Friday, December 29, 2006

Some Thoughts On: KnowingThe Enemy

I recently asked Anonim, a regular poster here at PYY, to write a guest post when he felt the inspiration. (He is a very intelligent man that is originally from Turkey and now makes his home, here in the United States.)

Well he did. And he posted it on my previous Light Blog Alert post. (And it comes at a time where I am down for holiday visits and activities.) As a result, I want to to highlight it and open the discussion by giving it a full post for any and all that care to reply. So, without further rambling from me, here it is, in its entirety:


Can social scientists redefine the 'war on terror'?" by George Packer, The New Yorker, December 18.

An important and insightful article relevant to some discussions we have had here at PYY. It points to the fundamental shortcoming or fallacy of the current rhetoric and policies. The basic question tackled is, how you conduct a successful counterinsurgency operation on a global scale. And the simple answer is, you first define the enemy as narrowly as possible. This naturally means "enemies" of various stripes with mundane fears and concerns rather than an "enemy" animated by a grand ideology; people are not pushed to insurgency by ideology, but rather pulled into it by social ties (family, friends, associates). You then engage each "enemy" group separately. Here engagement is to be understood expansively: it is quite different than making "nice" with 'em. It is sometimes that, but more often, it is about showing to the target populace that they can gain by cooperating with you and lose by doing the opposite. And, some elements among the "enemy" ranks are going to be too hardened and beyond reach, and they are to be defeated by all means but with caution not to create more enemies.

All this essentially suggests an information war superstructure overriding or guiding wars that may be fought using bullets and missiles, and PYY readers may ask "what's new here?" Well, maybe nothing; it sound pretty much like common sense. But, despite my deliberately generic summary above, the article does name names, steps on toes if you will (in a non-partisan way, mind you), and draws from concrete historical examples. For example, it starts off with a comparison of two counterinsurgency operations in Indonesia: the first one is little known but successfully fought in the fifties against a Muslim Darul Islam insurgency in West Java; and the second is the unsuccessful campaign against the Christian insurgency in East Timor. Also, the whole cold war saga and lessons from it are not forgotten in the article. At one point, the article points to a possible likening of Bush to Truman, who was reviled towards the end of his term but was later vindicated by history. But, it also likens Bush's uplifting speeches for freedom and democracy against forces of dark and evil to the "last paragraph" of Churchill's speeches. Whereas the latter's last paragraph was preceded by 19 pages of substance, the former's speeches lack such substantiation.

Also argued is the fact that the mindset is starting to change in the US administration along the lines discussed in the article (in the State and Defense Departments, if not yet in the White House). In the end, someone is quoted as comparing our situation vis-a-vis the global terror threat today to where our comprehension of the cold war was back in 1953. So, what lies ahead is a long, long struggle, which is in apparent contradiction by the impatience prevalent in the society today, says the article.

May make a good New Year's eve reading? No?

Happy New Year to all.



Shah Alexander said...

>And the simple answer is, you first define the enemy as narrowly as possible.

In the war on terror, enemies are non-state actors. Just like NGOs, they are loosely united. This makes it difficult to focus on specific enemies.

In any case, I try to know a strategic rival in a recent post, which is on China. Just reading their comments. This is the first step to understand their ways of thinking.

Anonim said...

Shah, you're totally right on the nature of enemies here. Yet that doesn't mean you cannot isolate various groups from amongst that loosely defined soup. Moreover, prudence dictates that you should strive not to help unite them further. The article claims that the US has been very successful in big and short wars (conventional wars), doesn't quite know how to fight small and long wars, and currently appears to be engaged in a "big" and "long" war. Thus, an overhaul of the whole defense strategy, tactics, and machinery is warranted, and this understanding is gaining ground in the US, it continues. Actually, the whole article draws very heavily from interviews with two US Defense and/or State Department officials/consultants (one an expert on SE Asia on loan from Australia, and the other an Irish or Irish-American expert).

