Few doubt that we are failing in our post-9/11 wars. We have accomplished neither the strategic objectives set forth by the George W. Bush administration nor those of the Obama administration. Both had notable successes and achieved periodic tactical and operational progress, but no sustained strategic success.
Now the contenders for the presidency offer two visions. One is composed of more of the same, with the expectation of a different outcome. The other suggests we can defeat a revolutionary movement with military force alone, an approach that led the British to failure from 1776 to 1781. To put it mildly, both of these visions miss the mark.
How do we reset our thinking? We must first admit we have not understood the kind of war we’re in; that we’ve tried to make it something it is not and in the process, we have been at war for 15 years and have little to show for it. Then we must read our enemy’s documents and actions for what they are. From the start, al-Qaida, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and their ilk have waged a global revolutionary—and therefore, ideological—war, a form of insurgency that is initially local and regional but has global implications.
We have waged, with few exceptions, a counterterrorist war. Our first approach was expansive: going after the terrorists and the states that sponsored them. Our second approach, the one we’re still using, is minimalist and gradualist: a combination of precise targeting of key individuals and selected groups coupled with reliance on surrogate ground forces. Neither works because both approaches miscast the enemy. We are waging one kind of war; our enemies are waging another. As long as we stay in this mode, our failure is near-guaranteed.
Waging a counterrevolutionary war is complicated and difficult, but this is the task before us. We are not conceptually or organizationally prepared to wage the kind of war we’re in. To move to a better strategic position, we must first create, and then use, a real alliance.
In both the maximalist and minimalist approaches, we’ve treated coalition partners as if they were members of a posse with the U.S. as the sheriff. We called the shots; they could join or not. Perhaps this approach made sense in the immediate period following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the strategic landscape has changed dramatically. Then, it appeared that only the U.S. was under attack. Now, it’s clear: The nations of Europe are also under attack, as are many in the Greater Middle East and as some will be in Southeast Asia Pacific. The U.S. must lead, but it cannot be the sheriff. The problem begs a true alliance.
Forming such an alliance will be difficult, but not impossible. Everyone would like a large tent in which all participate. To actually function, however, the core alliance will have to be smaller, with only those nations willing and able to commit to six actions. The initial alliance may contain only some of the NATO members: Turkey, which is key; a few of the Middle East and North Africa states; and select nations of the Asia-Pacific.
Over time, as the alliance succeeds, it will grow. Success, however, requires at least the following actions:
- Identify a set of common goals and principles that will guide alliance actions. This first task is the most important. Right now, the potential alliance has different perspectives on the problem it faces as well as the solutions. A properly conducted diplomatic dialogue will not eliminate all differences, but it can reduce them to a point where all can commit to a set of common goals. Then the alliance must commit to a set of guiding principles. The legitimacy of the alliance’s transnational actions will derive from these goals and principles. Internationally, nations still live in a somewhat Hobbesian world. We have some international structures, laws and conventions, but no international government. The reality is that the United Nations is unlikely to sanction transnational actions against the revolutionary enemy we face. That leaves action up to individual nations—the alliance. Unilateral action, although sometimes justified, is an insufficient foundation upon which to wage the war we’re in. In fact, the problem itself defies any unilateral solution. An alliance, committed to a set of positive goals and guiding principles, will provide both the legitimacy and the resources necessary to succeed against a common enemy.
- Create the structures to make decisions, coordinate execution, and adapt as the war unfolds. Collective action requires organizational capacity. The heads of government of at least core alliance members must set the strategic agenda and approve goals as well as the associated military and nonmilitary strategies, policies and campaigns necessary to achieve those goals. Further, they must meet frequently enough to provide continual strategic guidance. The alliance then needs an execution capacity—staff and line—that assures coherent action and timely adaptation as the war unfolds. Using existing bureaucracies to wage war is a very risky endeavor. One need only read Robert Komer’s Vietnam-era monograph, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing, to understand these risks.
Bureaucracies do “same” very well; they do “fast and continually dynamic” not very well. War is, by its nature, fast and continually dynamic.
