January 12, 2008
Issues of strategy can be found in the proliferation of national strategies, of which there are no fewer than twenty addressing various aspects of the War on Terror. These strategies deal with the problems of homeland security, homeland defense, and the War on Terror in piecemeal fashion, resulting in an approach that thus far is fragmented in its organization and disjointed in its application. A reading of the various national strategies does not render a clear understanding of overall United States policy, objectives, or strategy. History, in the form of the lessons learned in Vietnam, dictates that a failure of national strategy has the potential to lead to an overall failure in the War on Terror. Strategic issues are illustrated in the two national strategies that come closest to offering a grand strategy that creates an overarching umbrella for the other national strategies: the National Security Strategy of the United States of America and the National Strategy for Homeland Security.
The 2002 National Security Strategy pre-dated, but broadly paralleled, the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report regarding what the United States should do (employ all the elements of national power) and how it should do it (transform the major institutions of American national security to meet the requirements of the post-9/11 era). (1) The 2006 version of the National Security Strategy reinforces the original tenets from 2002 and lists examples of progress made in the intervening four years. (2) It also reserves the option of preemptive actions to disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations with global reach. In this sense, it forms a loose overarching strategy to secure the United States against terrorist attack. It defines America’s enemy as terrorism and terrorist networks in general, but it makes the fundamental strategic error espoused by Tilford, in that it does not clearly identify the enemy, nor national objectives regarding that enemy. (3)
In its language, the 2006 National Security Strategy may contribute inadvertently to the motivations of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. It clearly states that, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.”(4) In Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, Michael Scheur argues that it is precisely American policies and actions of the past thirty years in Muslim nations, including pressure to conform to democratic principles, that have lead to the War on Terror. American policies and actions “provide Muslims with proof of what bin Laden describes as ‘an ocean of oppression, injustice, slaughter, and plunder carried out by you against our Islamic ummah. It is therefore commanded by our religion that we must fight back. We are defending ourselves against the United States. This is a ‘defensive jihad’ as we want to protect our land and people.’”(5) Scheur supports this argument with public opinion polls in the Muslim world, which indicate an overwhelmingly negative view of the United States. (6)
Whether democracy is a clear and obtainable objective in the war on terror is questionable. In Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World, Ralph Peters takes the position that “Democracy must be earned and learned. It cannot be decreed from without. In a grim paradox, our [United States] insistence on instant democracy in shattered states…is our greatest contribution to global instability.”(7) Efforts to impose democracy on other sovereign nations may be perceived by those nations and their cultures as the ultimate example of American hubris. This may be a causal factor in members of other cultures responding to calls for war against the United States.
The 2002 National Strategy for Homeland Security also predated the 9/11 Commission Report. (8) Its stated purpose, “to mobilize and organize the nation to secure the homeland from terrorist attacks,” seemed to be a goal that would be more applicable to the National Security Strategy. (9) Its objectives – preventing terrorist attacks within the United States, reducing America’s vulnerability to terrorism, and response and recovery to terrorist attacks – were focused inward on domestic preparations and constituted a primarily defensive and preventive strategy. It was an example of what Summers describes as taking the strategic defensive, which led to United States defeat in Vietnam. (10) Much of what it prescribed for homeland security also conformed to Clausewitz’s definition of preparations for war instead of the conduct of war proper. It did not provide an objective or a strategy for offensive actions to counter terrorism, to preempt it at United States borders, or for taking the strategic offensive in the War on Terror. It provided a blueprint for the Department of Homeland Security but, despite having a segment devoted to American federalism and homeland security, it did not provide any authority for directing how the various federal agencies should work in synchronization to prosecute the War on Terror. Ultimately, in its call for the implementation of homeland security measures costing hundreds of billions of dollars, it may have served al Qaeda’s strategic objective of bleeding the United States economy as a means of defeating American resolve. (11) Ironically, al Qaeda’s strategic objective is similar to that employed by the United States when it bled the economy of the former Soviet Union into bankruptcy in the Cold War arms race.
The 2007 National Strategy for Homeland Security describes its purpose as “to guide, organize, and unify our Nation’s homeland security efforts.” (12) It acknowledges the need to take measures that enhance the resilience of the national economy and critical infrastructure, and it takes into account the necessity to prepare for catastrophic natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina) as well as terrorist attacks. It does prescribe some measures that can be categorized as taking the strategic offensive. However, its approach reinforces an industrial age paradigm by focusing on the land, maritime, air, space, and cyber domains, rather than an information age paradigm focused on the physical (including land, maritime, air, space, and cyber), information, cognitive, and social domains. It does not set objectives for winning the War on Terror.
