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Drop everything, read this now

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Fight Flub: America's approach to the fundamentally misconceived "War on Terrorism" thus far...

“It’s now fundamentally an information fight. The enemy gets that, and we don’t yet get that, and I think that’s why we’re losing." -- David Kilcullen

In "Knowing the Enemy," an essential article in the December 18 issue of The New Yorker, George Packer reports that some experts inside the Pentagon and Departments of State and Defense have been trying for years to explain (to Condoleeza Rice and others) why the US has yet to properly identify the enemies it's fighting in the "War on Terrorism" -- and, therefore, why we have been so shockingly ineffective at fighting it. As David Kilcullen, an Australian lieutenant colonel and political anthropologist currently "on loan" to the State Depatment, explains: "After 9/11, when a lot of people were saying, ‘The problem is Islam,’ I was thinking, It’s something deeper than that. It’s about human social networks and the way that they operate.... [I]t's not about theology. There are elements in human psychological and social makeup that drive what’s happening. The Islamic bit is secondary. This is human behavior in an Islamic setting. This is not ‘Islamic behavior.’"

Packer reports:

In a lecture that Kilcullen teaches on counterterrorism at Johns Hopkins, his students watch “Fight Club," the 1999 satire about anti-capitalist terrorists, to see a radical ideology without an Islamic face.

That, I submit, is revelatory. I wonder if those who can't see what's going on in "Fight Club" -- the feelings of impotence and alienation and personal violation that fuel the rage and the desire to belong to a force larger than the individual, even if it's just a form of nihilistic fascism that lacks the religious, racial or nationalistic aspirations of Naziism, Soviet Communism or "Bin Laden-ism" (for lack of a better term) -- can even begin to comprehend contemporary jihadism and what we now call "the insurgency" (as if there were just one).

Just as the Bush administration misunderstood Saddam's motives (Why is he acting like he's hiding something? Is it because he's hiding WMD -- or because he knows he'd be gone in a second if anybody knew he didn't have them?), they have also misread the nature of Osama bin Laden's motives, power and strategy for Al Quaeda and global jihad:

Just before the 2004 American elections, Kilcullen was doing intelligence work for the Australian government, sifting through Osama bin Laden’s public statements, including transcripts of a video that offered a list of grievances against America: Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, global warming. The last item brought Kilcullen up short. “I thought, Hang on! What kind of jihadist are you," he recalled. The odd inclusion of environmentalist rhetoric, he said, made clear that “this wasn’t a list of genuine grievances. This was an Al Qaeda information strategy." Ron Suskind, in his book “The One Percent Doctrine," claims that analysts at the C.I.A. watched a similar video, released in 2004, and concluded that “bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reëlection." Bin Laden shrewdly created an implicit association between Al Qaeda and the Democratic Party, for he had come to feel that Bush’s strategy in the war on terror was sustaining his own global importance. Indeed, in the years after September 11th Al Qaeda’s core leadership had become a propaganda hub. “If bin Laden didn’t have access to global media, satellite communications, and the Internet, he’d just be a cranky guy in a cave" Kilcullen said.

Kilcullen would make a good film critic. He understands human nature and has an eye for reading it in dramatic context. Thumbs up for him! (Bin Laden hadn't been a champion for the Palestinian cause before, either. It was obvious he was trying to create the perception of a war declared by the West against Muslims -- and Cheney, Rummy and Co. played right into that perception from Day One.)

A few more key excerpts from a must-read article -- that must be read in full:

Last year, in an influential article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Kilcullen redefined the war on terror as a “global counterinsurgency." The change in terminology has large implications. A terrorist is “a kook in a room," Kilcullen told me, and beyond persuasion; an insurgent has a mass base whose support can be won or lost through politics. The notion of a “war on terror" has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses. In a counterinsurgency, according to the classical doctrine, which was first laid out by the British general Sir Gerald Templar during the Malayan Emergency, armed force is only a quarter of the effort; political, economic, and informational operations are also required. A war on terror suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to “disaggregate" insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan’s tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so that they aren’t mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad. Kilcullen writes, “Just as the Containment strategy was central to the Cold War, likewise a Disaggregation strategy would provide a unifying strategic conception for the war—something that has been lacking to date." [..].

By speaking of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the Taliban, the Iranian government, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda in terms of one big war, Administration officials and ideologues have made Osama bin Laden’s job much easier. “You don’t play to the enemy’s global information strategy of making it all one fight," Kilcullen said. He pointedly avoided describing this as the Administration’s approach. “You say, ‘Actually, there are sixty different groups in sixty different countries who all have different objectives. Let’s not talk about bin Laden’s objectives—let’s talk about your objectives. How do we solve that problem?’'
In other words, the global ambitions of the enemy don’t automatically demand a monolithic response.

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