Small Wars Journal

More on FM 23-4 and Religion

SWJ received the following via e-mail from G. Hale Laughlin, who is currently serving in Afghanistan......

Neither does Dr. Kilcullen, nor mil doctrine, state that religion is a, 'trivial actor in the struggle', as implied by Herschel Smith in his response to Dr. Kilcullen's Small Wars Journal Blog piece from 12 May 2007, "Religion and Insurgencies". In fact, Dr. Kilcullen succinctly provides guidance that,

"The bottom line is that no handbook relieves a professional counterinsurgent from the personal obligation to study, internalize and interpret the physical, human, informational and ideological setting in which the conflict takes place. Conflict ethnography is key; to borrow a literary term, there is no substitute for a "close reading" of the environment."

While I am not prepared with empirical evidence to support this hypothesis, I believe that the positions between the non-religious insurgency and religious insurgency schools of thought lies in the deeper theory of what religion means to the human condition. The discussion between the two schools really centers on the purpose of religion and the basic theological and ontological questions that can not be answered through empirical science at the present time. Given that no epistemological basis exists to unify the issue of religion across all of humanity, seeking to define a form of social conflict on those terms creates a condition where there will be as many definitions of conflict as there are religions in the world. On the other hand, if in an attempt to find a common ground that allows near unity of purpose, if not perfect unity of purpose, one believes that religion serves primarily a 'political' role in human society then the two schools can find common terms to help unify understanding to guide designs for counter insurgent strategies.

Religion as political structure of the human culture is well accepted in the vast majority of schools spanning all sides of the human condition. Even before Aristotle defined politics as a structure in modern human society, religion as spiritual belief structures that unified and provided organizational structure to distinct cultural segments of human societies, is well accepted. The emergence of the 'state' correlates roughly with the introduction of 'politics' by Aristotle, as the art and science of government or 'affairs of the state'. The history of mankind since the emergence of the state, and arguably likewise before, has been most definitively marked as a struggle between the faith based spiritual belief structures of human culture and political organizational structures, both vying for the ultimate unifying quest for power over people and resources. In this sense the issue becomes not one of religion or politics, but for power.

Viewed in this way, it is not critical to accept that insurgencies are 'religious insurgencies' or not, but that all insurgencies are an expression of political struggle for power. Religion may or may not be an element requiring strong consideration in the 'conflict ethnography' that Dr. Kilcullen speaks of, this being determined by the nature of the humans involved in the conflict, and determined after the 'close read' on the ground that Dr. Kilcullen prescribes. Albeit, ignoring religion as an important component of the dynamics operating in the structures of the insurgent quest for power, when such a component exists would be ill advised. Interestingly, Dr. Kilcullens 'close read' reference runs akin to the 'thick description' prescribed by Clifford Gertz, an Anthropologist / Social Scientist whose ethnographic methods prescribed deep study of culture to define not just the behaviour but the context of the behaviour as well. The context of the extremist Islamist insurgent is the important matter here. Islam in a moderate context does not condone suicide bombing, killing of innocent victims and destruction of other societies.

The Islamic belief structures specifically mark the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan distinctively, with some similarities and some specific differences between them as well. Without getting into irresolvable discussions involving some notion concerning the 'sui generis' nature of religion as satisfying a spiritual requirement of the human condition, current social science recognizes the role that religion serves in political organization of a society. Accepting this, Islam is marked as a faith based belief structure that includes rules and concepts for political organization, rule making and civil governance. As such, Islam can be viewed as a political structure with ready made sets of solutions for political organization that extremists exploit by appealing to the religious structures that resonate with members of the broader faith, while seeking to obtain the broader objectives of power over people and their resources. The insurgents use Islam not so much as a religious structure but as a political structure in their quest for power. In this vein, the religion of Islam is employed by the extremists, much to the chagrin of more moderate followers of the faith, as a tool just as they use acts of terror, intimidation of individuals and segments of societies, torture and all the other litany of tools used by insurgents.