The nature of the War on Terror – against the unknown, the uncertain, and the unexpected, as Rumsfeld indicated – makes strategic thinking difficult. The proliferation of national strategies that partition the war on terror into segments further complicates the effort. An example of how this occurs can be found in Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War, in which Beyerchen includes a discussion of the way chance is associated with Clausewitz’s concept of the fog of uncertainty in war, which obscures or distorts most of the factors on which action is based. (13) According to Beyerchen, chance as a function of analytical blindness, as described by the late 19th century mathematician Henri Poincaré and displayed in Clausewitz’s work, results in an inability to see the universe as an interconnected whole. To paraphrase Beyerchen’s argument and apply it to the War on Terror: The inability to see the War on Terror in its entirety has resulted in multiple national strategies that break it down into segments more easily dealt with. Yet it happens that these segments interact and the effects of this interaction seem to be due to chance. The result is that the effort to comprehend the War on Terror through analysis, the effort to partition off pieces of it to make them individually amenable to strategic thought, creates the possibility of being blindsided by the partitioning process.
According to Beyerchen, Clausewitz had a profound sense of how the understanding of phenomena – in this case the War on Terror – is truncated by the bounds placed on it for analytical convenience. Clausewitz stressed the failure of theorists to develop effective principles because they insist on isolating individual factors or aspects of the problems presented in war. Beyerchen quotes Clausewitz to illustrate his point:
Efforts were therefore made to equip the conduct of war with principles, rules, or even systems. This did present a positive goal, but people failed to take an adequate account of the endless complexities involved. As we have seen, the conduct of war branches out in all directions and has no definite limits; while any system, any model, has the finite nature of a synthesis….[these attempts] aim at fixed values; but in war everything is
uncertain, and calculations have to be made with variable quantities. They [theorists] direct the inquiry exclusively toward physical quantities, whereas all military action is entwined with psychological forces and effects. They [theorists] consider only unilateral action, whereas war consists of continuous interaction of opposites. (14)
This is not to indicate that strategy in the War on Terror is without value; quite the opposite. While strategy as a plan, or product, is problematic (as indicated in the preceding discussion), strategy as process brings great value. Strategy as process brings together often disparate elements to understand and prosecute a war that is in many ways at odds with historical record. The issue for the United States is how it will transform its strategic processes to meet the requirements of warfare in the Information Age.
(1) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2002.
(2) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2006.
(3) Earl Tilford, “The War on Terror: World War IV,” A Reserve Officers Association National Security Report, Officer (October 2004), 38.
(4) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2006, 1.
(5) Anonymous (Michael Scheur), Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (Dulles, Virginia: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004), 129.
(6) Ibid, 177.
(7) Ralph Peters, Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World (Mechanisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), 179-181.
(8) National Strategy for Homeland Security, 2002.
(9) Ibid, 1.
(10) Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1984), Ch. 8.
(11) Anonymous (Michael Scheur), Imperial Hubris, 100-101.
(12) National Strategy for Homeland Security, 2002, 1.
(13) Alan D. Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War,” International Security 17, no.3 (winter 1992): 59-90.
(14) Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976, 134-136.
December 22, 2007
The war metaphor invoked by the United States in prosecuting the War on Terror renders its efforts subject to analysis by the doctrinal rules of war. Contemporary United States doctrine for fighting wars derives its foundation – its “rules of grammar” – from the writings of nineteenth-century Prussian General Carl Philipp Gotlieb von Clausewitz, particularly his seminal thesis, On War. (1) Despite being published posthumously after Clausewitz’s death in 1831, On War continues to shape current American military thinking and remains the most modern authority available on the essence of war. Simply put, no one has produced a better description of the essence of war and the immutable principles for its conduct in nearly two centuries. It is considered by many to be the greatest work on war and strategy ever produced by Western civilization, and its key concepts can be used to put current efforts in the War on Terror in perspective.
