If you only have time for a quick read today, the answer to the question posed in the title is simple, no- terrorism is not an enemy we can defeat. At least not in the way we are currently attempting.
Terrorism is a tactic employed by a fighting force to achieve a strategic objective, not an enemy in and of it self. It is true that it is a particularly brutal and impalpable tactic to civilized people, but a tactic nonetheless. The United States has spent trillions of dollars1 and over 15 years at war against a tactic. The plan was doomed from the start. We launched a Global War on Terror in response to the attacks on our nation on September 11, 2001. We began a war in order to destroy terror around the world. How would/will we ever know if we won and achieved our national strategic objectives for which we employed force? I submit we won’t, which is why we see increased terrorism, fear, and confusion across Europe, increased instability across the Middle East, and decreased motivation to fight war in a debt-burdened United States. On September 10, 2001 I think that might have been Osama bin Laden’s strategic objective.
Meanwhile, the “thought provoking” discussion of the day proliferated by our political leaders and the media is whether or not to say the word “Islamic” before the word “terrorist”. Really…that’s what we are arguing about while our enemies are learning new, creative, and effective ways to successfully employ their tactic of terrorism to better achieve their strategic objectives. Maybe, we should be focusing on the fact that we have been fighting a war without a clear strategic objective for 15 years and start refining what we are actually trying to accomplish!
To start the quest to find a strategic objective the first question we should ask is “what is war”? This question and an understanding of its answer are essential to deciding when it is appropriate to employ physical force to achieve a political objective. There have been many definitions offered throughout history, but I think Carl von Clausewitz offered the most enduring in his work, On War. Clausewitz wrote that war is “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”2 (13). Furthering that point he wrote, “force- that is, physical force, for moral force has no existence save as expressed in the state and the law- is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object.”2 (13) A war based on defeating a tactic provides no strategic objective to judge success or failure, and no vision as to why that victory matters.
What we have heard often from President Obama over the course of the last eight years is about “degrading and disrupting” Al Qaeda and ISIS. What is missing in this statement is the “to what end” part. Are we killing terrorists at a faster rate than the Mosques in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc. or Facebook groups are radicalizing new ones? Is our strategic objective to eradicate all Islamic terrorists worldwide or merely to make the public believe we are committed to their “safety” by killing a few of the perceived leaders with unmanned aircraft? If we are not committed to doing what it takes to really win a war, let’s stop lobbing bombs out of unmanned aircraft creating a catalyst for further, faster radicalization. Let’s at least have a national discussion about what our strategic vision should be.
In order to overthrow Nazi Germany we killed a lot of good, non-radicalized, Germans to defeat their will to fight or to support the Nazi regime’s will to continue the fight. War is ugly and it cannot be fought “cleanly”. If we truly want to defeat the Islamic terrorist threat to our nation, we must defeat their will, not their means to fight. We will have to kill some good Muslims during our pursuit of this objective, not because they are Muslims but because, while they may not be in favor of terrorism as a tactic themselves, they are providing material support (even if passively) for a culture in which radicalization is increasing, not decreasing. This brutal war we must wage to be successful will be ugly, and it will be broadcast on CNN. That is what it will take to truly defeat our enemy by military force. Frankly, I don’t think the American people have the stomach to meet that strategic objective by way of warfare. If I am right in that assumption, then let’s stop the half-cocked military attempt that can never succeed and come up with a different way to achieve our objective. If I am wrong in that assumption, then let’s saddle up and go to war with a clearly defined objective of destroying the entire network of radical Islam and it’s support structure to achieve victory.
Our country lacks a grand strategy, and by lacking that grand strategy we lack any operational strategy to defeat a network of bad Islamists that intend to attack us using terrorism as their chief tactic. Until our leaders look at the problem in the correct way we will not achieve victory over our enemy through military or other means. We must not focus on destroying the enemy’s means to fight, but instead we must destroy their will to fight. Our enemy is not terrorism (a tactic) or a particular nation-state. It is a global network of Islamic radicals that intend to do our nation and its people harm. How we can defeat a malicious network and its support structure is the primary problem that we must solve to prevail in this fight. Until both our civilian and military leaders grasp this as the problem, there is no end and certainly no victory in sight for fighting terrorism either kinetically through “restrained warfare” or otherwise. Thanks for reading.
2- Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Oxford University Press: New York, 2007.