Define Your Enemy Or Lose Yourself
Since the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has vacillated in its strategy in fighting Jihadist terror groups–and it has done so quite ineffectively. Initially, the George W. Bush Administration rightfully pursued al Qaeda and the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan, deftly synthesizing Special Forces, CIA, overwhelming airpower, and indigenous Afghan forces to topple the Taliban and bust up al Qaeda. However, within weeks of toppling the Taliban and losing Usama Bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001, the U.S. government began shifting its focus to pursuing state-sponsors of terrorism. This was made most famous by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the results of which will be debated endlessly for decades to come. Needless to say, whatever the reasons for the Iraq War, the fact is that Saddam Hussein (while he was an actual sponsor of terrorism globally) was not involved in the 9/11 Attacks. This dual-track approach to the poorly named Global War on Terror has resulted in a terribly mismanaged global war, that has cost trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, utterly destabilized the Middle East for decades to come. I believe that the inability to adequately identify–and define–our Jihadist enemies (as I noted in here, here, and here) has led to a series of strategic missteps that have not only destabilized our position in the Middle East, but also had the exact opposite effect that the war was intended to have: Jihadist groups are growing stronger, more violent, and harder to destroy than at any other time before.
What’s In a Name?
When the United States fought the Cold War, it understood that its primary adversary was Communism. Therefore, its strategic calculations were predicated on stunting the seemingly endless, totalitarian march of Communism on the world stage. In much the same fashion, the Islamism that Jihadist terror groups, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State adhere to is also a totalitarian ideology. Like Communism, it is global in its aims. And, like Communism, Islamism has a dichotomous view of the world: those who follow a strict Sunni interpretation of Islam (known as Wahhābīsm) belong to the “House of Peace,” (Dar es Salaam), those who believe in anything other than that puritanical form of Sunni Islam belong to the “House of War,” (Dar al-Harb). The U.S., Israel, Europe, and most of the governments of the Muslim world are considered by these Jihadist terror groups to be infidels worthy of destruction. In much the same way that nuclear brinksmanship was the method that Communists sought to fight the West, Terrorism is the primary method by which the Jihadist networks seeks to fight the West. This is the adversary we face today.
After 9/11, the Bush Administration was quick to emphasize the fact that its war against al Qaeda was not a war against Islam. They were right to do so. Indeed, most victims of Wahhābīst radicalism (from the 18th century to the present) are not just fellow Muslims, but specifically, fellow Sunni Muslims. However, I believe that in the Bush Administration’s zeal to prevent racially charged hate crimes at home, the Bush Administration refused to adequately define the enemy or to understand the threat. This is why both they and, more importantly, the Obama Administration refused to identify our adversaries in the religious terms they identified themselves. By denying the religious aspects of this conflict, the U.S. has effectively blinded itself to fighting this adversary effectively. Thus, what should have been the U.S.-Jihadist War became the vacuously titled “Global War on Terror” (and, under the Obama Administration, the even more sterile “Overseas Contingency Operation.”) This has led to a whole litany of disastrous policy choices that has gotten countless American military and intelligence personnel killed, increased the threat to Americans and our allies, and done serious harm to both our economy and our strategic position in the Middle East.
Because the Bush Administration sought to wage war against Terrorism in general, rather than a very specific (and pernicious) Wahhābī militancy, the U.S. essentially lost sight of its ultimate goal: defeating Jihadist terror networks globally. After losing Bin Laden in the mountain passes of Tora Bora, the United States pivoted away from the harsh, 7th-century environment of Afghanistan, and opted to refocus its military and intelligence might at toppling the secular Arab strongman of Saddam Hussein. Although Hussein was a perpetual thorn in America’s side, and there were seriously conflicting reports of whether Saddam possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the fact was that Hussein was not a Jihadist. And, while he certainly did fund and provide support for various terror groups throughout the Middle East, he should not have been the primary focus of the Bush Administration’s War on Terror. Yet, because Saddam was a known sponsor of terror, because it was feared he had the capability to wage a nuclear-9/11, and because he was a perpetual adversary in the region, the U.S. committed itself to fighting his regime as hard (if not more so) as it was committed to destroying al Qaeda.
If the United States had properly identified its enemy and adequately understood who it was fighting, this diversion away from fighting Jihadists and toward fighting decrepit, (mostly) secular Arab strongmen would likely not have occurred. As a brief aside, this amorphous definition of “terrorism” also explains why the Bush Administration failed to press its advantage against Iran following the 9/11 Attacks. In the run-up to its invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration sought to ensure that Iran did not mettle in its operations in Iraq. Therefore, the Bush Administration made a series of secret arrangements with the traditional U.S. foe in the region: during its air campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist forces, U.S. airpower would also be used to destroy Iranian rebel groups that had taken refuge in Iraq. Indeed, the nominally Marxist rebel group, the Mujahedin e-Khalq, was inexplicably placed on the U.S. terror watchlist. This group should have been supported by the United States in its decades-long conflict with Iran, but, because the U.S. had committed itself to a broad “War on Terror,” and because it was dedicated to toppling Saddam at all costs, the Bush Administration did not think to consider the geopolitical ramifications. Thus, however temporarily, in order to ensure short-term success in Iraq, the U.S. Air Force became the Iranian Air Force, and destroyed key Mujahedin e-Khalq (and other anti-Iranian groups) bases throughout Iraq.
But, I digress.
As the U.S. lost sight of its Jihadist foes and got bogged down in the morass of Iraq, the removal of Saddam Hussein soon destabilized the entire region. Whereas a majority of Iraqis had initially welcomed the U.S. invasion, thinking that the United States was coming to essentially stay and rebuild the beleaguered country, the Bush Administration had no real discernible plan for the post-war environment in Iraq. This led to a power vacuum, intercommunal violence between the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish populations, and the introduction of Wahhābīst forces (mostly al Qaeda affiliates) in northern Iraq and the growth of Iranian-backed militias in southern Iraq. Therefore, the Global War on Terror went from a narrowly-focused response to 9/11 and morphed into a regional civil war with ethno-religious overtones to it. As I detailed elsewhere, Iraq has become a focal point of Wahhābī vs. Mahdī-Shiite warfare. This didn’t have to be. It became so because the U.S. failed to properly identify who it was at war with following 9/11. Fifteen years on, it still cannot identify who it is fighting, why it is fighting, and what it aims to accomplish by fighting.
By referring to our fight as the “Global War on Terror,” the United States committed itself to waging an all-encompassing war that it could not possibly hope to win. Rather than following the tried-and-true form of ideological warfare, as practiced in the Cold War, or even direct kinetic warfare, as experienced in the Second World War, the United States opted to emulate the “social wars” of the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s. In much the same way that the American people were geared for endless (and un-winnable) Wars on Poverty and, later, drugs, the U.S. geared itself toward fighting Terrorism. In so doing, the campaign expanded endlessly and the focus and initiative of the campaign was forever lost to events on the ground. Soon, endless mission creep set in. By the time the Bush Administration had left office, Bin Laden was still on the run, Jihadist terror networks had proliferated to the entire region (and metastasized), Iran was stronger than ever, Iraq had been fought to a stalemate, and Afghanistan was ready to become a hopeless quagmire.
Things were destined to get worst when the Obama Administration entered office. Campaigning against the Iraq War, Democratic President Barack Obama sought to categorically end America’s involvement in Iraq and refocus U.S. military efforts on fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and even, if necessary, Pakistan. Yet, coming into office, President Obama immediately redefined the ongoing Global War on Terror into the “Overseas Contingency Operation.” What’s more, the Obama Administration sought to widen the definition of “terrorist” to include “domestic Right-Wing militants,” while softening the language used to refer to Jihadists (colloquially known as “Terrorists” during the Bush years) as “Religious extremists.”
At the same time, the Obama Administration began courting Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood (a precursor to al Qaeda). It also began to call for democratic reforms in U.S. allies, like Egypt, while eschewing any calls for reform in traditional U.S. adversaries (and actual state sponsors of terrorism), such as Iran. As the Arab Spring swept through the region, the Obama Administration inexplicably sought to topple the regimes of friendly governments like that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or even U.S. proxies, such as that of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. President Obama supported the removal of these secular strongmen in order for them to be replaced by Islamist political parties who subscribed (and supported) the very same Jihadists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11 and continued to wage war upon Americans since then.
So, even as the Obama Administration successfully killed Usama Bin Laden in Pakistan (and pressed its fight against al Qaeda Prime and the Taliban in Afghanistan); even as the Administration conducted a ceaseless global offensive against Jihadists using drones, the Obama Administration sought to arm and support Islamist political parties and Jihadist fighters who were engaged in combat against Arab strongmen, such as Gaddafi and, later, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad! In much the same way that the Bush Administration’s loose definition of “terrorism” allowed it to lose sight of the main prize: al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama Administration’s even more amorphous definition of the threat allowed it to become distracted with the impossible dream of spreading democracy to the Arab world by empowering undemocratic Islamists!
These dialectical delusions have cost us dearly and are likely to persist, unless we have a serious conversation as a country over who we are at war with, why we are fighting, and how best to defeat them–in much the same way that the American people did in the run-up to the Cold War.
It is within this context that we can now better understand the terrible events of the Benghazi Attacks. Whatever one’s opinion on the matter, it should go without saying that what happened there was a travesty and, thanks to the reporting of Andrew C. McCarthy, we can now get a better visual of just what role the Obama Administration–specifically, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–played in that debacle. At a time when the Obama Administration was claiming that, “Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive,” the Obama Administration was aiding the very same Jihadist terror groups and Islamist political parties that it was supposedly dealing devastating death blows to in the ongoing Global War on Terror (or, excuse me, “Overseas Contingency Operation”).
“The Obama administration, like the Bush administration, had touted Qaddafi as a key counterterrorism ally against rabidly anti-American jihadists in eastern Libya. Nevertheless, Secretary Clinton led the policy shift in which our government changed sides in Libya — shifting support to the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, just as Mrs. Clinton had urged shifting U.S. support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In Libya, this included arming ‘rebels,’ who naturally included a heavy concentration of jihadists.” – Andrew C. McCarthy, writing in the National Review Online.
It is now widely believed that the purpose of the State Department presence in chaotic Benghazi was to lend diplomatic cover for the ongoing CIA operation to move arms from Libya, through Islamist-controlled Turkey, and into the hands of Jihadist terrorists fighting Bashar al-Assad in Syria. As both Michael B. Kelly of Business Insider (as well as Andrew C. McCarthy) have reported, Ambassador Chris Stevens served as an intermediary between the al Qaeda-linked Libyan opposition and the Free Syrian Army, seeking to move captured stockpiles of Gaddafi’s man-portable missile launchers (MANPADS) from Libya, through Turkey, into Syria. Benghazi was perpetrated by the same Jihadist elements who the U.S. was supporting. The arrival of Ambassador Stevens (and the ongoing U.S. covert operation in Benghazi) had become well-known and, with the loss of Gaddafi as a common foe, the formerly U.S.-backed, al Qaeda-linked Jihadists in Benghazi moved to strike a decisive blow against the West by killing our Ambassador and humiliating America in Libya. They succeeded.
“Ambassador Stevens had only one person […] between him and the Benghazi man who brought heavy weapons to Syria.” – Michael B. Kelly of Business Insider.
Former Secretary Clinton was the leading proponent of this policy of supporting Jihadist networks to destabilize and destroy secular dictators, such as Gaddafi and Assad. In much the same way that the Bush Administration conflated the threat of Saddam Hussein with the threat of Jihadist terrorism, the Obama Administration conflated the call for democratic reform in the Arab world with fighting terrorism. Ultimately, this policy would have horrific ramifications for America, in much the same way that the Bush Administration’s Iraq War did.
In the case of Libya, the result was Benghazi. On the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks, Islamists–many of whom belonged to the very same groups that the U.S. had been supporting against Gaddafi–stormed the woefully under-defended U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Stevens and another State Department employee. What ensued was a pitched battle between a handful of U.S. forces from the neighboring CIA annex and a vast number of Islamist militants who the Obama Administration had oddly believed were its allies. Of course, it is likely that these groups were only using the United States to further their own aims of creating another safe haven for their operations while still receiving boatloads of money, training, and weapons from the very same Americans they were planning to eventually kill. This is yet another striking similarity to Communism of old: just as Lenin was convinced that he could get the Capitalists to sell him the rope from which he would ultimately hang them, the Jihadists are apparently convinced that they will receive the money and weapons they need to defeat the United States from the U.S. itself! So long as they claim that they are democratic and willing to fight Arab strongmen, it seems that the U.S. and the Obama Administration will give aid to our existential enemies.
Our failure to name names, our inability to properly define the enemy, is why so much chaos has reigned since 2001–this is a bipartisan issue.
As I have illustrated, the United States has failed to properly define both its enemy and the war that it is currently engaged in. This has had devastating effects on U.S. foreign policy and global stability. What should have been a war against Wahhābīst groups across the Muslim world became conflated with a war of toppling secular strongmen. In the case of Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, there is no doubt that they were indeed state sponsors of terror. However, this was not their regime’s primary purpose. What’s more, as has been proven in Syria, these regimes were very often as threatened by the Jihadist terror networks as the West has been.
While making common cause with these regimes may have been impossible (and was understandably undesirable), actively working to topple them by empowering Jihadists seems to miss the point entirely: groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State are the real threat to the United States, not secular dictators in the Arab world. By confusing the two, by not properly defining the enemy, the West has committed itself to waging seemingly endless, ever-expanding, and un-winnable wars in the desert. The longer that the U.S. seeks to topple strongmen in order to promote some vacuous concept of democracy, the longer the larger war against Jihad will rage. The more secular dictators fall–especially thanks to American meddling–the more powerful our Jihadist enemies will become. The more powerful Jihadists become, the graver the threat they pose to the United States and its citizens.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Political Correctness has become so pervasive and pronounced that now, the Obama Administration has taken to blaming guns and Global Warming for Jihadist terror attacks in both the U.S. and in Europe. Whereas the Bush Administration had refused to properly name its enemy out of fear of unfair reprisals directed against innocent Muslims both at home and abroad, the Obama Administration has taken this concept to an all-new extreme. Thanks to Political Correctness, now the U.S. government doesn’t just use bland euphemisms to describe its dedicated Jihadist foes, but it also actively engages in what Dr. Sebastian Gorka and others have described as, “Enemy Threat Denial.” We are now, essentially, unwilling to fight because we no longer accept that we have an enemy to fight. This explains why most Jihadist terror attacks both in the U.S. and throughout Europe have been committed by people who have given obvious warning signs that they were radicalized, yet little was done to prevent their terrorism. It also explains why so many people are more afraid of NSA warrantless surveillance than they are concerned about Islamic State militants attacking their local pubs.
I have attempted to briefly describe how we got to this point. By not calling our enemies by their names, by not understanding the enemy’s threat doctrine (Jihadism of a Wahhābī variant), American policy has become lost. We are now mired in an endless entanglement of ever-expanding military commitments to the Middle East and North Africa that is draining America’s military and economy. What’s more, the more sidetracked the United States becomes in its fight against Jihadist terror, the less safe it is. Even as the U.S. has toppled secular Arab dictatorships throughout the region, even as the Obama Administration has downplayed the threat of Jihadist terrorism outside of the Mideast and North Africa, there has been an exponential increase in Jihadism throughout the world. Also, just as the U.S. became the air force for Iran in the opening days of its mistaken foray into Iraq, it seems that the U.S. is similarly becoming the shock troops for Jihadist networks throughout the region (since toppling these strongmen normally leads to a power vacuum which Jihadist networks fill).
In keeping with the references to Communism, I am sure you are wondering, “what is to be done?” The solution is actually a lot easier than you might think. The quixotic military campaigns of toppling dictators by empowering (whether explicitly or not) Jihadist networks has led to an understandable backlash on the part of the American people, as the costs of these engagements become increasingly apparent. Therefore, restraint in our military operations is becoming an ever-present factor. Yet, most Americans understand and support taking the fight to the Jihadists. Therefore, the moment is ripe for a redefinition of this conflict, a proper explanation of who our enemies are (and what they want), and the means to defeating them can be explored.
The means to defeating the Jihadists reside not in regime change and democracy promotion. It’s not about socially reengineering the Mideast; we don’t need a “Jobs for Jihadis” program. What is needed is a willing commitment for engaging in punitive expeditions aimed at destroying Jihadist networks throughout the region, a redoubling of U.S. Special Forces missions, beefing up our allies in their fight against this adversary (states like Jordan and Egypt are chomping at the bit to take a greater role in fighting these Jihadists), and refocusing our counterterrorism efforts at home. The answer lies not in conflating regime change in places like Syria with defeating the Islamic State. Also, it requires us to embrace a full-throated counter narrative to what the Jihadists are selling, as I discussed here. It is only through these methods that we can refocus our efforts, defeat this adversary, and move off of this ongoing war, without risking future attacks.
Since 2001, we have improperly defined our enemy and the war we are fighting. As such, we have become mired in a ceaseless conflict that is causing massive blowback for our foreign policy. In many respects, our lackadaisical approach to fighting Jihadists, coupled with our confused policy of toppling secular Arab dictators, has exacerbated the threat rather than mollify it. A remedy to this situation is needed. That comes with properly defining our adversary, setting a cogent strategy that links ends-ways-means, and allows for the U.S. to not just use force, but to use the right kind of force at the right time in the right place. We have yet to do that. If we are not careful, if we do not make these seemingly simple changes, then our children may be fighting this war with as little hope for a successful resolution as there seems to be today.