WaPo reports CIA director Michael Hayden as saying
"On balance, we are doing pretty well," he said, ticking down a list of accomplishments: "Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally -- and here I'm going to use the word 'ideologically' -- as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam," he said.
I'd ask, what's a strategic defeat in this context?
Lots of people, Bill Roggio especially, who everyone ought to read, now appear to solemnly contradict Hayden, pointing out Al Qaeda now metastasizes into Somalia, Algeria, Ethiopia, obviously Pakistan. Nor have we cut off AQ's funding mechanisms, though we've made some headway. The hawala money exchanges (an ancient version of Western Union money transfers) and the financiers are still in operation: as one is shut down, two more open. AQ has vastly diversified its funding Obeying the Law of Unintended Consequences, Afghanistan's massive heroin production funds terrorism to the tune of billions of dollars, and is largely unopposed by NATO and the Afghan government. And Roggio's right: it's unfortunate to hear Hayden's Happy Talk about the ideological and strategic defeat of AQ at this stage of the game.
If that was all Hayden was saying, we could idly dismiss Hayden. But let's look more closely at this business of Ideological and Strategic Defeat. There's way more to this problem, and maybe at long last our intelligence community is learning some badly needed lessons.
The Physics of Political Judo:
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Al Qaeda is an amorphous entity, using the famous name of Osama bin Ladin's base camps for the Afghan Taliban. These groups have little to do with each other, largely by design. The word "qaeda", as everyone knows by now, is an encampment, that's it. Not even really a base of operations, more like the French word "abri", a shelter, certainly not a fortified position or even a firebase. It's an important word, because Al Qaeda will never build castles or rule over men in any substantive way. They appear only in lawless places, to murder existing leadership. Like a cancer or a virus, they are an ultimately self-destructive phenomenon: they don't fight the immune system, they co-opt it, distract it, often using it directly, as with the HIV/AIDS retrovirus. Each attack is meticulously planned: none are ever repeated.
Mao Zedong, who wrote the book on guerrilla warfare once said: 'Our strategy is "pit one against ten", and our tactics are "pit ten against one". Al Qaeda in its many forms are masters of the ambush, they don't bother fighting larger wars. One terrorist attack at a time suffices for their purposes. If Force is the product of Mass and Acceleration, then Al Qaeda's small mass with high acceleration is pitted against the Nation State, a large mass with low acceleration.
Back in 1980 or so, I once sat under the tutelage of a wise old Full Bird Colonel. I'd started a little discussion group for the purposes of discussing important military documents, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz and the like. In a fit of hubris, I put up notices on the bulletin boards at battalion and DIVARTY for this discussion group, to meet off base at Waffenschmiede, my Gasthaus. To my surprise and delight, quite a few people turned up, officers mostly. I was quickly relegated to a back row seat: the officers and Really Old Timers sort of took over that show. But I learned a lot from these guys, and it was one of the few times I've seen officers and enlisted men together. And this is what I learned:
Movements like the Diggers, the Roundheads, the Crusaders, the Communists, the French and American Revolutions, Nazism, Maoism and the like, without exception arise first as intellectual movements espousing a doctrine of commonality and equality. They require opposition to grow. They thrive when they avoid battle: they perish when they appear in great numbers. Especially in the case of the Crusaders, it was a populist movement which failed because they lacked professional armies: knights and their commanders would not enlist, not because they didn't believe in the cause, but because they were expensive. A single knight required the taxation of nearly 100 peasants to support him and his expensive retinue. Col. M said Communism would fail for the same reasons the Crusaders failed: their occupation of the Warsaw Pact was no more tenable than the Christian Kingdoms of the Middle East. The Soviets, he said, were little different: they should have tolerated their dissidents and thereby made them irrelevant. By opposing them, the Soviets set in motion their own destruction.
But within every such movement, the more ardent the idealism, the more rapid is its collapse. The trait inherent in every successful movement of this sort is a forthright admission of the opposition's power, and a willingness to form common cause with it. The American Revolution succeeded, because its agents recognized from its inception the nature of the ensuing quarrels over state's rights, representative government, the need for an independent judiciary and the separate agendas of the House and Senate. Our revolution was only spared the fate of all the others by virtue of these quarrels. The French Revolution largely failed because the only villains were the Church and the King: there was no need to coexist with either.
The Nature of Our Enemy
Al Qaeda's intellectual basis arises from the writings of Sayyid Qutb, who preached against the injustice of secular strong men in the Muslim world. This secular leadership had Sold Out to the West, he taught, and only a return to the fundamentals of Islam could revive the Muslim world. Qutb fails for the same reason he succeeded: there is no Muslim world. There's just The World.
