Terrorism 1.

How long will the current war against radical Islamism continue? Can we win? How will we know when/if we have won? These questions don’t get much discussion, so preoccupied are we with each surprising outbreak of insurgency and atrocity. Probably, government officials in democracies are not eager to tell the public that this could go on for a lot longer than the next election cycle. Back in 2009, two books offered counsel that still deserves attention.[1]

David Kilcullen saw a core struggle between radical Islam, on the one hand, and the Unbelievers in the West and Incorrect Believers in many Muslim countries, on the other hand. Swirling around both parties to the core struggle were many local movements that associate themselves in name with radical Islam (Al Qaeda then, ISIS now, something else in the future). The strength and the staying power of the local insurgencies vary greatly. Kilcullen thought that the Western countries had a pretty good sense of how to wage the core struggle against radical Islam, even if they botched the execution from time to time. Where they came up short is in managing the peripheral small wars. Indeed, having the local insurgencies pop-up seemingly out of nowhere is one of the things disturbing the public in the West. More recently, the “lone wolf” attacks in Britain, Canada, France, and the United States add to this unease.

According to Michael Burleigh, history tells us that we can and–almost certainly will—win. Terrorism has come and gone in waves: in the 19th Century, they were Irish Fenians, Russian revolutionaries, and European anarchists; in the later 20th Century, they were malcontent leftists in advanced countries (Weathermen, Red Brigades, Red Army Faction, IRA, ETA) and Third World rebels (PLO, South Africa); today they are radical Islamists (Chechens, Al Qaeda, ISIS). Wherever they go, the terrorists have left a trail of dead, maimed, and traumatized victims. In most cases, however, they had little in the way of concrete political achievements to show for their work.

How to defeat these threats? Focusing on the peripheral wars and insurgencies, Kilcullen recommends policies that protect local communities in remote areas from becoming penetrated by radical movements. This, rather than heavy hammer blows from the military, is most likely to stop an insurgency in its tracks. Problems abound with this solution. A lot of the world’s people live in small communities remote from central government authority. Who can tell where the next danger will arise? Is every Middlesex village and farm to be garrisoned “just in case”? Then, most armies train for conventional war against foreign states or for repression of dissent in unjust societies, not for policing or community protection.

Here, Michael Burleigh has some equally useful suggestions. Focusing on the core struggle, Burleigh argues that experience shows that winning the ideological debate through public diplomacy; promoting economic development to drain the swamp of poverty that contributes to radicalization; and developing intelligence capabilities before relying on brute force offers the best path forward. Burleigh’s strategy provides the framework for Kilcullen’s tactics. However, long debates in many languages on social media, nudging countries toward social justice and economic modernization, nurturing good governance in countries suspicious of Western meddling, and building language skills and cultural competence in intelligence agencies is going to take time. We’re in for a long war. People need to know this harsh truth.

[1] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Michael Burleigh, Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (New York: HarperCollins, 2009). .

Advertisements

Man Hunters.

Before the Second World War the United States possessed intelligence-gathering organizations that were derisory in comparison to those of the great powers. The War Department gathered information on the military capabilities of foreign states from military attaches; the State Department reported on political and economic developments; both War and State maintained signals intelligence (code-breaking) offices. However, the US possessed no “secret intelligence service” equivalent to the British MI-6 or the action services of other countries. During the Second World War, the US sought to make good this deficiency with the temporary Office of Strategic Services (OSS). After the Second World War, America’s new global role and the Cold War demanded an enhanced intelligence-gathering capability. In 1947, Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to fill this role. Filled with wartime OSS veterans, the new agency had a predisposition to clandestine action, not just to intelligence gathering. Confronting the brutal Soviet KGB around the globe, CIA played a rough game. Eventually, CIA fell afoul of changed national values. The Church Committee hearings led to restrictions on CIA action like assassinations. From the mid-Seventies onward, CIA concentrated conventional intelligence-gathering and analysis.

Then came 9/11.[1] The scales fell from their eyes, or they had a Road to Damascus experience, or whatever other Biblical reference occurs to you. An executive order from President George W. Bush overturned the limits on action. CIA agents lashed out at Al Qaeda operatives wherever they came within reach. Some were killed, either by a rapidly-expanded paramilitary arm of CIA or by drone strikes. Some were captured and subjected to “enhanced interrogation.” In 2003, the US attacked Iraq, only to see early triumph turn into a gory insurgency that seemed to have no end. Soon, there came a backlash against both big wars and the use of torture.[2] A new consensus emerged: killing terrorists is acceptable, but torturing them is not. Certainly, it is less likely to get people keel-hauled by a Congressional committee. According to Mark Mazzetti, CIA “went on a killing spree.” Drones and commandos struck Islamists[3] in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. While banning the use of torture, President Barack Obama has continued all the other programs begun by the Bush administration.

Arguably, the results have been as disastrous, if not quite so dramatic, for American intelligence as for the Islamists hit by Hellfire missiles launched from Predator drones. In an Econ 101 analysis, multiple needs compete for finite resources. Resources (money, manpower, attention) spent “man-hunting” can’t be devoted to other needs. Yet the US faces multiple current, latent, and potential threats.

The CIA already suffered from maladaptation between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. Its budget fell as part of the “peace dividend”; spending on new technologies further reduced the resources for human intelligence-gathering and analysis; and its former strengths in Soviet and East European issues could not easily be shifted to new areas. (Pashto and Polish both begin with a P, but there the similarity ends.)

America’s political culture is having a hard time discussing the choice between long-term trends and immediate action. The recent murder of five servicemen by what looks like an Islamist “lone wolf” will only make “man-hunting” seem more vital than ever.

[1] Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (New York: Penguin, 2013).

[2] In 2004, CIA’s Inspector General condemned some of the practices as “unauthorized” and “inhumane.”

[3] Including the occasional American renegade who declined to surrender himself to more formal American justice.

The Weight of the Past in Iraq

The Americans invaded Iraq in 2003. The Sunni minority, which had traditionally dominated Iraq, didn’t like the invasion or the empowerment of the Shi’a majority, so they fought a guerrilla war against the Americans. Then Al Qaeda in Iraq joined in as allies of the Sunni. Then, Al Qaeda in Iraq sought to foster a civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites in order to a) make the American position in Iraq unsustainable, and b) punish the Shi’ites for being “in error” about religious truth. Death squads and suicide bombings and car bombings and deaths-by-power-drills abounded.

Then Al Qaeda in Iraq tried to force their Sunni allies to submit to “sharia” (Islamic religious law). The Sunni Iraqis living in Anbar Province didn’t much like this. In 2006 many tribal leaders began to turn against Al Qaeda in Iraq, forming “Awakening Councils.” They sought a truce with and help from the Americans. The Americans responded positively, then General David Petraeus made this a central part of his “surge” strategy in 2007. Awakening Councils spread from Anbar Province into the other areas with large numbers of Sunnis. With the US paying $300 a month and providing equipment to each “volunteer,” there were soon about 80,000 Sunni militia men fighting against Al Qaeda rather than against the Americans. Al Qaeda in Iraq took a savage pounding, while the Sunni component of the insurgency all but disappeared.

American politicians and even many in the media are prone to down-play the role of the “Awakening Councils” in the ending of the insurgency. Instead, they laud “the Surge” of American troops into Iraq. As is so often the case with American political discourse, the reality was different. In 2009 there were about 30 million Iraqis. About 20 million were Shi’ite Arabs; about 5-6 million were Sunni Kurds; and about 5 million were Sunni Arabs. US Army counter-insurgency doctrine held that 20 soldiers per 1,000 people were needed to defeat an insurgency. The US would need 100,000 troops, just to deal with the Sunni Arab part of the country, with many more troops required to garrison the Shi’ite parts. Thus, the “Awakening Councils” and their fighters made possible a radical shift in the balance of forces.

What did the future hold for the “Awakening Councils”? One problem is that the Sunnis have multiple hostilities. Al Qaeda had risen to the top of the list in 2007-2008, but next on the list were the Shi’ites and then the US itself. To take one example, the leader of a Baghdad neighborhood “Awakening Council” was a former officer of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. In 2008, he saw the Iraqi government as a pawn of Iran. Another problem was that the Americans hoped to see the councils and their militias integrated into the police and military of the new Iraq. The Shi’ites always opposed this and wanted the militias disbanded as soon as possible. They foresaw a civil war following the American withdrawal. Finally, in the absence of a single strong leader among the Sunnis, the various Awakening Councils fell fall into conflict with one another as they struggled for turf, weapons, American aid, and control of the local economy.

Thus, by early 2008 it was possible to foresee ugly developments. It all depended upon what the Shi’ites did with power once the Americans departed. Now we know.

Putting the pieces back together again isn’t going to be easy. Islam allows “taqiyya” (dissembling) to avoid persecution. Long oppressed by the Sunni minority, the Shi’ites are regarded as habitual dissemblers. How to build trust once again?

“The Sunni Awakening,” The Week, 1 February 2008, p. 9.

Just like imam used to make.

Trying to help foreigners understand America, the Gummint pays for some of them to study in the US as Fulbright scholars. Nasser al-Awlaki and his wife came from Yemen in 1971 on a Fulbright to study agricultural economics. He got an MA from UNM, then a Ph.D. from Nebraska, then taught at Meenasotta for a couple of years. Almost immediately, he and the missus had a child. They named the sprout Anwar al-Awlaki. Having been born in the USA, Anwar was an American citizen. In 1978 the family returned to Yemen.

To be perfectly honest, the goat pizza available in Yemen paled in comparison to what could be had in the States. In 1990, Anwar al-Awlaki started in at Colorado State University. One summer he spent the break fighting in Afghanistan. (Must have made for interesting conversation in the dorm that Fall. “So, Bill, what did you do this summer? I picked lettuce on my uncle’s farm. Hoo-whee, we had some wild times on Saturday night. How ‘bout you Anne-War? Well, I ambushed opposing mujahedeen, then walked around shooting the wounded in the head.”) Anyway, by 1994 he got a B.S. in Civil Engineering and was a part-time imam in a mosque in Denver.

In 1996 he landed a job as an imam in San Diego. Here he got an M.A. in Educational Leadership from SDSU. However, Shaitan (in the form of babes in bikinis) beset him: he got hauled in for soliciting prostitutes a couple of times. In 1999 the EffaBeeEye came around, wanting to know if he had any ties to the “blind sheikh” who had organized the 1993 WTC truck bombing or to the then-munchkin terrorist Osama bin Laden. He said “no” and that was good enough for them. Meanwhile, a couple of the future 9/11 guys were attending services at his mosque. In 2000 he landed a job as an imam at a big mosque in northern Virginia. (We can’t even keep alcoholic child-molesters from becoming school bus drivers, so why blame a mosque for hiring an imam who can’t keep his pants on?)   During 2001 he worked toward a doctorate in Human Resources Development at George Washington University’s Education School. (He actually didn’t have much in the way of Islamic scholarly credentials, so his charismatic appeal to ignorant fanatics seems to arisen from what he picked up in American Ed. Schools.)

Then 9/11 came along. “The US was at war with al-Qaeda, not with Islam.” So, Awlaki got invited to a lunch at what was left of the Pentagon. They probably served pork chops or crab cakes, because the next thing you know (March 2002), he was on a plane to Yemen. From 2002 to 2004 he bounced between Yemen, the US, and the UK as an advocate of jihad.

After a variety of adventures, Awlaki settled down as a long-distance recruiter and inciter of jihadis. His fluent English and knowledge of American society, his charismatic personality, and his ease in using modern media made him a prominent figure despite hiding out in a remote area of one of the most backward places on Earth. The London subway bombers, the Times Square bomber, the Fort Hood shooter, and many others all had his sermons on their computers or had exchanged messages with him. Since he has said that “jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding upon every other able Muslim,” he probably wasn’t trying to calm them down. When the Underwear Bomber said that Awlaki helped train him for his mission, the government got fed up and decided to kill him. On 9/30/11 they did.

Can the United States execute an American citizen without trial, without even producing the evidence upon which the decision to kill him is based? Would you really want to establish the legal precedent? Talk about “death panels”! So, civil libertarians opposed the execution. On the other hand, some of them say the US can’t “execute” anyone anywhere without trial. It will be hard to fight a war on terrorism with those hand-cuffs in place. What to do?

War Movies 6: “The Lost Command.”

Jean Pierre Lucien Osty (1920-2011) came from a French-peasant-moved-to-Paris background.  War became a central experience of his life: he served in the French Army at the start of the Second World War; then escaped from Vichy France to North Africa by way of Spain; and fought in Italy and France.  Earning an officer’s commission, he then served in the Far East, including a stint in Korea.  Then he became a war correspondent.  His experiences provided the basis for a string of book, published under the pen-name of Jean Larteguy.  One of these books was the novel The Centurions (1963), about the war in Algeria.

The Centurions became a huge best-seller in France, then was translated into English and had a wide readership in the United States as well, many of those readers were Army Special Forces officers.  Larteguy sold the movie rights to the book to Americans.

The book is sprawling as it tries to cover a half-decade of complex action.  Nelson Giddings, who wrote the screenplay, and his frequent collaborator Mark Robson,[1] who directed the movie as “Lost Command” (1966), had to greatly simplify the story for a two-hour movie.  It is a classic statement of the American liberal anti-Communist point of view.  They shot the movie in Spain because they could find there the same dry, scrubby Mediterranean countryside and the European looking cities that prevailed in Algeria.  (Thank you Fernand Braudel for the insight.)  Also, labor costs were low under a right-wing dictatorship, and that met a pressing concern for progressive people making a movie about the evils of oppressive government.

Basically, it is a very conventional war movie, dressed up with some awareness of current issues.  It has standard stock characters: Colonel Pierre Raspeguy, a plain-spoken Basque peasant who has risen to become an officer in an army led by aristocrats;[2] Captain Philippe Esclavier, a well-intentioned aristocratic officer who recognizes that things have to change; Lieutenant Mahidi, an “assimilated” Algerian Muslim army officer who is driven to support the rebels by the abuse of his people; his very wiggly sister Aicha,[3] who becomes Esclavier’s lover; and Major Boisfeuras, a Franco-Chinese half-caste who is an exponent of counter-insurgency.[4]

It begins in the doomed French fortress of Dien Bien Phu.  In brief compass, Dien Bien Phu falls; Raspeguy’s men return from the Vietminh prison camp just in time to join the Algerian War; Raspeguy is restored to a command thanks to the machinations of a French countess with political influence who is swept away by his manly charms; Raspeguy’s unit fights the Algerian rebels in the “bled” and in Algiers, but they start to have doubts when they discover that people like Mahidi and Aicha are on the other side, that Boisfeuras uses torture, and their scummy aristocratic commanders will leave them to bear the blame for any failure.  Raspeguy has to fight against both sides while maintaining his honor.  He wins the “Battle fo Algiers” as well as a final shoot-out with Mahidi.  “Lost Command ends with the enlightened Frenchman shaking hands with the enlightened African medical officer in a foreshadowing of France’s loss of empire.  So, Hollywood, except that Esclavier doesn’t get Aicha (although Raspeguy may get the countess).

The movie got so-so reviews, but Larteguy’s novel has continued to command the attention of people concerned with counter-insurgency warfare—like David Petraeus.


[1] Robson specialized in directing adaptations of middle-brow literature.  He had directed the war movies “The Bridges at Toko-ri” (1954); “Von Ryan’s Express” (1965).  He had directed “Home of the Brave” (1949) and “Trial” (1955), which are attacks on racial prejudice, the latter as an entering wedge for Communism.   He became confused by American culture in the late Sixties and Seventies.  That is true of many of us.

[2] Raspeguy is modeled on Marcel Bigeard, as is Colonel Jean Mathieu in “The Battle of Algiers.”

[3] Played by the very wiggly Claudia Cardinale.

[4] Boisfeuras is standing-in for the French theorists of “revolutionary war” David Galula and Roger Trinquier.