In his chapter on war as an instrument of policy, Clausewitz writes that “war’s grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.” (2) By invoking the logic of war in declaring the War on Terror the United States committed itself to its rules of grammar, or means. Tilford explains Clausewitz’s concept of grammar in the following way:
The logic [nature] of war, violence directed by political intent, remains constant but the grammar [character] changes. Logic is a constant regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, nationality or cultural factors. On the other hand, how one addresses a particular problem or issue, the methods used, is subject to a large number of factors such as age, sex, physical condition, resources, culture, religious beliefs and values. Applied to war, there is then a distinctly American way of war that differs significantly from the way Chinese or Russians or Zulus make war. There is also a distinctly Muslim fundamentalist way of making war. Clausewitz’s point is that although nations and groups make war in different ways based on a large number of factors, they go to war for one logical reason only: to force an enemy to do their will. (3)
The first concept that Clausewitz offers is his definition of war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”(4) From the vantage point of Clausewitz’s definition the War on Terror is not unique, and it would be a mistake to see it in any way other than strategic context. To begin, Clausewitz’s definition of war can be broken into three elements. They are, first, that the effort is directed toward an identified opponent; second, that it involves violence or use of force to compel our opponent to fulfill our will; and third – implied – that we know our national will. The War on Terror does not present a new problem from Clausewitz’s logical perspective, but merely a modern application of an ancient concept.
Second, Clausewitz declared that all wars could be considered acts of policy. Otherwise, the entire effort contradicts the history of war. It is absolutely essential therefore that:
The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and the commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive. (5)
To understand the true nature of the War on Terror requires not only a refined definition of the enemy, but also a knowledge and comprehension of the nature of the war itself. For the United States to stray from this principle, again, invites failure.
This leads to a third principle established by Clausewitz, that of the political objective. To paraphrase, the political object is the goal, war is the means for reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose. (6) Only upon establishment of the objective of the war can strategy be devised to achieve it. Following the logic of Clausewitz if al Qaeda is its most visible enemy in the War on Terror, and perhaps the forerunner of adversary networks in the information age, then the United States must understand the nature of al Qaeda, as well as the nature of its conflict with al Qaeda. It can then develop clearly defined, decisive and attainable objectives with attendant strategy to prevail against al Qaeda. Lack of clarity of strategic objectives, in the long-term, has the potential to lead to a wearing down of American resolve, which ultimately can lead to failure. This is evocative of the lack of clarity of strategic objectives, described very clearly and eloquently by Summers, which contributed to American failure in Vietnam. (7)
Clausewitz put forth two additional sets of concepts that offer insight into the War on Terror. They are the concepts of fog and friction, and the concepts of efforts that constitute preparations for war versus war proper. The concept of fog in war refers to the uncertainty of the information that is available to the commander. (8) Uncertainty can make problems seem, outside of perspective, larger than they really are. In the absence of information, that which is not known is left to chance. Friction is the concept that “everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult,” and the difficulties accumulate. (9) Clausewitz envisioned an army as a very simple machine, but with a multitude of moving parts, each of which retains its independent capability to generate friction.
Both fog and friction can be observed throughout the United States effort in the War on Terror. The effects of fog can be found in the lack of clarity of information that exists at the policy, strategic, operational, and tactical levels of effort. Friction can be observed in the homeland security related interagency conflicts between international, federal, state, local, tribal, and private agencies. Both fog and friction have impacted the strategic gaps that exist between agencies such as that between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense; in the foreign-domestic divide described by the 9/11 Commission; in the lack of interoperability between agencies at all levels nationwide; and in the failure to share intelligence across agency boundaries. Examples of fog and friction abound in the War on Terror.
Finally, Clausewitz said that, “The activities of war may be split into two main categories: those that are merely preparation for war, and [those that constitute] war proper.” Preparations for war produce “the end product,” trained and equipped fighting forces. War proper “on the other hand, is concerned with the use of these means, once they have been developed, for the purposes of [waging] the war.” (10) The purpose of war is presumed to be the imposition of one’s will upon one’s enemy. Similarly, the application of effort to the War on Terror should be divided into those activities that are preparations for war and those that are conduct of the war proper. Both activities are necessary, but each should be considered separately and not confused one for the other when evaluating success. Nor can they be separated from objective and strategy.