Categorizing fundamentalist Islamist structures, as actualized by extremist insurgent elements, as a political structure that seeks to organize people and resources toward objectives of centralized power, makes discussion and categorization of 'religious insurgencies' less amplifying and not terribly meaningful. There is a possibility that deeper study and exploration of the phenomenon may yield that there could be a psychological component operating within the individual extremist Islamist insurgent's psyche that allows him to distance himself from the more moderate and unifying aspects of 'Religious Islam' that he violates through his actions, by viewing the faith through a more 'Political Islam' lens that insulates him from the more enlightened spiritual religious edicts of the faith. In other words, by viewing Islam through the pragmatic though extreme political filter, the individual extremist may have less trouble justifying the means versus ends dilemma that a more moderate religious interpretation could never justify. The political component that Islam serves is central to the issues of insurgency, especially in the current forms experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan, though by viewing those cases as 'religious insurgencies' does little to illuminate resolution. In this light, the current military doctrine correctly approaches the subject by refraining from getting tangled in the issue of 'religious insurgencies', focusing instead on the more important components concerning how insurgents organize to influence the people in their quest for power.

Speaking from inside the AO and as one who has been immersed in the theory and application of counter-insurgent and insurgent conflict for several years, my observations and experience converge in a strong urge to simplify the counter-insurgent/insurgent dynamic as defined by the simple notion that, whoever best cares for the basic subsistence and security needs of the people first and most enduringly, wins. I am resisting this urge to simplify, but the needs of the people are great and our solutions have become very complex. Conditions such as this most often require the simplicity of the elegant solution, and I am cognizant of the counter-insurgent dynamic defined by the concept that one often fortifies the resistance in proportion to the power that one wields in the peoples defense. The needs of the people, and counter-insurgent strategic endstates, may best be met by the power that one yields to their service.


MSG Proctor

Wed, 06/20/2007 - 4:25pm

Yes, tragedy! This is from today's earlybird:

"Many Iraqis, beleaguered at every turn, said they saw the bomb as an attempt to aggravate sectarian strife and as one more piece of evidence that the Americans could not protect them from extremists. Many of those who live near the site of the destruction said they had concluded that the Americans must be helping the suicide bombers.

"The Americans know everything, they can do everything, they can repair the space shuttle without touching it, why do they let these things happen here in Iraq?" said Abu Muhammad, 55, one of the custodians of the bombed mosque.

"We think the Americans want these things to happen in Iraq, to keep things like this," he said, gesturing to the office of the mosques imam in which the walls and ceiling had collapsed, raining hundreds of bricks into the room, crushing the imams desk and chairs. The imam survived because he had left the building before the bomb detonated."

- New York Times
June 20, 2007
Pg. 1

Truck Bomb Hits Baghdad Mosque, And 61 Are Killed

By Alissa J. Rubin

SERIOUS IO issues here, sir. Your condescension to accepting religion as a "part" of the whole is reflective of the very bias I was pointing to. I am glad you took the time to read Dr. Hafez's case study. I would hope you accept him as a SME.

His point is that it IS religious - and that means we must understand the religious dimensions of Suicide Bombers in order to detect before we can disrupt. Purely kinetic methods of SB disruption Ops are a demonstrated failure and now we have an even BIGGER IO crisis...

SWJ Groundskeeper

Tue, 06/12/2007 - 8:35am

John, thanks for the link. Good stuff. But a <em>tragedy</em>? Come on! Dr. Hafez himself starts out saying "They formulate a number of utilitarian, ideological, and theological arguments." We've seen that one of the ways some operatives can be defused or even turned is to show them their handlers are just criminals hiding behind a facade of religion. Don't be so blinded by your own bias that we can't discuss the hijacking of a religion and its bastardization in a cocktail with other motivators, conceptually distinguishing from a cleaner religious practice. That nuance is what I refer to. Sure, the bumper sticker didn't do the subtleties justice. But neither does just calling it religion. It is a package deal, and we must expand our cultural awareness of the whole package.

MSG Proctor

Fri, 06/08/2007 - 6:36pm

Its a tradgedy that so many people are still asking the question, "b) Are groups like AQI really "religious"?

