“We are at war with an ideology, and pounding it frontally just disperses it. It’s like trying to smash mercury with a hammer.” — Eugene Robinson, “The War Bush Isn’t Fighting”
I came across this post yesterday, which IMO exemplifies why righties are living in a pre-9/11 world. The blogger is trying to justify the deaths of children in wars against “enemies” — I notice the blogger doesn’t call ’em “terrorists.” In a nutshell, the blogger argues that because killing the enemy is of paramount importance, and because the enemy chooses to surround himself with children and other civilians, then “we” must harden our hearts to the killing of children. And this is, he says, for the children’s own good. My favorite part (the post is written as a conversation between the wise and virtuous blogger and a bleeding-heart, presumably liberal, woman):
“It must be,” I tell her sadly, “Here: That we pursue war without thought of the children. That we do not turn aside from the death of the innocent, but push on to the conclusion, through all fearful fire. If we do that, the children will lose their value as hostages, and as targets: if we love them, we must harden our hearts against their loss. Ours and theirs.”
Now, I believe that some military actions are necessary, and where there is military action people are going to get killed. There is no weapon that can discriminate between the flesh of enemies and that of innocents. But the blogger is making a huge mistake if he thinks the wholesale killing of “enemies” must trump all other considerations. And it’s this muddled and outmoded thinking that is costing us dearly in the Middle East now.
A few days ago I wrote about fourth generation warfare, a.k.a. 4GW, and why it differs from the “total war” waged in earlier conflicts. Very simply, in “total war” political considerations are put aside in favor of military considerations. The object is to hurt “the enemy” in any way you can so that the enemy — the nation you are at war with — surrenders. And then when the enemy surrenders there’s a cease fire and formal ceremonies and agreements signed, etc., and the nations that had been at war enter into a new and entirely different relationship. In “total war,” if the bombing of civilians hastens surrender, then bombing civilians is militarily acceptable.
However, in our more recent “asymmetric” wars — usually, these days, pitting the conventional military power of a nation against a stateless ideological faction — there will be no surrender. Because ain’t nobody gonna surrender. Surrender isn’t the point. The enemy faction will not surrender even if all their strongholds are overrun and their leaders killed. Instead the survivors will disperse and find new strongholds (possibly virtual ones) or break into scattered cells. If the Cause still has supporters, new leaders will emerge; new followers will be recruited. Eventually a new enemy will arise from the ashes of the old one. And the war will continue.
At the same time, the enemy’s objective is not to get us to surrender to them. They don’t want our surrender, except in a metaphorical sense. They don’t want to occupy our territory or run our government.
So if they’re not going to surrender to us, and it’s out of the question that we would surrender to them, what is the nature of this war? What would “victory ” look like? Why is the enemy fighting us? Why are we fighting them? And how does this relate to killing children? The answers to these questions must be clearly understood if we are going to adopt effective strategies and tactics. Unfortunately in Iraq and Lebanon they are not well understood at all; most especially, they are not well understood by the very people most interested in promoting military solutions to our foreign policy problems. Instead of clarity, from the hawks we get empty slogans and rationalizations.
Righties are so terrified of the ghost of Neville Chamberlain they seem to think that even trying to understand what the enemy wants amounts to “appeasement.” Thus the vacuous nonsense about “they hate us for our freedoms.” But understanding what the enemy wants isn’t just about negotiation or appeasement, but understanding who the enemy is. This is vital when the enemy is a stateless faction, because what they want is what defines them. It’s what sets them apart from other people who might live in same region and share the same ethnic and religious heritage, but who are not necessarily our enemies. If we don’t understand clearly who, precisely, we are fighting, how can we develop effective tactics and strategies? How can we efficiently direct our resources to strike the people we most need to strike?
Last night on Hardball I saw some rightie — I didn’t catch his name — claim it is absurd to argue that our presence in Iraq is making more enemies. We weren’t in Iraq when terrorists killed 283 U.S. Marines in Lebanon, he said. No, but we were in Lebanon, said Chris Matthews, perplexed. You know someone’s gone off the stupid scale when even Tweety notices. Later in the program a right-wing radio host — I didn’t catch her name, either — sounded the same note. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in Iraq or not. They all hate us, anyway, she said. Who’s “they”? Tweety asked. It was clear she meant all Middle Eastern Muslims, and the other guest, Amy Goodman, took her to task for it. But the rightie, in so many words, denied she had said that all Middle Eastern Muslims are terrorists, just that they all hate us and wish us dead. Brilliant.
As I wrote in the last post, Osama bin Laden’s beef with the U.S. began in 1990, when U.S. troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia in preparation for the Gulf War. At that time Bin Laden was living in Saudi Arabia and working in his family’s construction business. Bin Laden was outraged by an infidel army within the nation that is the birthplace of the Prophet, and he also turned against the Saudi government for allowing this sacrilege. In 1991 the Saudis expelled him from Saudi Arabia. He moved to the Sudan, where he made connections with other exiled Muslim radicals. The following year he claimed responsibility for attempting to bomb U.S. soldiers in Yemen. This was followed by successful strikes on the U.S. military in Somalia.
