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January 15, 2006

Al Qaeda As Hydra

In ancient Greek mythology, the Hydra was a serpent-like beast with numerous heads and poisonous breath that guarded the entrance to the underworld, and was killed by the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology) as one of his Twelve Labors. In one version of the story Heracles covered his mouth and nose with a cloth to protect himself from the poisonous fumes and fired flaming arrows into the Hydra's lair to draw it out. He then confronted it, wielding a harvesting sickle but as he cut off each of its heads he found that two grew back. Realizing that he could not defeat the Hydra in this way, Heracles called on his nephew Iolaus who came upon the idea of using a burning firebrand to scorch the neck stumps after decapitation. As Heracles cut off each head Iolaus burned the open stump leaving the hydra dead until only its one immortal head remained which Heracles placed under a great rock on the sacred way between Lerna and Elaius.

In many ways, the story of the Hydra illustrates the problems in confronting the entity known as "Al Qaeda" today. Lack of definition has complicated United States efforts in coming to grips with 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 various sources it can be ascertained that Al Qaeda is, variously, either a terrorist group, a stateless network of terrorists that represents a radical movement in the Islamic world, a venture capitalist firm that sponsors a terror network of networks, not a terrorist group at all but a worldwide insurgency, or perhaps it has evolved to the point where it is not an entity at all but a radical Islamic idea or philosophy. Each of these definitions represents a different head of the Hydra that is Al Qaeda. Each must be destroyed individually.

Understanding the differences among them is critical if the United States is to develop a clear strategy for victory in the War on Terror. Each of the various definitions - or heads of the Hydra -invokes a different strategy for its defeat. Failure on the part of the United States to employ the correct strategic approach invites failure overall. Ultimately, in order to defeat Al Qaeda as a precursor to winning the War on Terror it may be necessary to accept several conditions: That al Qaeda as Hydra 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 future warfare in the information age.

As the United States has focused the majority of its efforts against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, Al Qaeda has continued to spread its concept to other nations. As it confronts Al Qaeda globally the United States would be well advised to remember the lessons of the Hydra:

First, Heracles had to protect himself while drawing the Hydra out so he could confront it.

Second, Heracles did not succeed alone - he required the assistance of Iolaus to kill the Hydra.

Third, as he cut off each head he had to ensure that it could not grow back.

Finally, the last head was immortal, which he buried under a rock, showing that although the Hydra could not be completely eliminated, it could be convincingly defeated so that it could never rise again.

January 14, 2006

Iran and Nuclear Weapons

Current news media reports cover the slow but inexorable progress of Iran's nuclear development program. The United States, along with Britain, France, and Germany are calling for United Nations negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Iranian leaders, of course, are declaring that the program is only for the peaceful development of nuclear fuel for energy. The media coverage addresses the "what" of Iran's nuclear program, but it shows far less interest in the "why" of it.

In simple terms, why would an oil-rich country like Iran pursue a program to develop enriched uranium which can be used as fuel for both nuclear energy as well as nuclear weapons? What are Iran's ultimate objectives? The answer can be found in recent statements by its leaders.In recent weeks Iran's President declared that Iran will "wipe Israel from the face of the Earth" if it attacks Iran, that the Holocaust was a Western fabrication, and that Iran will not be "bullied" by the "colonial policy" of the West. This saber rattling indicates that Iran's true intentions are strategic and not economic - to develop a weapon with which it can hold the West at bay, to deter great power intervention, while it continues to foster it's version of Islamic revolution. With abundant oil resources it doesn't require nuclear fuel for economic purposes.

So, what are the implications should Iran develop nuclear weapons? The answer to the first question is that, first, Israel could be directly threatened with nuclear attack by a radical Islamic regime, thereby increasing the likelihood that any conflict with Israel could escalate to mutual use of nuclear weapons with attendant catastrophic results.

Second, with the elimination of Iraq by the United States as a strategic counter-balance in the Middle East, Iran would be in a position to directly threaten the non-nuclear Arabic nations around it.

Alternatively, it could use its nuclear capability as a form of shield while it exports its form of Shiite Islamic revolution to the minority populations of other Islamic nations. Overall, Sunni Muslims make up about 85-90% of Muslims worldwide, and Shiite Muslims account for the remaining 10-15% of Muslims. However, in Iran the demographics are reversed with Shiite Muslims making up about 89%, and Sunni Muslims about 10%, of Iran's population.