Let me refer our esteemed readers to a subject matter expert: Dr. Mohammed Hafez, Univ. of Missouri, author of "A Case Study:The Mythology of Martyrdom in Iraq"

Its scary to realize people are so blinded by our cultural bias that we keep comitting the same stupid mistakes over and over again and that suicide bombers operate with impunity in Iraq because of it.

SWJ Groundskeeper

Sat, 06/02/2007 - 10:00am

Master of the Obvious alert! But...

Seems that COIN and FM 3-24 are background or maybe red herrings here. The core debates look like:

a) What is the difference between politics and religion? No doubt confounded by our separation of church and state baggage.

b) Are groups like AQI really "religious"?

By neither dismissing nor wallowing into those hell holes, FM 3-24 and Dave Kilcullen do a darn fine job! After all, you've got to pick your battles.

Sir, I did not aver that AQ = Islam. Neither did I attempt to identify the Sunni-led insurgency with any particular practice of Islam. I spent a year in Baghdad dealing with these dynamics which GEN Petraeus characterized as "the most complex I have ever seen in my life". Our ignorance of the cultural terrain in the CENTCOM AOR is too well-catalogued for me to rehearse it here. The fact is, the religiously motivated suicide bomber is AQ's weapon of choice and CF have done almost nothing to counter it. Emphasis on purely kinetic operations to defeat suicide bombers is an operational failure. Without real religious analysis we cannot detect a suicide bomber in the pre-execution stages, and hence, they can terrorize Baghdad at will. Bin Laden's view:

"On a tactical level, statements from leading Al Qaeda figures have demonstrated a degree of differentiation in their preferred methods for
opposing coalition forces in Iraq and the new Iraqi government. Bin Laden has identified "martyrdom operations," or suicide attacks, as "the most important operations" for disrupting the activities of the United States and its allies. 26

CRS Report for US Congress, January 2007

Moreover, a recent poll of US Muslims found that 8% approved of suicide bombing as an act of jihad. We can hide behind the old cold war paradigms if we want, but even Madeline Albright recognizes the need for religious analysis and religious intelligence at the state DEPT level in her book, "The Mighty and the Almighty."

The insurgency itself is best characterized as a political activity - granted. But non-state actors that are motivated by twisted theology, cultic practices and rabid messianism pose a grave and menacing threat that we have utterly failed to counter.

Here is what AQ's handbook revealed:
"Experts originally held that suicide bombers could be recruited and trained for local struggles only, within a relatively short time before an attack.

The al Qaeda Handbook may provide clues to the migration of suicide terrorism to America. A how-to-manual for members of the terrorist organization, the book sheds light on the psyche of al Qaeda terrorists, and paints a picture of a religious cult headed by charismatic leader Osama bin Laden.

Chapter after chapter, the handbook outlines a pyramidal organization in which the lowest members never get a complete picture of the group's actions. Furthermore, the book makes clear that the lives of these members can be extinguished at any time by those in the upper echelons of the organization.

English authorities found the 180-page manual in May 2000, while searching the home of a suspected bin Laden operative in Manchester, England. A translation of the Arabic manual was introduced as evidence in New York City this year in the trial of four al Qaeda members accused of bombing American embassies in Kenya and Sudan in 1998.

"The manual outlines how to perform a variety of terrorist acts, including assassination, poisoning, and torture," explains Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychology at George Washington University. "But above all, I would say that the manual is a good example of how a cult mentality can hijack and manipulate legitimate religious beliefs and turn them into fanatical tenets. The text reveals an organization that follows a very peculiar and extreme kind of Islam and that does not hesitate one bit to depart from Islamic teachings to pursue its own interests."

Small Wars Journal (not verified)

Thu, 05/31/2007 - 4:53pm

<strong>Herschel</strong> - Since you asked, <em>sort of</em>, our policy on moderation is mostly moderation. Ride swayback with a lot of rein, but dont spare the punches or firepower when it's due.

Attacks, insults, and ad hominem attacks will be duly squashed. So far, havent seen any of them here in this volley. But it looks like were on our way! At least the pissing contest is festering. <em>edited to add</em> I don't like Walrus' cheap shot, but that one spot of boorish behavior didn't break our squelch. I do appreciate your moving swiftly past it, and totally support and neither question nor judge your right to administer your backyard as you see fit.

