Starbuck has a link today to a pretty good article by Matthew Levitt in the JISA: It’s the Ideology, Stupid!. CT efforts are, Levitt writes,
tactically strong. We are well-positioned to tap the right phones, carry out surveillance of the right targets, and as a result we have a truly remarkable track record of preventing attacks (though some, like the shoe bomber, underwear bomber and Times Square bomber, simply failed without being foiled). Where we remain inexcusably weak, however, is in the realm of strategic counterterrorism, or counter-radicalization.
I’m not quite sure I’ve heard this expressed this clearly, but Levitt most definitely deserves praise for pointing out the big weakness of our COIN/CT strategy. The problem is, we don’t have one.
We don’t have a coherent narrative. We have COIN tactics, which are good at solving small-scale problems. Partly, this seems to reflect a reluctance to engage with substantive issues like faith, self-determination and how other people run their affairs (which usually ends with “…should be none of our concern”). More so, however, it reflects the day-to-day nature of COIN. We have wonderful strategies to survive until Friday afternoon, but nothing about not having to expend money and manpower to fighting insurgencies. The reality is that we understand how an insurgency operates, but we do not understand what an insurgency is. We think in strategies that may at best ensure peace in a village or a small region, but not a comprehensive plan. What we lack is a coherent narrative of counter-terrorism. The 9/11 attacks delivered the foundation of sorts to such a narrative - COIN and CT are important because they keep people from flying planes into our buildings. That’s not enough, however, for the wider narrative. In our culture, offensive war is ‘not on’. We don’t have a war department but a ministry of defence. Creating wars is not acceptable socially. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (or at all!), but it has impressed itself onto military thinking - all our wars are defensive. Even OIF was conceptualised as a primarily defensive action with the purpose of getting rid of Saddam’s WMDs threatening the US and its allies in the region. And so no military thought that looked at these wars as what they were from a non-political, unspinned perspective has had the chance to gain traction. In reality, these conflicts could have been approached as being principally about counterterrorism and the latter being about kicking the crap out of AQ, no apologies made. The reluctance to make war on another state is understandable - but the reluctance to persecute, track down and kill AQ, regardless of whether they are a current threat to the US, is less so. How we fight is determined by how we think about our place in the annals of history, how we think of ourselves remembered: as a bully or as a liberator, as the warmongers or the brave fighters against an organisation that is, for the lack of a better word, a collection of thoroughly evil motherfuckers. Too afraid of being remembered as the unwanted peacemaker, the West has never developed a strategy that, in clear terms, defined those social and cultural structures that spawn terrorism, and attack them. We don’t have an anti-terrorism strategy because we don’t have a way to tell the Saudis that civilised people don’t ban women from driving, and a fortiori don’t stone them. We don’t have an anti-terrorism strategy because we’re totally ok with beheadings and hands cut off because it’s their culture (read, we’re not willing to actually give them a bollocking).
Tactics can be just about anything. Strategy, however, calls for a wider perspective. A wider perspective calls for actions that go beyond the narrow ambit of warfare and spread into politics, trade, foreign relations, diplomacy, culture, and so on. World War II didn’t need much of a strategy. “Kill Nazis, blow up tanks, shoot down planes, liberate village, drink wine, go home, get medal” was a pretty good prescription for warfighting. That’s because the Nazis were little more than an army and a huge sodding bureaucracy. AQ is different. AQ and the whole phenomenon of terrorism goes beyond war. It is also a social phenomenon, an economic one, a cultural one, and so on. It is, in short, a narrative. It is a story into which more and more young Middle Eastern men, feeling disenfranchised (as young men always do, seeing as you rarely get the moon on a stick when you’re 24) and easily approached by terrorists who give them purpose and a cause, seek to write themselves. It is probably worth looking back at one of the much neglected phenomena: the fake terror cell. Franz Fuchs, for all intents and purposes the textbook version of the lone terror loonie, claimed after his arrest to have belonged to the Bajuwarische Befreiungsarmee, a totally fictitious terror organisation. Why? He had nothing to gain from it. Nothing, except a purpose. Man cannot live without purpose. Man cannot live without a narrative - without knowing what his role is, and what the play is about. Those who don’t have one will seek out one. Those who can offer one will always have the personnel they need, for whatever nonsense they need it (including suicide bombing). And those who wish to combat them cannot merely shoot down the actors. Kill the actors, and the playwright writes new ones. The West has to develop its own narrative, and counter the opposition’s. There is a distinct shortfall in that area -and so what Levitt accurately identified as a lack of strategy is not the illness, it’s a symptom. We don’t have a strategy because we don’t have a narrative from which to create one.