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This article was published in the July 2005 volume of the SWJ Magazine.

Can the “War on Terror” Be Won?

-         Carl von Clausewitz

 ‘While opinions are arguable, convictions need shooting to be cured.’

-         T.E. Lawrence


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 with, Wahabbism.[1] Al Qaeda’s aims include a thirst for the destruction of the West combined with the reunification of the Islamic Caliphate.[2] 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.[3] 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”.[4] 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).[5]

 Steven Metz and Raymond Millen posit the existence of two varieties of insurgency, national and liberation.[6] 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 situations,[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

FIGURE 1:  Muslim Distribution

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”[10] 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 conventional forum.[11] 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.[12] Saudi Arabia and Pakistan should therefore be viewed as “geopolitically catalytic”,[13] 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;[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] 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[19]) – 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 theorist-practitioners[20], include, but are not limited to:

§      Coordination between civil and military agencies – unity of purpose.

§      Intelligence-led operations

§      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.[21] 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 Strategic Studies.


[1] Sageman (2004), pg. Vii and 1

[2] The precise extent of al Qaeda’s aims are still being debated. However, whether the “near” or “far” enemy represents the main focus of al Qaeda’s campaign does not alter the geostrategic reality.

[3] Gunaratna (2002), pp. 118-120.

[4]Galula (1964), p.4, Metz and Millen (2004), p.24, Mockaitis and Rich, eds. (2003), pp. 21-23

[5] On foco, see Beckett (2001), pp.164-171. Freedman (2001-02), p.67 makes a fundamentally similar point, couched in different terms.

[6] Metz and Millen (2004), pp.2-3

[7] Failing to recognise this can result in involuntary retirement from both insurgency and breathing, as Che Guevara found out in trying to transfer Cuban foco to Bolivia.

[8] Posen (2001/2002), pp.42-43

[9] Galula (1964), pp.171-173

[10] Thanks to Michael P. Noonan for this provocative characterisation (personal correspondence with the author)

[11] On “equilibrium”, see Hamilton (1998), pp.77-79

[12] Ullman (2004), p.108

[13] Brzezinski (1997), p.40

[14] Abuza (2003)

[15] Details can be found at (accessed March 1st 2005)

[16] On moral centres of gravity, see Iron (2003), pp.114-118 and, tangentially, Hammes (2004).

[17] Merom (2003) and Inbar, ed. (2003), pp.3-20

[18] Galula (1964), pp.14-15 Metz and Millen (2004), p.28

[19] Metz and Millen (2004), pp. 4-6. On Muslim demographics, see Simon and Benjamin (2001/2002), pp.13-14. On Islamic conspiracy paranoia, see Pipes (1998)

[20] Galula (1964), Kitson (1991) and Thompson (1966)

[21] Record (2003), pp. v-vi. For a more sanguine view, see Colin Gray in Booth and Dunne, eds. (2002), pp.226-234

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