I bring this up to emphasize that al Qaeda started out as a radical fringe group, and by 2001 it was still a radical fringe group, albeit a well-financed one, with only a few thousand followers. It’s true that other Muslims disliked Americans; the Wahhabist sect of Sunni Islam, which influenced bin Laden, comes to mind. But it is simply not true that the entire Muslim population of the Middle East was seething with rage against America and thought exactly as bin Laden thought. Yet somehow, in the name of striking out against the perpetrators of September 11, we’ve got the whole Middle East in an uproar. And a whole lot of people who weren’t all that worked up about us before would like to do us harm now.
Some righties still talk about fighting “terrorists” in Iraq, as if everyone in the conflict is either “coalition” (us) or “terrorist” (them). But it isn’t that simple. I understand that fewer than 10 percent of the fighters in Iraq are with al Qaeda or an affiliate. The rest are with a number of other warring factions that are fighting each other; some of these factions are also fighting us, and some are not. Yet. We invaded to liberate the oppressed Shi’ia majority from the regime of a ruthless Sunni Baathist dictator. Today the Shi’ite militias, armed by Iran and sometimes operating out of the “unity” government President Bush is so proud of, are slaughtering Sunnis wholesale. U.S. troops are sometimes put in the position of rescuing former Baathists — and former Saddam supporters — from the Shiias that we liberated. Note that neither the Baathists nor the Iraqi Shi’ias had a bleeping thing to do with al Qaeda or were in a position to harm America before we invaded Iraq.
Yet we are fighting “them” there so we don’t have to fight “them” here. Who are “they,” exactly?
And what about other terrorist organizations in the Middle East, like Hezbollah? I urge you to read this article by Lisa Beyer that appeared in the August 7 issue of Time. Highlights:
Bush two weeks ago likened Hizballah militants to the terrorists who last summer bombed London subways. That implies that Hizballah has the same mind-set and agenda as the global jihadis of al-Qaeda and its imitator groups, but they are not the same. Hizballah’s military mission is principally to defend Lebanon from Israeli intrusion and secondarily to destroy the Jewish state. As an Islamist group under Iran’s sway, Hizballah would like to see Islamic rule in Lebanon. The global jihadis think much bigger. They are Salafists, radicals who seek to revive the original and, to their minds, pure practice of Islam and establish a caliphate from Spain to Iraq, in all the lands where Islam has ever ruled. The Salafists are Sunni, and Hizballah is Shi’ite, which means their hatred for each other is apt to rival their hatred for the U.S. Al-Qaeda’s late leader in Iraq, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, used to say Shi’ites were worse than Americans and launched a brutal war on them in Iraq.
Of course, Sunnis and Shi’ites do sometimes cooperate. Ali Mohammed, a former Green Beret who pleaded guilty to being an al-Qaeda agent, testified in 2000 that he had provided security for a meeting in Sudan between Hizballah security chief Imad Mughniyah and Osama bin Laden and that Hizballah had provided al-Qaeda with explosives training. If there was cooperation, it seems to have been short-lived; the two groups certainly aren’t allies. Lebanese police in April arrested nine men that Hizballah officials claim were al-Qaeda agents plotting to assassinate their leader. In a recently published interview with the Washington Post’s Robin Wright, Nasrallah slammed al-Qaeda. “What do the people who worked in those two [World Trade Center] towers … have to do with war that is taking place in the Middle East?” he asked. Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri last week released a videotape about the fighting in Lebanon, but at least in the excerpts released by al-Jazeera, he conspicuously failed to encourage Hizballah in its fight against Israel or to so much as mention the group. Instead, al-Zawahiri spoke of the jihad–that is, al-Qaeda’s jihad–being the one that would liberate Palestine.
The Bushies and Neocons are doing a great job of establishing the United States as the common foe of all Muslims, unfortunately. Where once only the most extreme, radical fringe of Islam wanted to take jihad to American soil, someday mainstream Muslims may decide they’ve had quite enough of us and unite against us. As I wrote yesterday, one of Osama bin Laden’s long-term goals was to draw a western power into attacking and occupying a Muslim nation. This would incite Muslims from many sects and nations to unify in jihad against the common foe (guess who?). It is unlikely such a jihad would unite under bin Laden’s leadership, but in every other way the Bush Administration has exceeded bin Laden’s fondest hopes.
Bush Administration has a one-size-fits-all policy for combating all Muslim militants and terrorists, as if they all came out of the same box. This is stupid. Smart would be to take differences and distinctions into account when crafting policy; policies for a group with purely local or regional interests should be different from policies that deal with al Qaeda or other global terrorist organizations. Most important, our policies should drive wedges between groups, not inspire diverse groups — some of which have been antagonists for centuries — to unite against us. The reverse of Julius Caesar’s famous military axiom — divide, and conquer — is unify, and lose.
By remaining ignorant of the historical, social, cultural, and political realities of the Middle East; by our ham-handed and disastrous “occupation” of Iraq; by knee-jerk support of Israel, right or wrong; we are fanning the flames of jihad, not putting them out. Today we might be sowing the seeds of many wars yet to come.