The outcome of the Vietnam War is an example of the result that can occur when preparations for war and war proper are confused with objective and strategy. In referring to the United States defeat in Vietnam, Summers asks the question, “How could we have succeeded so well [tactically and logistically], yet failed so miserably [strategically]?” (11) He opens his analysis of the Vietnam War with this declaration:
At the height of the war, the Army was able to move almost a million soldiers a year in and out of Vietnam, feed them, clothe them, house them, supply them with arms and ammunition, and generally sustain them better than any Army had ever been sustained in the field. To project an Army of that size halfway around the world was a logistics and management task of enormous magnitude, and we had been more than equal to the task. On the battlefield itself, the Army was unbeatable. In engagement after engagement, the forces of the Viet Cong and of the North Vietnamese Army were thrown back, with terrible losses. Yet, in the end, it was North Vietnam, not the United States that emerged victorious. (12)
The Army’s accomplishments in Vietnam could not have been carried out without the application of preparations for war on a large scale. In essence, the Army did everything it was designed to do in Vietnam, but its successes did not achieve United States victory. The failure can be viewed in two ways. First, the activities that constituted preparations for war, e.g., logistics, personnel, and resource management were not always distinguished from war proper, resulting in misdirection of priorities. The result was a systems analysis approach to the Vietnam War that overrode strategic planning. More importantly, both preparations for war and war proper were directed toward an objective and strategy that were flawed. Regardless of the success of the military effort, it was in support of a flawed national objective and strategy that doomed the overall effort to ultimate strategic failure. The durability of the negative effects of strategic failure can be observed in the current debate in public forums on the nature and implications of the perceived threat to the nation.
How does the United States avoid making a similar mistake in the War on Terror? Much of the current homeland security effort in the War on Terror – reorganization of government, critical infrastructure protection, and scenario-based planning are examples – are defensive actions that take on the guise of preparations for war. They do not, in and of themselves, directly impose America’s will on al Qaeda or any other adversary. It is not certain that they are even effective deterrents. Those offensive diplomatic, information, military, law enforcement, and economic actions that are taken to apply force directly to terrorist adversaries to force them to accept the will of the United States are examples of war proper. In the final analysis, it will be necessary for the United States to ensure that its efforts, both those that constitute preparation for war, as well as those that constitute war proper, are directed toward clearly defined, decisive and attainable national objectives and facilitated by a clear and effective strategy for success. This will require a transformation of strategic thought. United States war-fighting doctrine, founded in Clausewitzean principles of war between nation states, must be adapted in order to apply it to prevail against non-state entities.
(1) Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), 605.
(2) Ibid., 605.
(3) Earl Tilford, “The War on Terror: World War IV,” A Reserve Officers Association National Security Report, Officer (October 2004), 37.
(4) Clausewitz, On War. 75.
(5) Ibid., 88.
(6) Ibid., 80-81.
(7) Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1984), 46.
(8) Clausewitz, On War, 140.
(9) Ibid., 119.
(10) Ibid., 131-132.
(11) Summers, On Strategy, 22.
(12) Ibid., 21-22.
November 2, 2007
In the realm of policy, first and foremost, the question must be asked: Is the United States truly at war in the war on terror? The determinations of the 9/11 Commission Report indicate that the United States is in popular deed, if not in legal fact, a nation at war, and lead to the Commission’s recommendations for establishing national objectives and a national strategy for conducting the war on terror. (1) The findings of the 9/11 Commission meet two of the three critical elements in Clausewitz’s military-political definition of war. First, that the effort is directed toward an identified opponent and, second, that it involves violence or use of force to compel our opponent to fulfill our will. According to the 9/11 Commission the United States’ opponent in the war on terror consists of the terrorist groups and their allies, particularly the global al Qaeda network, that form the threat of Islamist terrorism, thereby satisfying the first element of war: an effort directed at an identified opponent. (2) Although there are problems with this definition, particularly that it falls short of defining the full scope of the threat to the United States, it represents a start in developing a national objective and strategy. The use of American and allied forces to find and destroy terrorist groups, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq, partially fulfills the second element of war: the use of violence or force to compel our opponent to meet our will. (3) The issue to be resolved is whether the insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Iraq are the right enemy, at the right time, and in the right place.
The third element in Clausewitz’s military-political definition of war, that we know our national will, is partially, but not completely, satisfied by Public Laws 107-40 and 107-243. These laws, from a legal perspective, do not constitute a formal declaration of war. However, they give the President broad powers to prosecute the effort that has come to be known popularly as the war on terror. Under the provisions of Public Law 107-40, the President is authorized to use force against those nations, organizations, or persons who planned and carried out the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and those that harbored them, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States. (4) Public Law 107-243 authorizes the President to use the armed forces of the United States to defend the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq. (5) Based on these laws the first component of the national will – the political will of the United States – is presumed to be established, even without a formal declaration of war. The second element of the national will, the public will, remains uncertain.
