are serious enemies, and we need to treat them that way. If an Al Qaeda franchise shows an inclination to cut deals, we should talk. Talking never hurts. In the worst case, if negotiations break down, we have learned something about the enemy; in a best case scenario, we have created a potentially useful rift in the Jihadist alliance.

The American Public Needs to Understand that the Objective is Not to Destroy the Enemy, but Rather to Render Him Irrelevant. Again here, the analogy of the American Indian wars becomes relevant. With the exception of the settlers living in disputed territory as European origin civilization moved west, few Americans after 1812 gave much thought to the threat from Native Americans. Granted, the Indians never came up with the idea of spreading random violence in populated areas that Al Qaeda is attempting to foment, but that is not a true threat to American national security. As terrible as the Boston Marathon bombings were, life has gone on, and it will continue to do so.

We Need to Choose Our Fights Carefully. If we are to avoid the trap that bin Laden and Zawahiri envisioned for use, we must choose our fights carefully; because when the Jihadists infest an area, they present both a threat and an opportunity to us. The threat is that the area they occupy could become a launching pad for attacks on our homeland. However, it is an opportunity, because they become a fixed target that plays to our strengths.

An Example

Any article on strategy can become too theoretical if not grounded with some case of practical application. I’ve selected an example that I think is both plausible and grounded in a recognizable scenario. Let’s postulate that some kind of deal has been cut between the moderate rebel coalition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the Assad government to form a coalition government with a goal of eventually leading to elections. The Al Qaeda affiliated movements of the rebels have rejected this compromise, and are pressing both government and FSA forces hard around the city of Homs. A government chemical weapons facility is in the path of the advancing Jihadist forces.

Counter-Infestation. Realizing the threat to a US-Russian brokered peace agreement, Washington has been collecting American naval forces in the region and a Marine Expeditionary Brigade has been assembled. The sea based naval force begins it incursion by securing the chemical weapons facility and simultaneously attacking known Jihadist positions supported by US Air Force and naval strike assets. Amphibious lodgments are secured and Marine Corps forces advance inland destroying Jihadist concentrations and logistics installations. Foreign Jihadist fighters are killed and captured in hard fighting, and their infrastructure eliminated. At that point, we should leave and turn over the fight with the residual enemy to the security forces of the host nation’s governing coalition. In Afghanistan, we won by getting rid of Al Qaeda. We failed miserably when we decided to stick around and build a democracy in a place that wasn’t ready. It would have been easier and cheaper to go back in if Al Qaeda had re-infested the country.

Integrating Operational Success into an Economy of Force Strategy. The physical elimination of the Jihadist infrastructure is the tactical problem. The diplomatic issues of what to do afterwards are major strategic issues. The first challenge is in extracting our forces with a plan for a handover to some kind of security mechanism that can keep the Jihadists out of the area and stabilize it. If we have to stay for an extended period, we have fallen into the Jihadist trap.

If these operations can be handed over to the host nation, that is the best approach. The host nation may need American advisory and logistics support, but that is an acceptable alternative to the long term presence of combat forces. We can offer advice for dealing with home grown Islamic insurgents, but trying to do it for them is a bad idea.

A second alternative is to turn the situation over to a regional security mechanism such as the African Union or the UN in areas where governance has broken down. This will depend on the terrain and situation. In the worst possible case in an area where governance has totally collapsed, it may be necessary to use a combination of Special Forces and armed contractors to build local self-defense militias to prevent re-infestation. In such situations, we must be prepared to reapply conventional forces occasionally to clear out a return of the Jihadists. This is a cost of doing business in an economy of force strategy. In all cases, we have to avoid using long term nation building occupations in every area where these infestations occur. If we do, we will break our army and bankrupt ourselves.

Another challenge to such a strategy will be dealing with Prisoners of War (POWs). Here, I deliberately avoid the term detainees. These people should be treated as Prisoners of War. If they rot at Guantanamo before their Jihadist masters make peace with us, so be it. However, this does not rule out prisoner exchanges except in the cases where deliberate attacks on civilians are involved; those are war crimes and should be prosecuted as such. Some will argue that such a strategic approach may encourage hostage taking by the Jihadists for the purpose of facilitating prisoner exchanges. That may be the case, but it will ensure that the unfortunates who fall into Jihadist hands are at least kept alive as bargaining chips. This has not always been the case when dealing with some of Al Qaeda’s less disciplined offshoots where beheadings and worst have been the fate of captives.

If the host nation has the capacity to deal with such POWs, they have the legal right to do so, but this will often not be the case because the Jihadists tend to target areas where governance has broken down. Resolving these situations will be an issue, not an offshoot.

Iraq May be the Exception that Proves the Rules

As this is being written, an Al Qaeda offshoot, Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant, has re-infested al Anbar province in Iraq. The approach outlined here will likely not work in that case. Through an inexplicable confluence of incompetence and abuse of its majority status, the Shiite dominated government of Iraq has made enemies where they did not need to exist. Many Sunnis in Iraq have abandoned the alliance that the Americans crafted with the between them and central government late in the last decade, and now see al Qaeda as the worst of two bad choices.

We should not become involved unless and until the Maliki government or its successor decides to begin treating the Sunnis as equals and resolves reform. In that case, we might be able to use our credibility as an honest broker to recreate he old alliance of Sunni tribes with the central government. That would make a large scale counter-infestation raid feasible. Realistically, that probably won’t happen until the Iraqi people give Maliki and his cronies the boot. Until that happens, Iraq will be problematical. The current approach of shipping Hellfire missiles and unmanned surveillance aircraft to Iraq is throwing good money after bad.

Patience: A Sea Change in the American Strategic Outlook

We Americans are not a patient people. When we are in a war, we want it won quickly and decisively. If we are to implement an economy of force strategy, we must convince ourselves that we can win this long war of psychological attrition by inflicting more pain on the enemy than he can inflict on us. We don’t like casualties; he fears irrelevance. If we can make him irrelevant without bankrupting ourselves in the process, we will win. As mentioned earlier, the wars against the Native Americans lasted for centuries because most Americans did not feel the pain while the Indians suffered greatly. We won the Cold War because most Americans did not feel the pain and the Russians eventually did; but that took nearly five decades. Both cases were extremely unfair, and that is the point of attrition. John Kennedy was right; life is not fair, and neither is war.

About the Author

Gary Anderson

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who served as a Special Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of Defense on Counterinsurgency from 2003-05. He served on an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq in 2009-10, and is currently an Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Relations.

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