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Hearts, Minds, and Hydras: Counterterrorist Lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq

Troops in Afghanistan (Image: Daily Mail)Perhaps the most memorable among the twelve labors of Hercules was his fight with the hydra. As if the beast’s seven snaring heads were not formidable enough, two more would rapidly grow back for every one Hercules lopped off. Although known much more for his brawn than his brain, Hercules finally solved that exasperating dilemma. Before resuming battle, he heated his sword red-hot and then with each mighty swing the blade seared shut the gaping wound left by another severed head. And so Hercules eventually killed the hydra.

Insurgencies are often like hydras. They would not exist were it not for exploitive, repressive, corrupt, brutal, and inept governments which worsen vicious cycles of mass poverty, violence, and despair. Yet those horrific conditions alone are not enough to spark an insurgency. That takes brilliant, ruthless leaders with an organization that mobilizes people to fight against their exploiters and an ideology to fight for a radical agenda for change. Once an insurgency begins, the measures a government takes to eliminate militants often provoke countless others to join the enemy ranks. The reason why is simple. Tactical victories often breed strategic defeats. Traditional “search, destroy, and withdraw” missions that rely on firepower to wipe out rebels often ravage  innocent people caught in the crossfire. That can transform once cowed people with something to lose into enraged revolutionaries devoted to destroying the government that ruined their lives.

The United States is warring against that hydra of insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars offer a myriad of lessons over how to feed and how to starve a hydra. Alas, there is no elegant solution like the one Hercules found. But there are a series of steps that can be taken to determine whether getting involved in an insurgency is a good idea in the first place and, if so, how to systematically destroy rather than multiply the beast’s heads.

Know Your Enemy

The first step is to heed the number one lesson of warfare articulated over 2,300 years ago by Sun Tzu to “know your enemy, know yourself.”[1] Devising the best strategies and tactics for vanquishing an enemy can only come after exploring and comparing the ends, means, strengths, and weaknesses of that enemy and oneself.

President George W. Bush and most of his key advisors failed to heed that essential step. They rejected the warnings of outgoing Clinton officials, Counterterrorist Czar Richard Clark, and CIA Director George Tenet that Al Qaeda was the most dangerous enemy that the United States faced and was determined to strike the American homeland itself.

Instead, during the nearly nine months from the January 20th inauguration until September 11, the Bush administration squared off with Russia, China, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran in what realists criticized as unwarranted and gratuitous conflicts. The president and his fellow neoconservatives were especially eager to somehow crush Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. If nothing else, those confrontations made ideological and political sense. They helped justify the huge boosts in Pentagon spending with missile defense at its core which neoconservatives demanded to widen the gap between America’s global military and political domination and that of any potential rivals.

Those obsessions blinded the Bush administration to Al Qaeda’s threat and persisted even after the mass murder and devastation of September 11. The debate over how to respond pitted the handful of realists against the neoconservatives. The realists called for a systematic campaign to destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in scores of other countries around the world. The neoconservatives insisted that the United States should attack Iraq even though the evidence was clear that Al Qaeda was responsible for September 11. For once the realists prevailed, but at a price. The neoconservatives grudgingly agreed to first go after Al Qaeda, but only if the realists supported a later assault on Iraq.

Even then the neoconservatives failed to follow Sun Tzu’s admonition. When Bush tried to explain the enemy’s nature to the American people, he presented an ideological rather than analytical portrait. In his televised address on September 21, he answered the rhetoric question, “Why do they hate us?” by asserting that they “hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other…These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends. They stand against us because we stand in their way.”

Actually Al Qaeda and other Islamists hate American more for what it does than what it is, although they do see the connection between American policies and culture. The relative short-term goals of Al Qaeda and its affiliates are clear-to drive the United States and other western countries from the Muslim world, destroy Israel, overthrow so-called apostate governments ruling Muslim peoples, and unify all Muslim peoples under one Caliphate dedicated to fulfilling the Koran and Sharia. Those are relative short-term goals. Ultimately they would convert all people to the true faith.

The inability of President Bush and his fellow neoconservatives to understand the nature of both the enemy and themselves has distorted and undermined the war against Al Qaeda, with tragic results for American wealth, power, and honor.

Know Your War

Having assessed the nature of one’s enemy and oneself, the next step is to fulfill a maxim by that great theorist and practitioner of warfare, Carl von Clausewitz: “The statesman and the commander have to … establish the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, not trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its true nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”[2]

A core question for policymakers is whether to treat terrorism as a crime or an act of war. That decision would depend on the strength, operations, and motivations of the group which commits terrorism. The smaller the group’s numbers, the more restricted its operations, and more motivated it is by hatred and vengeance rather than a coherent ideology and program of change, the more sensible it would be to treat the terrorists as criminals. But if terrorism is a tactic of a mass insurgency that is trying to destroy an established authority and replace it with a completely different political, economic, and social system, then a counterinsurgency strategy would certainly be more appropriate.

The subsequent strategies would differ. A terrorism-as-crime strategy would emphasize police investigations and criminal court trials to apprehend and prosecute suspects. A terrorism-as-war strategy would include all the appropriate elements of a counterinsurgency[3]

Any successful campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates clearly demands a hybrid of both strategies. Islamist operatives in states where the rule of law prevails can be investigated, apprehended, and prosecuted. A legal approach, however, will not work in failed or failing states where an Islamist movement threatens to take power or has taken power. Just what mix of methods might best counter the terrorists will vary from one country to the next. The bottom-line of any strategy is whether it works.


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