This poses a number of policy issues in the war on terror. The rules for invoking the national will are embedded in Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, which gives to Congress – the elected representatives of the American people – the power to declare war. A declaration of war – to establish the national will – therefore becomes a shared responsibility between the political will of the government and the popular will of its constituents. This is more than just a formality. Failure by Congress to declare war in Vietnam led to a failure to mobilize the second element of the national will, the popular will of the public, and ultimately contributed to the United States’ defeat. A declaration of war gives the President clear-cut military authority, as well as non-military options, including internment of armed combatants and seizure of foreign funds and assets. A formal declaration of war in the war on terror might have precluded the Supreme Court’s decision to grant detainees at Guantanamo Bay access to the protections of the judicial system. Further, according to William F. Buckley:
To declare war is not necessarily to dispatch troops, let alone atom bombs. It is to recognize a juridically altered relationship and to license such action as is deemed appropriate. It is a wonderful demystifier… [leaving] your objective in very plain view. (6)
An acknowledgement of the need for the United States to establish objectives in the war on terror, and to develop a strategy to achieve those objectives, is found in the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the United States should “consider what to do– the shape and objects of a strategy,” and “how to do it – organization of [the] government in a different way.” (7) The Commission’s recommended objectives are to attack terrorists and their organizations, prevent the continued growth of Islamist terrorism, and protect against and prepare for terrorist attacks. The Commission says the strategy must incorporate offensive actions, with coalition partners, to counter terrorism; defensive actions with responsibilities for the nation’s defense clearly defined; a preventive strategy that is both political as well as military; and, finally, a responsive strategy that deals with attacks that are not prevented. Finally, the Commission recognized that if a national strategy is to be successful in the long-term, it must use all the elements of national power: intelligence, covert action, diplomacy, economic policy, foreign aid, and homeland defense. (8) From its recommendations it appears that the 9/11 Commission is suggesting a single overarching strategy for the United States in the war on terror.
(1) The 9/11 Commission Report, Authorized Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004), 363.
(2) Ibid, 363.
(3) Ibid, 363.
(4) Congressional Record 147 (2001), September 14. Public Law 107-40, 115 STAT. 224, Authorization For Use of Military Force.
(5) Congressional Record 148 (2002), October 10. Public Law 107-243, 116 STAT. 1498, Authorization For Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.
(6) Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1984), 58; William F. Buckley, “George Kennan’s Bomb,” National Review (April 1980). As quoted by Colonel Summers.
(7) 9/11 Commission Report, 361.
(8) Ibid, 363.
October 8, 2007
The lack of definition in the war on terror is problematic. While it allows national leaders the flexibility to define and redefine success in ways that suit political purposes, it also has potential drawbacks. From an operational perspective, it potentially leads to lack of clarity and understanding, and thus lack of focused national effort along with its attendant risk of failure. The very phrase “war on terror” lacks definition, and therefore presents the United States with a strategic issue that inhibits its efforts to prosecute the war effectively. As multiple sources have indicated, “terror” is not the enemy. In the “war” on terror, neither terror nor terrorism can be defeated since terror is a method and terrorism is a tactic. From this perspective, neither terror nor terrorism takes on the characteristics of entities that can be defeated in the traditional sense.
The 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, released by the White House, defined America’s enemy as “terrorism” in general. (1) The 9/11 Commission, perhaps recognizing the difficulty posed by the White House definition, provided a more precise description when it declared that “the enemy is not just ‘terrorism,’ some generic evil,” but must be the “threat posed by Islamist terrorism – especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology.”(2) However, even this clarification by the 9/11 Commission does not resolve the issue. As Jason Burke further notes, definitions are important. In Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, he points out that current definitions are subjective and, since terrorism is a tactic, the adoption by the United States of the phrase “war on terrorism” is nonsensical.(3) From an operational perspective, it does not allow a precise description of the problem confronting the nation. Earl Tilford goes even further in The War on Terror: World War IV and establishes a link between definitions and strategy when he declares that, in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, when the Bush Administration labeled its efforts the “war” on terror, it made a basic and fundamental strategic error.(4) From Tilford’s perspective, the error is so grave that it places the United States in the position of fighting a war that it could lose, similar to Vietnam, because it has misjudged the nature of its opponent.
It is notable that the 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism and the 2006 National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism use identical wording in defining the enemy as “a transnational movement of extremist organizations, networks, and individuals – and their state and non-state supporters – which have in common that they exploit Islam and use terrorism for ideological ends.”(5) This definition continues to restrict the definition of the enemy by assigning it a connection to Islam. It also applies a mixed metaphor by establishing a connection between radical Islam – which is essentially a religion – and political ideological philosophies (rather than religious philosophies, which are cultural). Neither the White House, the Department of Defense, nor the 9/11 Commission adequately address non-state entities (whether domestic or transnational in origin) which are not connected to Islam. In the information age these networks represent a potential threat to the nation as great as that currently posed by al Qaeda.
Lack of definition further complicates United States efforts in coming to grips with the entity known as “al Qaeda.” If al Qaeda represents the primary, or at least the most visible, opponent of the United States in the war on terror its precise nature remains unclear. From differing sources, it can be ascertained that al Qaeda is, variously, either a terrorist group,(6) a stateless network of terrorists that represents a radical movement in the Islamic world,(7) a venture capitalist firm that sponsors a terror network of networks,(8) or not a terrorist group at all but a worldwide insurgency.(9) Understanding the nature of al Qaeda is critical if the United States is to develop a clear strategy against it. Conventional strategic thinking calls for identifying and attacking an enemy’s centers of gravity. Each of the various definitions of al Qaeda invokes a different strategy; failure on the part of the United States to employ the correct strategic approach invites failure overall. Ultimately, in order to prevail against al Qaeda as a precursor to success in the war on terror, it may be necessary to accept several conditions: that al Qaeda is a non-state entity that possesses elements of each of the definitions above; that it is constantly evolving its methods, tactics, and philosophy, i.e., the very essence of what it is; that it is very successful in attracting adherents; and that it may represent the forerunner of both terrorism and warfare in the information age. In this sense conventional strategic thinking may not be effective in warring against al Qaeda.
The definition of victory, or even success, in the war on terror is also problematic. The 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism establishes this when it states: “The long-term solution for winning the war on terror is the advancement of freedom and human dignity through effective democracy.”(10) The means to be used by the United States to advance democracy are not clear. How will the United States know when it has advanced democracy far enough that it can declare it has won the war on terror? The implication of this definition is that it offers no definable end state, no reasonable expectation that the war on terror can be brought to a conclusion. As a matter of practicality, it may not be possible to defeat or eliminate terrorist groups entirely. The strategic alternatives of rollback or containment of terrorism may be more feasible goals.(11)
A final definition which poses difficulty for the United States in the war on terror is the legal status of its adversaries. Are individuals who carry out terrorist acts against the United States and its interests criminals or are they armed combatants? The difference is critical in crafting a wartime strategy that bridges the foreign-domestic divide defined by the 9/11 Commission.(12) A primary example is the legal status of the al Qaeda detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The 9/11 Commission recommended that the United States should develop a coalition approach for the detention and humane treatment of captured transnational terrorists, possibly structured on Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions on the law of armed conflict. This is at least tacit acknowledgment that the detainees are recognized as armed combatants and should be accorded some of the protections of the Geneva Conventions.(13)
However, in a decision that was issued nearly simultaneously with the release of The 9/11 Commission Report, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that detainees at Guantanamo Bay can take their cases – that they are unlawfully imprisoned – to the American court system.(14) The Court further reinforced its position in 2006 when it ruled against Bush Administration efforts to conduct war crimes trials for some detainees at Guantanamo Bay.(15) The impact of the Court’s rulings is that they call into question whether the United States is legally at war in the war on terror, or whether it is actually pursuing a law enforcement action. By offering the protection of the United States legal system to the detainees, it appears that the Supreme Court does not recognize the war on terror as a war according to legal and historical definitions.
As indicated above, many of the issues that currently affect the war on terror can be traced to lack of definition, lack of clarity, and a diffused rather than focused effort. This has the benefit of allowing policy makers to maintain flexibility in defining and re-defining success in many ways. However, it poses great difficulty in developing effective strategy and conducting focused operations. Lack of definition also affects, for good or bad, the application of doctrine, policy, and transformation concepts to the war on terror.
(1) National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, 2003. 1.
(2) 9/11 Commission Report, 362.
(3) Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (New York: I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd, 2004), 22.
(4) Earl Tilford, “The War on Terror: World War IV,” A Reserve Officers Association National Security Report, Officer (October 2004), 38.
(5) National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, 2006. 5; Department of Defense, National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism (2006), 4.