P.S. Had I expected my original posting to be put under magnifying glass as it was, I would have put a bit more time and care into it. I may not have done justice to the original article in some respects. But that's fine, I guess, since anyone interested can read it in whole.

LASunsett said...


//Had I expected my original posting to be put under magnifying glass as it was, I would have put a bit more time and care into it.//

I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to front you out to be put on display. With that said, I will say that your commentary was far better than many of the blog entries that are in 90% of the blogosphere, today.

Anonim said...

LASunsett, I didn't mean to complain really. You did fine. I would have written more, but these are slow days, and I need to attend family like most everybody I guess.

LASunsett said...


//I didn't mean to complain really.//

That's fine. I just did not want there to be any misunderstanding about my intentions, whatsoever.

Again, you did fine. You raise some good points that I will comment on more in depth, after I have read the entire article again. I read through it earlier, but had multiple interruptions, due to a lot of activity in my house, from holiday visitors. Because of this frenetic energy, I have not had a lot of time to blog, like I'd like.

JPH said...

I wish you a happy new year.( I'm not in the topic). Coming from a faithful reader. Best regards.

LASunsett said...

Thank you JPH. Happy New Year to you too.

Greg said...

Great post!

So, we can still win in Iraq if we just change our approach? Or am I misinterpreting? That's certainly an uplifting idea and I'm interested.

I've read articles here and there of independent minded Marines who have, on their own initiative, forged strong relationships with tribal leaders in Iraq, with success. Why this hasn't been applied across the board is beyond me. Actually, no, it's obvious. The Pentagon is a massive bureaucracy that cannot quickly adapt. Or adapt at all.

When I wonder what could have been if we had been smarter in Iraq, I get very frustrated....

Anonim said...

Hi Greg. I don't know about how this translates to "winning in Iraq" in the short term. My understanding of it is that the article presents a new interpretation of the conflict. That is, the vague concept of "war on terror" being more correctly called "global counterinsurgency." With this comes changes in strategy and tactics, of course, which the article explains in length. And, they include the kind of independent Marine initiatives you mention. The article gives similar examples, too, which are generally frustrated by bureaucratic inertia.

Another emphasis is on the fact that this is essentially a war of information, geared to win perceptions. There is a hilarious bin Laden tape released before the 2004 presidential elections that the article talks about. Bin Laden enumerates four major gripes against the US; if I recall 'em correctly, they are about Iraq, Palestine, American presence on the hold Saudi soil, and GLOBAL WARMING! Go figure...

The article also credits Bruce Hoffman (a reputed expert on terrorism) for this new understanding, and Hoffman has an article published on the subject in the latest issue of the Current History magazine (no free online version available).

On a related but somewhat different note, Saddam's execution hasn't evoked any comments here at PYY yet. It was a rushed execution IMO; his trial on charges regarding Al Anfal operations against the Kurds should have been concluded (Al Anfal would have constituted hands-down a far more stronger case for capital punishment than Al Dujail did, IMO). From the general news coverage, I also gather that the execution turned into a Shiite revenge killing, which holds hardly any promise for helping the situation on the ground. On the other hand, American authorities exercised some caution to make sure legal steps were not totally ignored before they handed Saddam to Iraqis for his execution. And, I read somewhere that the mourners in Saddam's hometown expressed gratitude to Americans for providing air transport of his body for burial. I am afraid this whole thing may be one big lost opportunity for the US to reinstitute her moral command in Iraq (a plus in the war of perceptions). Why not demand from the Iraqis the most rigorous legal treatment of Saddam? Isn't there a lot at stake for America as Saddam and his regime was the main reason for the war? When and where on earth the victor is exalted by complete demonizing and throwing-down-the-gutter of her enemy? Jalal Talabani, who is opposed to capital punishment on principle, could have provided the necessary braking power had the US chosen to act differently. From the dubious justifications of the war on Iraq to the poor execution since, I am afraid, in the final analysis, the US will be seen as having consigned herself to fighting a proxy war on behalf of an Iraqi faction that may prove to be openly hostile to the US anytime.