This article was published in the
July 2005 volume of the
Carl von Clausewitz
opinions are arguable, convictions need shooting to be cured.’
The ‘War on Terror’ can and must be won. However, in order to do
so the West – and, as keystone to the West’s defences, the United States
most of all – must undertake a fundamental and wide ranging
re-assessment of the conflict in light of Clausewitz’s timeless advice.
Once the nature of the conflict is discerned, the means and ways to
achieve victory will become more readily grasped. When seen in this
light, it becomes self-evident that the ‘war on terror’ is not a war on
terror – there can be no such thing - but a war against a distinct
terrorist group, al Qaeda, and its affiliates, which is conducting a
global insurgency campaign against the West. Although this Global
Salafist Insurgency exhibits various distinctive characteristics,
time-tested principles of counterinsurgency will provide the bedrock
upon which a successful campaign can be formulated.
Al Qaeda’s Islamic ideology is Salafism, a
reactionary, fundamentalist doctrine that includes, but is not analogous
Al Qaeda’s aims include a thirst for the destruction of the West
combined with the reunification of the Islamic Caliphate.
Below this level of ambition the group harbours several other goals,
notably the expulsion of Western influence from Muslim lands in general
and the Arabian Peninsula in specific.
However, their limited ability to deploy conventional force in pursuit
of these ends has led them to adopt a strategy that resembles an
insurgency, defined by David Galula as “a protracted struggle conducted
methodically, step by step, in order to attain specific intermediate
objectives leading finally to the overthrow of the existing order”.
They draw on the broad Muslim population for sanctuary and the ability
to disappear from view, while building political support by propaganda
and by deed – the 9/11 attacks could be viewed instructively through the
lens of Che Guevara’s foco theory (which posited the notion that
spectacular deeds by insurgent groups could generate support where none
existed before and create the conditions for success).
Steven Metz and Raymond Millen posit the
existence of two varieties of insurgency, national and liberation.
The national insurgency is largely self-contained and involves domestic
actors, drawing on domestic discontents. The liberation insurgency
involves activity against the depredations of alien powers or occupiers,
real or perceived. There is no single applicable model for either
insurgency or counterinsurgency that guarantees success in all
but the Global Salafist Insurgency most obviously fits the second mould,
while incorporating aspects of both at different levels. All
insurgencies display common factors, however. They are by their very
nature protracted conflicts, in which insurgents will seek to erode the
will, legitimacy and credibility of the counterinsurgent forces arranged
against them. Barry Posen is correct in noting that the current conflict
will be attritional in nature – the race will not be to the swift.
However, this should not lure the counterinsurgent to assume that there
exists a finite number of insurgents who must simply be killed or
captured to grasp victory. Adopting this mindset leads to a Sysiphean
effort, in which insurgents are created faster than they can be killed.
FIGURE 1: Muslim
The search for a geographic centre of gravity for
the conflict reveals an enormous potential zone of insurgent
infiltration. See Figure 1. The broad “Arc of Turmoil”
that stretches from the Maghreb to Indonesia is likely to provide the
key focus, due to the density of Islamic population, entrenched
anti-Western sentiment and widespread presence of indigenous insurgent
groups that al Qaeda could seek to co-opt. Al Qaeda views the West as
the “far enemy” and corrupt, supposedly apostate Arab regimes as the
“near enemy” – the two nurturing a symbiotic, mutually self sustaining
relationship. The destruction of the “far enemy” is seen as a route to
the destruction of the “near enemy” and vice versa. It is unlikely that
al Qaeda could ever hope to develop to the extent of achieving a
Maoist-style “equilibrium” and challenging the USA and her allies in the
However, the collapse of Arab oil regimes and Pakistan to Salafist
forces would effectively grant the insurgents access to unlimited oil
revenues (which could also be employed to coerce and compel the West)
and Pakistani nuclear tipped rocketry.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan should therefore be viewed as “geopolitically
the collapse of either state having the potential to drastically alter
the geostrategic landscape in the insurgents’ favour. In addition to the
Arc of Turmoil, there exist a number of other regions where insurgent
infiltration is a possibility, especially if existing havens become
untenable and they are forced to trade space for time. These include a
broad belt of African territory – stretching from Mauritania to Somalia
– that features thousand miles of largely unsecure border with the
Maghreb, in combination with weak central governments, large and often
restive Muslim populations and failing public education systems which
provide ripe territory for the expansion of privately subsidised
Salafist madrasas; much of South East Asia;
and Europe, where Muslim minorities can facilitate the covert existence
of terrorist cells and provide a logistical support base. As zones of
operation are gradually denied to the insurgents they can be expected to
relocate to various parts of this geographical chessboard. The challenge
for the West is to correctly discern regions of vulnerability and
undertake preventive action to undermine the establishment of insurgent
activities before they take root. The sheer size of the Arc of Turmoil
alone indicates that the USA cannot go it alone – for practical, rather
than ideological reasons. In order for the campaign to enjoy any chance
of sustainability, regional governments must be co-opted and brought on
board as often as possible and should do most of the heavy lifting. The
US government’s ongoing Pan Sahel Initiative provides a good working
example of the sort of programme that should be expanded to help shore
up friendly governments.
In the absence of a serious military contribution, the EU should be
encouraged to provide funding for similar projects.
In reality, the centre of gravity for the
successful prosecution of the conflict is not physical (eg. an opposing
conventional army) but moral.
The West must deal with two moral centres of gravity – the Islamic world
and the domestic population of the West itself. The former must be
induced to move from a stance of neutralism or tacit support of the
insurgents to support of the counterinsurgency effort. The latter’s
support for the conflict must be sustained, for the collapse of domestic
opinion is fatal to the continuation of operations.
Al Qaeda’s “liberation” insurgency, drawing on widespread resentment
against the West, presents numerous grave problems in formulating a
response. A key task for the West must be to alter the perception of the
conflict by the Islamic world at large from a liberation insurgency to a
national insurgency (in effect, a Muslim civil war). This will be
difficult, as the West is at a natural disadvantage in the propaganda
war, both as an alien force and as the counterinsurgent.
Active Western interventions in the critical geostrategic spheres – most
notably the band stretching from the Maghreb to Pakistan (Unfortunately,
as Metz and Millen point out, insurgencies thrive best in societies with
a large proportion of disaffected male youth and a conspiracy-friendly
culture – both of which the Islamic – and particularly Arab - world
features in spades)
– can be portrayed as imperialist occupation and the USA must juggle the
inherent operational benefits of a large number of boots on the ground
with the political desirability of presenting the smallest, most
unobtrusive footprint possible.
There is nothing to say that the current conflict
cannot be won. It will require the careful and prudent calibration of
military, policing, intelligence and economic assets in a co-ordinated
manner, with an eye to sustainability. The keys to successful
counterinsurgency, as set out by three of the greatest
include, but are not limited to:
Coordination between civil and military agencies – unity
Sustained “hearts and minds” campaigns
Defeating political subversion is more important than
defeating insurgents themselves
Support from the population is necessary but conditional
Counterinsurgency is resource and effort intensive and
requires economy of force
Whether the current approach adopted by the Bush
administration meets these requirements is open to debate.
However, nothing - including the Iraq campaign – that has taken place
since September 2001 need be fatal to the West’s ultimately successful
prosecution of the war. But the first step to victory is for the West to
recognise the nature of the conflict in which it is embroiled – quite
literally the biggest Small War in history.
Mr. Anthony Cormack is a student in the
Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. He is a member of the
Royal United Services Institute and the International Institute for