<strong>Walrus</strong> <em>and</em> <strong>Herschel</strong> -- Time out, please, guys. You two seem to differ on the issues, and thats fine. Id normally say "stick to the issues," but now that it looks like your differences have been articulated, theres no sense grinding your individual axes on each other any more in public. I very much appreciate the past warning that this disruption migrated from Blackfive to Captains Journal to maybe now here. Unfortunately, the "maybe" bit seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy if we insist on making it a disruption by talking about the past disruptions. In short, <strong>both of your voices are welcome</strong> in our forums here, but <strong>stop shouting at each other</strong>, or taking jabs that bait. Find an electronic backroom somewhere else for your smack-down.

I am actually a bit surprised that the comments by 'walrus' have not been redacted to remove the ad hominem argument, such as:

"He has been carefully deleting my comments on some of his logical absurdities on his own site, as is his priviledge (sic)."

At any rate, each administrator has his own criteria, as is his right.

The balance of the comments set up a straw man and are not germane to the positions I advocate. It would greatly help readers if they actually read my prose prior to responding to it. To the extent that the comments are irrelevant and not pertinent to the positions I have advocated, I cannot respond. 'walrus' is at the same table but in a different conversation with someone else.

The best way to dialogue is to respond something like "I disagree for the following reasons," or "here are the rules you violate in your thinking," or "the evidence points to the contrary, and here is my evidence." Calling someone's views "logical absurdities" without specifically calling out which rule of logic that they violate is merely ad hominem argument.

Concerning the deletion of the comments that 'walrus' has dropped on my site, I confess that he is correct: the work has required careful attention attention to detail (walrus said "carefully"). He caused disruption at Blackfive (I exchanged notes with Matt yesterday), and moved on to my site where he immediately began to lodge insults and ad hominem attacks against Blackfive. It evolved to attacks against me and other commenters, and when I began to delete the comments, 'walrus' began to use different screen names and fake e-mail addresses (I checked in each instance), but always with the same IP address and network. My only response to this is you may disagree with my positions, but at least I am honest and truthful. I use my name and a real e-mail address rather than lying to the administrator.

Finally, it is clear to me that this conversation is not finished. I will follow up with a new article.

walrus (not verified)

Wed, 05/30/2007 - 6:09pm

With the greatest of respect John, I wish to point out that Al Qaeeda is not Islam. I also wish to point out that there are those with a vested interest in promoting a 'war of religion" theme.

As far as I can tell, the ruling elites in all the Islamic countries bar Iran ( and I'm not even sure of Iran) are enamoured of Western secular values and economics and are trying to adopt them as fast as they can. Naturally when free market economists and technocrats upset traditional power structures there is friction, and "jihad" is the natural rallying cry of the losing side.

I have travelled extensively in Muslim countries on business and for pleasure for thirty years, and can happily report to you that the concept of "Jihad" and hatred of the West is almost entirely absent from Malaysia and Indonesia. One used to get strange looks occasionally in Pakistan, but a considerable amount of that was natural curiosity.

Characterising insurgency in Iraq and elsewhere as a religious movement, and then extending that concept worldwide is a self fulfilling recipe for disaster in my opinion.

Walrus' assertion that "its not about religion at all" is deeply troubling and symptomatic of the cultural bias that continues to plunge us deeper into the morass of unintended consequences in the GWOT.

"While al-Qaeda makes its religious views explicit, religious terms in the West are avoided or hedged. Policy makers, diplomats, journalists and scholars, writes the defense expert Edward Luttwak, are ready to "dissect social differentiations" and "minutely categorize political affiliations," but they regularly disregard "the role of religion, religious institutions, and religious motivations in explaining politics."

"Experience suggests that Al Qaedas leaders believe that regular attempts to
characterize Al Qaedas actions as defensive and religiously sanctioned will increase
tolerance of and support for their broader ideological program."

-CRS Report for Congress 2007

It is dangerous to dismiss the religious motives/methods of AQ or any religious terrorist activity when the terrorists themselves explicity identify their theological and eschatalogical objectives as a means to galvanize support and action.

walrus (not verified)

Tue, 05/29/2007 - 8:39pm

Gentlemen, with respect, I think you can safely ignore Mr. Smith's comments. He has been carefully deleting my comments on some of his logical absurdities on his own site, as is his priviledge.