(6) United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Handbook No.1, A Military Guide to Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (2005), Appendix A.
(7) The 9/11 Commission Report, 362-363.
(8) Bruce Hoffman, “The Leadership Secrets of Osama Bin Laden: The Terrorist as CEO,” Atlantic Monthly (April 2002).
(9) Anonymous (Michael Scheur), Imperial Hubris, 62.
(10) National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,2006. 9.
(11) Stephen D. Biddle, “American Grand Strategy After 9/11: An Assessment,” Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, April 2005, 28.
(12) The 9/11 Commission Report, 399.
(13) Ibid., 379-380.
(14) Rasul et al v. Bush, President of the United States, et al., 542 U.S. 03-334 and 03-343 (2004). The majority ruling of the Supreme Court was that United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. As the Supreme Court ruled, the Guantanamo Bay detainees: are not nationals of countries at war with the United States; deny they have engaged in or plotted acts of aggression against the United States; have never been afforded access to any tribunal and therefore have never been tried and convicted of wrongdoing; for more than two years have been imprisoned in territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control.
(15) Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et al., 548 U.S. 05-184 (2006). The majority ruling of the Supreme Court was that it has jurisdiction to hear the case of an accused combatant before his military commission takes place; that the federal government did not have authority to set up these particular special military commissions; and that the special military commissions were illegal under both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention of 1949.
October 7, 2007
As the United States enters its seventh year in the War on Terror its spending in the total effort is approaching a trillion dollars and its military and civilian casualties combined are approaching 40,000 people. These sacrifices, and more, may be the price for the post-9/11 security of the nation. However, they are significant and they do justify an accounting by American leaders. Three questions can be raised:
• Are we winning the War on Terror?
• Is the War in Iraq making us safer?
• Do our elected leaders understand the strategic situation the nation faces?
Results Of The Terrorism Index
In August the Center for American Progress published the results of its third Terrorism Index. They can be found on-line at:
A survey of more than 100 of American foreign-policy experts by the Center provides unsettling insights into the questions above. According to the Center the experts they interviewed “see a world that is growing more dangerous, a national security strategy in disrepair, and a war in Iraq that is alarmingly off course.” Some of the results:
Are we winning the War on Terror?
In response to the statement “The United States is winning the War on Terror,” 6% agreed, 84% disagreed.
Is the War in Iraq making us safer?
In response to the question “Do you think the world is becoming safer or more dangerous for the United States and the American people?,” 2% answered safer, 91% answered more dangerous.
According to the Center, the War in Iraq “appears to be the root cause of the experts’ pessimism about the state of national security.” Nearly all of those interviewed – 92 % – said the War in Iraq negatively affects United States national security.
Do our elected leaders understand the strategic situation the nation faces?
The comments of American national leaders are often at odds with the results of the Index. As reported by the Center:
Sen. Hillary Clinton: “I believe we are safer than we were.” – June 3, 2007
Terrorism Index Experts: A huge majority, 91 percent, believe the world is growing more dangerous for Americans and the United States.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani: “I support the president’s increase in troops. Even more importantly, I support the change in strategy. . . .” – January 10, 2007
Terrorism Index Experts: The majority, 83 percent, believe the surge has had either a negative impact or no impact at all on the war in Iraq.
Sen. John McCain: “We lose this war and come home, they’ll follow us home.” – March 10, 2007
Terrorism Index Experts: Nearly 9 in 10 say that they do not believe terrorist attacks would occur inside the United States as the result of a withdrawal from Iraq.
Sen. Barack Obama: “We must maintain the isolation of Hamas.” – March 2, 2007
Terrorism Index Experts: More than 70 percent believe the United States should engage, not isolate, Hamas.
Gov. Mitt Romney: “This is a time . . . to increase our diplomatic isolation of Iran.” –February 18, 2007
Terrorism Index Experts: Eight in 10 support engaging in bilateral dialogue with Tehran over its nuclear program.
Sen. John Edwards: “[Congress] should correct its mistake and use its constitutional funding power to force an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.” – July 10, 2007
Terrorism Index Experts: Almost 80 percent of the experts oppose an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
Conclusion: It is not surprising that the statements of political leaders who are competing for national office are at odds with the more measured positions of experts from defense, industry, and academia. However, the most critical issue may be the question not asked: Do we have effective strategies to win the War on Terror, and are they on track? The future security of the nation hinges on the answer.