Most of the terrorist attacks since 9/11 were carried out by people who were or would be suicide bombers, and their numbers seem to be growing in number every day. Is this merely some contagious madness? When Al Qaeda planners Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Youssef plotted attacks on 11 American planes flying from Asia in 1995, their idea was to leave bombs on board hidden in life jackets after stopovers. The scanty information released thus far about the British plot suggests that teams of people, fully aware that they would die, were going to take components for the bombs on board separately, then assemble them to kill themselves and everybody traveling with them.
There is no excuse for those who would carry out such atrocities, but there are reasons that keep pushing recruits to take up the suicidal cause of attacking the United States. To blame “Islamic fascism” that “wants to destroy those of us who love freedom” dodges responsibility for making those reasons more abundant, and making them worse, over the last five years. What’s at work in the heads of those who would kill themselves to slaughter Americans is less Al Qaeda’s ideology, such as it is, than a pervasive sense that Muslims are under attack: their lands occupied; their men, women and children victimized around the world. The Iraqi slaughterhouse, besieged Gaza, wasted Lebanon are all examples in the minds of those who convince themselves that suicidal terror is the only way to fight back. While partly blaming Israel, their frantic logic finds easier targets among the people who elected the invaders of Iraq, the backers of Israel, George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The American failure to limit these scenes of carnage in the Muslim world, or even to understand them, has combined with shortsighted military policies to create a kind of breeder reactor for explosive terrorism. Today we are looking at a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, even as Osama bin Laden and his ideologue Ayman Zawahiri remain at large. Iraq is in the midst of an intensifying civil war that will only grow worse after today’s ghastly bombing in Najaf, which killed at least 34 people. Lebanon has become a cause that can cement ties among radical Sunnis and Shias against the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel. Iran is cooking up nukes and the inflammatory issue of Palestine is farther than ever from resolution.
To those who say Bush’s policies must be working, because Muslim radicals haven’t achieved a terrorist attack in America in the past five years — remember, eight years separated the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and September 11, 2001. By rightie logic, Bill Clinton must’ve really been tough on terrorism.
Back to the dead children. As I said above, if you are trying to force the surrender of an enemy government, then the bombing of civilians, including childen, might be an acceptable tactic. But if your enemy is a cause, and not a country, the last thing you want to is gain them the world’s sympathy. In a very real and tangible sense, we are fighting for the moral high ground in the world’s eyes. Ignoring that reality not only strengthens our enemies and weakens us; it also could have long-term repercussions in our relations with the other nations on the planet for years to come.
Over the past several days the righties have complained that Hezbollah and Israel are expected to play by different rules, and it ain’t fair. But William Lind argues that’s how 4GW is; get used to it.
The fact is, both sides don’t get to operate by the same rules in 4GW. While the very strength of the intervening power means it must be careful how it applies its strength, that is much less true of the weaker forces opposing it. This is an aspect of what Martin van Creveld calls the power of weakness. Viewed from the moral level, a weak force can get away with tactics that damn its vastly stronger enemy. Its weakness itself tends to justify whatever it does.
Suicide bombing is itself a tactic of the weak (which does not mean it is ineffective.). The United States bombs from aircraft, where the pilot operates in complete safety against 4GW opponents, with rare exceptions. At the moral level, that safety works against us, not for us. In contrast, the fact that 4GW fighters often have to give their lives to place their bombs works for them. Their combination of physical weakness and apparent heroism leads civilians from their own culture to excuse them much, including “collateral damage” they would never excuse if the bomb came from an American F-18.
Does this mean that al Qaeda and its many clones can ignore the deaths and injuries they cause among fellow Islamics? No. They have to be careful not to go too far, as al Qaeda clearly did in Jordan. But they can still get away with a great deal we could not get away with. The same rules do not apply to all, and much stricter, more disadvantageous rules apply to us than to them. Is that fair? Of course not. But who ever said there was anything fair about war?
It’s one thing to hunt down and and imprison terrorists who threaten to harm the U.S. But “When the United States drops bombs from aircraft or otherwise dumps firepower on Iraqi cities, towns and farms, it alienates the population further,” Lind says, and causes more Iraqis to join the insurgency — the insurgency that didn’t exist before we invaded Iraq and which was no threat to the United States. And when photos of dead Lebanese children are all over the world’s newspaper, but Israeli children remain unharmed, Israel becomes the Bad Guy in the eyes of the world. Whether this is fair or not is beside the point; it is what it is.
Here’s something I wish the hawks would think about: What does “victory” look like when your enemy is not a government with the authority to surrender? What tactics do you adopt when your military offensive against the enemy wins it sympathy and recruits? You’ll never kill all of the enemy, and even if you did, public outrage would likely cause another group to organize and take its place. Can there even be a “victory” in any meaningful sense of the word against such an enemy? Or is a cessation of hostilies the best we can hope for (in which case, escalating war would seem to be counterproductive)? Righties? Anybody?
See also: “Know Your Enemy: Who Are We Fighting In Iraq?”
Also also: What Wes Clark says.