From the day Muhammad the Prophet (saw) died, his followers have fought with each other. Each murder creates another un-killable martyr, in whose name others go forth to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Every time Islam has been tried as a form of government, it has failed: takes a while, but it always does. There is one notable exception: the Ottomans avoided this pitfall with a policy forcing each religious sect to set up courts and other encumbrances of government, effectively controlling these Millets by letting them control themselves.
Al Qaeda fails and will always fail because its enemies are too concentrated, too few and without any intellectual defense. As the French Revolution and later Communism arose in response to feudalism, a system where the peasants don't own their land or much else, Al Qaeda is a response to the Strong Men of Arab politics. Al Qaeda doesn't care how Islamic these Strong Men say they are. Al Qaeda and pretty much everyone else know these Strong Men are no good. When Nasser and Saddam and Assad and all these other Strong Men appeared, the first thing they did was jail clerics and intellectuals alike. Anyone who opposed the Strong Men were murdered or exiled. The Strong Men never tolerated their opponents in any form, fostered cults of personality, enriched themselves at the expense of the people, the standard rhetoric of the revolutionary is always full of such complaints.
The Rise and Fall of the Strong Man.
As long as Strong Men provide the casus belli for the likes of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda will continue to plague the world. By extension, as long as we defend these Strong Men, they will continue to attack us. I would argue the War on Terror is a conflation of two problems which must be fought separately. Strong Men we fight one way, Al Qaeda we fight another way. When we fight Strong Men, we win. When we fight Al Qaeda, we lose.
We went to war against the Strong Man Saddam Hussein, for reasons we have trouble justifying, but that's irrelevant: we did throw him out. But the pendulum swung the other way: we've opened the door to religious zealotry, quite literally blowing the door off its hinges, the net result being another Islamic Republic.
We went to war against the Taliban and drove the zealots out of Afghanistan, but they're now assuming Strong Man form in Pakistan under Baitullah Mehsud. Over the last few weeks, Pakistan has essentially ceded western Pakistan to the Taliban.
States and Tribes.
We in the West think in terms of a state. We don't have tribes. We outgrew tribes a long while back. When tribalism reappeared in the Balkans, the West scratched its head and didn't know how to respond. The Chechens are tribal: Russia doesn't know how to deal with them either. Al Qaeda isn't tribal, but it thrives where tribalism creates conflict and a vacuum of authority. Maybe we ought to take tribes more seriously: they seem to be an enduring structure, and their continued existence in the Arab world shows the nation-state has largely failed there.
But in the same way Al Qaeda thrives in the vacuum of authority created by tribalism, it's almost always killed off when the tribes resume control. In KSA, Osama bin Ladin was treated as a war hero while he wasn't against the tribal authorities of the House of Saud. When he created trouble in KSA, the Saudis finally busted his chops. AQ never got a foothold in Iraq until we created a vacuum of authority: when AQ attacked the tribal leadership, they were stamped out. AQ thrived in Europe and took flight lessons in Florida, because we don't have a high-pressure authority structure.
Our foreign policy ought to be more oriented to tribal concerns, but Tribes and Nation States will never co-exist. Where tribalism runs the show, it's always bad news. Look at the North American continent: the tribes never advanced because they were perpetually at war with each other. They never got as far as the wheel, because they didn't have roads.
The End of the Road.
The title of this essay is The End of the Road. The State builds roads. Tribes use trails. The North American continent was once crisscrossed by a network of trails, and many of our current roads are built right on top of those trails.
We in the West are road-oriented: to say "the end of the road" is to say there's no farther to go. But that's not true. Unless it's some cul-de-sac, most roads in the world peter out into trails, and we in the West can't drive down a trail in our fancy Humvees and tanks and gasoline tankers and cargo trucks full of goodies for our soldiers to buy at the air-conditioned PX in a fancy base like Taji. We dismount and walk down that trail, into enemy territory, not speaking the language, not knowing who's friendly. Even with great terrain maps and GPS gear and carrier-based air support overhead, we're still at a disadvantage. We do not own the trail. Increasingly, we do not own the road: the IED has killed more Americans than any other weapons system in our current theaters of battle. We talk of a "roadmap for peace", but our enemies don't use roads. They use back alleys and smuggler's routes through the mountains. AQ escaped down trails of that sort.
The choices are obvious: call it the End of the Road and call it a day, or call it the Trailhead and start humping, knowing we'll never, ever own that trail. If Hayden is right, and "a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam", we'd better be humble enough to admit who's doing that pushing back. It's the tribal authorities. The Strong Men we backed have been the impetus for the rise of Al Qaeda. We may not like the tribal model, but if we're ever going to get beyond partial strategic success and put the lie to Al Qaeda's ideology, the tribal model is the only valid model which could ever replace it. The saving grace is that Al Qaeda doesn't own the trail either. The tribe controls the road.