31 January 2016

Winning the War We’ve Got, Not the One We Want

By Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, U.S. Army retired

We need some hard thinking. We are not winning the war against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Iraq or Syria, or elsewhere across North and East Africa, the greater Middle East, South Asia and beyond. At best, one might argue that we are holding our own, but this is far from winning. The sooner we come to realize this, the more likely we are to identify a successful way forward. Calls for reassessment and new options with respect to the U.S. approach to this problem—especially in light of the attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., Paris and Lebanon, and the downing of the Russian civilian airliner in Sinai—have yielded little so far.

The first step to any solution is to recognize the problem for what it is. The next is to recognize what has not worked. Only then can the outlines of probable solutions emerge. Neither the “lash out, do something” approach nor the “stay the course; it’s a long war” approach will do.

We are facing a global revolutionary war, with a narrative that resonates with many. Most strategists are familiar with revolutions within a state; the near-global dimension of this revolution makes it different and more complex. Our enemies are not mere criminals. They have conquered, controlled and now govern territory. As their own strategic documents describe, their intent is to eject Western influence from the region, depose apostate (in their view) governments and redraw boundaries—as they already have between Iraq and Syria, ultimately remaking the map and adjusting the international order by creating a caliphate along the lines of the former Ottoman Empire. This is part of the context within which to understand our enemies’ ongoing operations and activities, whether in one of their regional theaters of operations or against those they consider the “far enemy”; that is, Europe, the U.S. and now, Russia.

Other parts of this global revolution include several power struggles: one between the Arabs and Persians; another between Sunni and Shia. Further, this revolution is an intra-Sunni struggle between the very small percentage of radical and violent Sunni Muslims seeking to redefine the faith of the vast majority of other Sunni Muslims. While the broad dimensions of this power struggle are important to understand, as in any revolution, the microdynamics of how it unfolds in each particular area are perhaps more important. And again, like all revolutions, this one has not only political but also social and religious dimensions to it. The violence our enemies use is a means to further their revolutionary ends and prevail in the regional power struggles.

Finally, the geographic scope of this revolution’s context makes it an international problem, not just a regional one. In fact, one aspect of this revolutionary movement is to undo the international order produced after World War II and sustained throughout the Cold War. The stability produced by this order was, in part, a result of nations primarily resorting to institutions rather than violence to resolve differences. Al-Qaida, the Islamic State and their like reject these institutions, preferring violence to establish the “order” they seek. All nations have a stake in the international system that is under attack, and those with a bigger stake have more responsibilities to preserve and adapt that system.

Several conclusions derive from the type of war we’re in. First, success in this war will require a new Western-regional coalition, one that is committed to sufficiently common principles and goals and will follow a common civil-military strategy. Given the divergence of interests in the region, no “grand alliance” seems likely. But a lesser coalition, perhaps even several bilateral arrangements, may be possible. Under these conditions, no rigid universal strategy will work; a more flexible, general one may.

A precisely defined “end state” may be the wrong construct to use in this war. Rather, the strategy will have to be a combination of creating local successes that build toward the future the coalition seeks. And this war cannot be won without more participation from our Arab allies. We need to study carefully, learn from and adapt to the reasons why they have been hesitant.

Second, ideas and narratives are the fuel of revolutions, so the main effort of whatever counterstrategy is adopted must attack the enemies’ narrative both by coalition domestic and international actions. A counternarrative campaign is not a “spin campaign.” Rather, it stitches together domestic and international actions concerning governance, economic, social and religious policies in ways that prove our enemies’ narratives wrong, reinforce the coalition narrative, and show our enemies for what they really are. All security actions must support this main effort. Our current counternarrative campaign remains weak because our actions are disjointed and unconnected to a vision of a future different from and more compelling than that of our enemies.

Third, the “tissue” that connects our enemies is as important as our enemies themselves. This connective tissue consists of the means our enemies use to recruit, radicalize, plan, prepare, execute, finance and sustain their activities. This tissue lies in the open space of normal civil and economic communications flow, a space controlled by sovereign states and their security services. We have taken some action against this “tissue” but after 14 years of war, our actions clearly have not been sufficiently robust, coordinated or timely. Whatever coalition is formed will have to develop domestic and transnational norms and methods to deal with this connective tissue.

Fourth, while the “solutions” to this revolution are clearly local, local governance, economic, social and religious policies are as much causative to the rise of the revolution as are the policies and actions of “external” powers. So our reassessment must address the domestic policies of coalition members that our enemies are using to their advantage.

Last, the security aspects of whatever strategy the coalition adopts must include both military forces and domestic as well as transnational police forces. Our enemies operate in the space between crime and war, and between peace and war. The coalition must close these spaces.