But getting back on topic, I have to agree with Dr. Kilcullen and others that religion is not central to any of the counter-insurgency campaigns that I am aware of and the current ones are no different.

No one, for example, is stating that the IRA is a terrorist organisation motivated by a deep love for the Catholic religion. It obviously isn't, and it would be absurd to suggest it. It's obvious that a similar situation exists in relation to Islam.

Professor Michael Howard, in his excellent work "The Invention of Peace" in my opinion correctly states the problem. There are regions where western values and the whole process of economic modernization are regarded in his words as "Culturally Alien".

It is pure coincidence that in these areas resistance is strongest and best organised among established religions whose leaders see themselves not just as religious leaders, but as guardians of traditional order.

In such cultures the American flag is seen as a symbol of alien oppression, not liberation, because it potentially heralds changes to established traditional power structures in which Islam is embedded.

To put it in it's simplest terms: It's not about religion at all. It's about power.

Sorry, my comment may have been misconstrued (my fault). I am not (was not) accusing the author of "getting in the last word." I am afraid I may be guilty of that. The author is free to post whatever he wishes. Too many rebuttals by me would be bad form.

Actually, this site exists to discuss the issues at hand - when and how its members choose. I do not think this is a case of "<i>getting in the last word</i>". Oft, that is used as a copout to stifle debate.

The readers are sophisticated enough to know when to add to the discourse, especially those who practice what they preach.

FYI, Gary Laughlin is in Afghanistan and the network there does not allow for signing on to typekey (the comments section here).

Eventually this becomes "getting the last word in," a tactic that I want to avoid. The readers are sophisticated enough to make up their mind without further additions.

Having said that, this response seems to me to be the equivalent of a "camel passing through the eye of a needle." With all due respect, it is strained.

Kilcullen's article, after all, was on the subject of religion and insurgency. I didn't introduce the subject -- it was given to me by the original article. My response didn't 'imply' that Kilcullen's position was that religion was a trivial actor. My response flatly stated that this was the deliverance of Kilcullen's position, no implication necessary.

Kilcullen says clearly that the insurgency is "entirely political." This sort of superlative pushes all other actors out of the way. The paragraph you cite (indented above) doesn't even come close to asserting that there is a religious component to any insurgency.

Kilcullen might have made the more moderate assertion that in spite of any religious element, from the anecdotal evidence he has observed he believes that security is important enough to make our efforts as WHAM effective. He didn't. He flatly asserted that the insurgency was "entirely political." This is a step too far.

I have had some graduate level training in religion, and so my views might be more nuanced than others, but the point can still be made in simple terms. Consider a single example. Under the cruel reign of Nero, for many Christians, as soon as they were baptized (marked into the church), they were immediately apprehended and taken for execution (see Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church). For these men and women and boys and girls who went to execution for religious belief, security was a meaningless triviality. They were preparing to die.

I am not comparing death of self for refusal to reliquish or abdicate belief (martyr) to death of others to propagate belief, whether false or true belief (e.g., suicide bombers). One is heroic, the other evil. But the point is that they are both motivated by things other than largesse and security.

To the extent that FM 3-24 misses the religious component in a society that we are trying to win, it needs to be revised. This is a simple point, well-founded in my opinion, and not out of the main stream (e.g., Hoffman, John Robb, etc., note the religious component of society). Finally, to the extent that there are those who consider these issues as a subset of anthropology or sociology or psychology (previous commenters who take a more secular approach to understanding things around them), they prove my point by begging the question. This perspective is from an outsider looking in, one who doesn't understand the role of religion.

It doesn't work for one who doesn't understand the role of religion in man's values and beliefs to assert that religion has no bearing on man's values and beliefs, any more than a five year old child should tell me whether, say, a differential equation can model a mechanical system.

My deepest respect to you and all those who serve, including my son in Iraq, especially this memorial day.

Last, my response to Kilcullen is updated in Smith Responds: