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Sunday, December 17, 2006

THE NEW YORKER: Knowing The Enemy

The 12/18/2006 issue of The New Yorker has a good article by George Packer that describes a different perspective on thinking about the "war on terror" that is being defined and promoted by Australian David Kilcullen. Some of Kilcullen's ideas were discussed in a James Fallows story in The Atlantic in September 2006. The article in The New Yorker goes into much more detail about Kilcullen's ideas and their implications on our current problems in Iraq and tactical changes that can help defeat terrorism.

A Battle Based on Information Strategy

The key concept in Kilcullen's thinking is that the tactics we see being used by the enemy in the war on terror aren't rooted in Islamic theology -- instead they amount to information driven strategies for promoting one's cause and putting the enemy in the worst light possible. As he states, "This is human behavior in an Islamic setting. This is not 'Islamic behavior.'"

As an example, Kilcullen cites an Al Qaeda propaganda video from 2004 in which Osama bin Laden rattled off a list of "grievances" against the west including Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, global warming… GLOBAL WARMING? Kilcullen and other writers (Ron Suskind among them) view this as proof Al Qaeda knew they were benefiting from the Bush Administration's faulty strategy on the war on terror, wanted it to continue, and knew that slipping in references to popular "leftist" positions would cause many American voters to reflexively vote in the opposite direction. Given where the polls are right now on both Bush and the Iraq war, I suspect many Americans who voted for Bush in 2004 might now see they that they may have been played. In essence, our enemy is playing chess and we're only playing checkers.

Information / Publicity As a Means of Coercion

In the Packer story, Kilcullen provides two examples of how our enemy is using an information strategy and publicity to help their cause more effectively than we are. In Afghanistan, Taliban forces send "night letters" to locals to terrorize them into growing poppy for heroin instead of normal crops.

This is not because they need more opium -- God knows they already have enough -- but because they're trying to detach the local people from the legal economy and the legally approved governance of the provinces and districts, to weaken the hold of central and provincial government. Get the people doing something illegal, and they're less likely to feel able to support the government and more willing to do other illegal things -- this is a classic old Bolshevik tactic from the early cold war, by the way. They are specifically trying to send the message: "The government can neither help you nor hurt us. We can hurt you, or protect you -- the choice is yours."

Kilcullen finds the same strategy being used in Lebanon by Hezbollah. After the scuffle with Israel ended in the summer of 2006, Hezbollah planted party flags in the windows of houses damaged by the fighting. The flags essentially staked out each damage house as Hezbollah propaganda territory, forcing would-be aid agencies to go through Hezbollah to provide any assistance, further cementing in the public's mind the perception that Hezbollah and not the official government was the only force capable of providing protection and assistance.

Defining the Enemy in the Narrowest Terms

Kilcullen's main critique of the Bush Administration's overall policy to date could be boiled down the catch-phrase for the entire effort -- the Global War on Terror - which Bush routinely compares to the Cold War. As Kilcullen puts it, the use of terms like totalitarianism or Islamofascism may make it easier to scare the American electorate but don't help describe the root issues in areas as diverse as Yemen and Java. By clouding our understanding of the causes with common (but pointless) terminology, we actually unify the enemy's ability to claim the spotlight while distracting our own attention from tactics which can keep conflicts small as more local solutions are formulated and attempted. In other words, don't help the enemy globalize a local issue -- define the enemy in each location in the narrowest possible terms and avoid giant, inflexible, monolithic approaches for locally varying challenges. Our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq already know this. If you want to turn the tide, don't try to solve the Palestinian problem, just focus on clean drinking water in Kirkuk, developing support for farmers in Kabul so they can grow legitimate crops, etc.

Penetrating Fortress Bush

The piece in The New Yorker is interesting because it makes it clear that Kilcullen has had success getting his ideas considered in many places within the Bush Administration except the ones that matter -- the top of the Pentagon and the Oval Office. His analysis for the Australian government was noticed by Paul Wolfowitz who brought him on board within the Pentagon to help update the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review. However, the key conclusion of his theory, that America should focus on stabilization and reconstruction efforts instead of outmoded and astronomically expensive weapons systems, had zero support from Donald Rumsfeld and consequently no impact on overall funding priorities within the Pentagon's near term strategy. He is now working as a staffer in the State Department and has boiled his recommendations down to three key tactics:

1) create resistance to the message of jihadist terrorist groups
2) co-opt or assist groups that have a counter message
3) consider creating or supporting rival organizations

We may never know if Kilcullen's ideas can improve the battle against terrorism. The Iraq Study Group report has been out for more than two weeks, the President is still conducting his "listening" tour of his own Administration (after ignoring most of it for six years), but the only idea consistently being mentioned by the Administration involves sending another 30,000 troops. More of the same.