We have allowed the revolution to spread. Like the cancer it is, the ground that this revolutionary enemy controls and the networks they have established must be reduced; how and when are the only questions. Our current efforts to reduce this threat have been insufficient. In fact, in the face of our efforts, both enemy-held territory and their networks have expanded.

We are fighting a war of attrition, acting as if time is on our side. It is not. The main effort—the counterideology campaign and its governance, economic, social and religious components—will not succeed in the current security environment. So while it is a supporting effort, successful military and police security operations are essential. Here, the coalition faces one of its many hard choices: Reduce our enemies’ control and influence—in at least some of the areas in which our enemies have grown—using coalition air, ground and special operations forces in conjunction with local forces; or pace reduction upon local security force capacity. The former option will accelerate the pace of our current operations but incur one kind of risk. The latter drags out an already too-long war, which incurs other kinds of risks. (Credit: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jennifer Bunn)

This global revolution has been clear to some for years. Also clear is that the U.S. strategic approaches used since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have not been sufficiently successful. Our enemies have occasionally been disrupted, parts have been dismantled; but they have not been defeated and certainly are not destroyed.

In fact, they have morphed and expanded—despite 14 years of war and billions of dollars spent, hundreds of “high-value targets” and thousands of others killed, thousands of our own casualties, tens of thousands civilians dead or wounded, and hundreds of thousands of refugees spread throughout the world.

Simply put: While we have had some successes, neither the expansive, near-unilateral strategy of the former Bush administration nor the minimalist, gradualist, surrogate approach of the Obama administration has worked. One might even say that both strategies have used approaches that have strengthened the enemies’ narrative and ideology rather than diminished it. The same can be said of some of the domestic policies adopted by nations in as well as out of the region.

Both administrations have treated coalition members as “contributing nations,” where contributions are sometimes combat, advisory or support troops; and other times funds, equipment, or other military or nonmilitary capabilities. This approach can create the illusion of a multinational effort, but it does not reflect a serious attempt to align nations around similar interests and common goals. Nor does it reflect an attempt to have coalition partners, together, ascribe to common principles and develop common goals and a common strategic approach to attaining those goals. A more traditional approach to coalitions would add legitimacy to the international actions that are required in waging and fighting the war against our global revolutionary enemies.

With rare exception, neither administration has been able to develop and execute a set of coherent civil-military strategies, policies and campaigns. Whether viewed domestically or internationally, if the approach so far were a musical score, it would be described more as cacophony than harmony. Going forward, we need not only a better coalition and strategy, but also better collaborative bodies and processes to make decisions, take coordinated action, and adapt faster than our enemies. We have been, consistently, too slow.

Where do we go from here? Most important is to rethink what we’ve been doing. Intellectual change must precede any changes in approach. Too much of our post-9/11 collective action has been taken in the haste to “do something” or to demonstrate strength. Too much has been reactive to the crisis of the day or has been discrete actions unconnected to a coherent campaign that, if successful, will attain strategic aims. And too much has been done sequentially, not simultaneously.

Further, our reassessment must acknowledge that in the kind of war we’re in, “defeat” and “destruction” cannot be defined in strictly military terms. Bombs, raids and any other kind of kinetic actions are necessary, but they are not sufficient to defeat a revolutionary enemy.

Destruction of a revolution requires more. Revolutions ignite moral indignation about one power arrangement, then maneuver to replace that arrangement with another promulgated as better. Bombs and raids do not take the wind out of the sail of moral indignation. As long as we act as if defeat or destruction is a military task, success will continue to elude us. We need a coherent set of civil and military strategies, policies and campaigns, in service to a broader goal.

Any reassessment worthy of the name, therefore, must start by answering this question: What kind of durable political outcome will actually produce a better peace? So far, we have heard little in answer to this question. Members of whatever coalition that forms must agree at least to the principles that will guide them to a satisfactory answer.

The answer to this question is fundamental because in war, strategies, policies and campaigns, whether military or nonmilitary, are merely instruments. Their value is relative; their worth can be judged only relative to their capacity to achieve the end or ends sought. What are we seeking beyond destruction of our enemies? The answer to that question must be compelling and to sustain domestic and coalition support, our actions must clearly demonstrate that we are making progress toward that end.

We cannot define the war to fit our own biases. Nor can we “spin” it to fit what we want to do rather than what has to be done. The worth of whatever strategies the coalition finally chooses will be a function of how well those strategies fit the realities of the war, whether they attain the common goals at reasonable costs and time, and how easily the coalition can adapt as the war unfolds. We may not like the war we’ve got, and we may wish things were otherwise, but success in war results from dealing with reality as it is.

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Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, USA Ret., Ph.D., is a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq and a senior fellow of AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare. - See more at: http://www.armymagazine.org/2016/01/12/winning-the-war-weve-got-not-the-one-we-want/#sthash.xajUryAC.dpuf

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