- Protect the commons that connect alliance members. Our enemies use the open transportation, information, fiscal and commercial commons to their advantage. They create followers. They move leaders and operatives. They raise and distribute money. They buy and distribute arms and ammunition, and they supply themselves—all using the global commons. Alliance members must close the commons to our enemies with minimal disruption to normal social and economic life. Closing the commons will require primarily a mix of information-sharing and coordinated law enforcement actions. And it will probably require adopting some new laws and conventions as well as taking some combined military action.
- Prevent the fall of a state to the revolutionary enemies. Part of our revolutionary enemy’s strategy is to depose what they call apostate governments and replace them with fundamentalist regimes that even most Muslims do not support. The alliance must help to prevent states from collapsing. Such action is not solely related to building security forces—military and police—in at-risk countries. At times, alliance military or police actions, taken in conjunction with local forces but not reliant solely upon them, may be necessary to reduce the already present revolutionary presence within a threatened state. This reduction cannot be merely using remote means, for such action does not create durable effects. Reduction operations must be taken in conjunction with correspondingly necessary changes to social, political, security and economic policies that the revolutionary enemies use to their advantage. Such changes need not be aimed at creating democracies. Rather, they should increase the legitimacy of the government from the perspective of its citizens, whatever type it is. Without these changes—which will likely become the main effort in the overall prevention campaign—the revolutionary fervor is likely to remain, even spread.
Some might believe that these kinds of changes are impossible. They will be hard, that’s for sure, but these changes can be made incrementally. Committing to change and starting to change is what’s important. Further, absent this commitment, real progress in the war we’re in will remain elusive. One need only read Ken Pollack’s A Path Out of the Desert to see the essential connection between success in the war we’re in and a reform agenda.
It’s already too late for Syria. It has collapsed. There’s no resurrecting the Bashar al-Assad government, and no allowing a radical, jihadi revolutionary group to take over. So Syria becomes a special case, an important and hard nut to crack. This special case, however, should not be an obstacle to actions and progress in other areas. In fact, reducing the already present threat, improving legitimacy in other states—within and bordering on the alliance—and closing the commons will all contribute to creating an environment in Syria from which a potential solution may emerge.
- Eliminate safe havens that threaten alliance members. Safe havens are breeding grounds for enemies. No good can come from allowing them to continue to operate. The alliance’s air, special operations and ground forces—again, in conjunction with local forces—may be necessary to clear and initially hold these areas before turning them over to local security forces. Once more, eliminating safe havens means more than conducting security operations that achieve only temporary effects. Such operations must be followed by improved governance packages; otherwise, bad guys just return. Experience over the last 15 years shows how hard coordinated security and governance actions can be. But difficulty does not erase need. If alliance nations don’t figure this out, our future will merely repeat our past.
- Reduce the attractiveness of the revolutionary narrative. Alliance domestic actions are as important as any other in this kind of war. Alliance members themselves must commit to social, political, security and economic policies that do not make it easy for our enemies to recruit, motivate or radicalize within their borders. Reducing the attractiveness of the revolutionary narrative is not just an information or spin campaign. It is a campaign of the civil and military actions described previously that first, makes real the values and principles the alliance stands for and seeks to engender more broadly and second, demonstrates the fallacies in the revolutionary narrative. An aggressive counternarrative campaign begins at home but doesn’t end there. The campaign most likely to succeed is one that uses government-private organization partnerships. The ultimate aim is to influence the audiences the revolutionary seeks to encourage to remain on the sidelines.
Creating a real alliance that is able to take these six civil-military actions, and others, is a tall order. Sustaining it over time is harder still, but what’s the alternative? Strategic leadership is about getting the right people together to understand the problem at hand, setting in place and sustaining the right processes to act and adapt, and maintaining the focus through to success. This is what waging war, rather than just fighting it, is all about.
The revolutionaries waging war against us aren’t going away; the problem isn’t going to solve itself. The solutions of the past have not worked, and those now on the table show little promise. More of the same will merely get us to where we already are. Applying a solely military solution absent a broader strategic context won’t work, either. Both merely guarantee that those who are 4, 5 or 6 years old will be fighting the war we could not end—like those who were 4, 5 and 6 at the time of 9/11 are doing now. It’s time to adopt an approach that fits the kind of war we’re in.