How should the West respond to the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program? The Western approach should accept that, first, any type of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program is likely to fail. Since Iran's interests are not economic, it is not interested in economic incentives which would only make it further dependent upon the West. It is also not likely to willingly relinquish its nuclear program since it views it as necessary to its overall strategic objectives. The remaining alternative is forcible intervention by the West to remove or destroy Iran's nuclear program, or to set it back far enough that it will take years to recover. Iran must be shown in clear and unambiguous terms that it will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, or to export its radical Shiite Islamic revolution to other nations.

With the United Nations' track record of ineffectiveness with rogue nations such as Iran it would be prudent for the West to begin making its preemptive plans now.

January 10, 2006

Why Strategy Matters

"You know you never defeated us on the battlefield," said the American colonel.The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. "That may be so," he replied, "but it is also irrelevant."

Conversation in Hanoi, April 1975(1)


"We thank God for appeasing us with the dilemma in Iraq after Afghanistan. The Americans are facing a delicate situation for both countries. If they withdraw they will lose everything and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death."

Ayman Zawahiri, September 2003(2)

The two statements above, separated by 28 years of history, reflect a common element for the United States in both the Vietnam War and the War on Terror - the lack of a cohesive wartime national strategy. The War on Terror, as the outcome of the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, promises to be the effort of a generation. If it is to win the War on Terror and prepare itself for the era of warfare that follows, the United States must approach it in a manner reminiscent of successes in past wars: with clearly defined and obtainable national objectives, and a unified national strategy to obtain those objectives. In addition, it must establish a clear long-term vision for transforming its efforts and its institutions from the industrial age to the information age as the new paradigm for waging war. Parameters for the new paradigm can be found by studying the lessons from past United States wars, and by evaluating them against emerging concepts of warfare in the information age.

For example, when the strategic reasons for the United States loss in the Vietnam War are considered against current United States efforts in the War on Terror parallels can be found. In Vietnam, the United States expended the majority of its strategic military effort against the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam which it viewed as the main North Vietnamese effort. Although the United States military succeeded in destroying the Viet Cong, it did not prevent North Vietnam from attaining its strategic objective of destroying American public support for the war and forcing the United States to withdraw from South Vietnam in defeat. In actuality, destruction of North Vietnam's regular forces, which ultimately overran South Vietnam, should have been the main strategic military objective of the United States.

In the War on Terror, the United States is currently expending the majority of its strategic military efforts against insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, it has not clearly defined its adversary, nor its strategic objectives. The insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq are likely not the main effort against the United States, and it is not certain that in its military engagement against them the United States is winning the War on Terror. In a manner reminiscent of Vietnam public opinion polls reflect that while the American public continues to support the War on Terror, it is growing increasingly disenchanted with the War in Iraq.

Additional factors which define the character of the War on Terror also have to be considered. First, the Vietnam War was an ideological struggle between a western industrialized world power and an Asian agrarian nation, fought using industrial age methods and weapons. The War on Terror is a war along cultural lines between a western information age world power and information age non-state entities. It will be fought using information age methods and weapons. Information age technology, which has eliminated concepts of time and distance, virtually guarantees that the War on Terror will again be brought to United States soil, as it was on 9/11. Second, the ongoing reorganization of the United States government and its intelligence community will play an as-yet-to-be-determined role in the War on Terror. Finally, the implications of the War on Terror are global. The experience of the United States, and its outcomes, will have implications for the world community as a whole in the information age.



Summers, Harry G., Jr.. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis Of The Vietnam War.
Conversation on 25 April 1975 in Hanoi between Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., then Chief, Negotiations Division, U.S. Delegation, Four Party Joint Military Team and Colonel Tu, Chief, North Vietnamese (DRV) Delegation, as reported by Colonel Summers.

Anonymous (Michael Scheur). Imperial Hubris: Why The West is Losing the War on Terror.
"Recorded Audio Message by Ayman Zawahiri," Al-Jazirah Satellite Channel Television, 10 September 2003, as reported by Anonymous (Michael Scheur).