10 March 2009

Greene and Kilcullen on Terrorism

A line in "The Accidental Guerilla" got my attention recently (yes, I'm still in the middle of this book, but I haven't gotten the time to finish it).  Basically, David Kilcullen analyzes an extended quote from Osama Bin Laden, who stated that his goals were to, via terroist attacks, bait the United States into a protracted war aimed at exhausting and bankrupting the United States.  The resulting power vacuum resulting from American withdrawal would then lead to takfiri movements seizing control. 

This analysis was similar to an article written by author Robert Greene a little over a year ago.  Robert Greene (one of my favorite authors) is a New York Times Bestselling Author who penned The 33 Strategies of War, The 48 Laws of Power, and The Art of Seduction.  The following article was also given in the form of a speech to West Point cadets on the topic of terrorism.   Greene says:

I believe we are living through a period of great revolution--cultural, social, political, military--similar to the turmoils of the Napoleonic era. Confronting large and intractable centers of power, small groups have invented and perfected a strategy that we call terrorism. It is perfectly wedded to advances in technology, to the media, to a gradual weakening of ethical norms. It is a remarkably fluid and adaptable strategy, one that gives the appearance of chaos and a degree of randomness. And it is only growing in its power and its popularity

Certainly a lot of truth can be found in this statement, and it is similar to one of David Kilcullen's "Ways to think about the current threat environment", namely, that the forces of globalization are creating a new dynamic, one which takfiri networks seek to subvert for their own purposes.  

Greene continues by examining the case scenario of a terrorist organization within Imperial Russia in the 19th Century named Narodnya Volina, which rebelled against the Czar at the time, having the following to say about what the ultimate goals of terrorism are. It also matches much of what Kilcullen had to say about the four stages of violent insurgency, with its goal of prompting a massive and disproportionate backlash. 

Now in looking at Narodnaya Volia, the classic response is to say that it was a monumental failure, as are almost all terrorist campaigns. The terrorists are too detached from the society at large; their actions are not rational. The reaction they bring about inevitably crushes them. They create some drama but in the end it all leads nowhere. It is not an effective, long-term strategy. To me, however, these are Hohenlohe-like clich├ęs that completely misread the situation and the strategy as a whole. And when you do not understand an enemy's strategy, you end up attacking something that is not there.

In the years of repression and after Narodnaya Volia was broken up, discontent spread throughout the country. Men like Lenin himself had their ideas forged in this period, during which the communist movement began to grow in power. The government, that had been trying to reform itself prior to the campaign, was knocked off course. Without the terror campaign, Russian history might very well have taken a much different path. The terror campaign was able to break up an extremely static situation and sow the seeds for something much larger, this taking some thirty years to play itself out. But terrorists, in general, have plenty of time to wait.

In the Western perspective on warfare, two antagonists face a battle over territory and power. The battle can be fought in many ways, even asymmetrically, but inevitably it is a fight over space and power. That is the endgame of any war. But what if one side were not to have such a goal? What if their objectives were more minimal--merely to create chaos, and the space for some kind of change? Their goals are rather easy to achieve--create mayhem. Or, as Lenin himself put it, "the worse, the better."

In essence, terrorism is a strategy that aims for maximum chaos and disorder. I compare it to a kick of a rock on a hilltop, with the hope of starting an avalanche. The terrorists can hope for some residual benefits--an insurrection, a change in government, the gaining of some territorial foothold--but this is a collateral effect. By nature, they face a frozen dynamic, an oversized power that has all the force on its side. By initiating a terror campaign, they create the seeds of chaos that can spin out of control and lead to some real change. A terror campaign is often a part of something larger, a guerrilla or insurgent force, but each act of terror has the same goal: to set off this chain reaction effect.

By the nature of its violence and drama, for terrorism is nothing more than an organized spectacle of violence, it is certain to stir emotions. Understanding the logic of terror, it is best to keep the attacks unpredictable, seemingly random. The first seed is sown by unbalancing the mind of the opposing commander. The terrorist act seems to warrant a strong response. In this case, strong replaces intelligent. To find this small group of radicals requires an oversized police force. The chain reaction effect is inevitably set in motion by the harsh reprisal. By entering their space with police or military presence, there are now more targets to hit, more waves of publicity to garner, making them seem larger, feeding their capacity to create the spectacle. Everything becomes imbalanced--society is polarized, disproportionate fear is stirred, more impatience and need for reprisals is manufactured. The desired avalanche is set off....

...Let us return to the spirit of von Clausewitz for a moment. The proper response to terrorism depends on first understanding its dynamic, how it ticks. The various traps it sets--the overreaction, the impatience and desire for immediate reprisals, the polarization it tempts you into--can only be avoided if first understood. We must aim at their center of gravity and weaknesses, not at the illusion they create. This center is their ability to communicate, to fund themselves, to recruit sympathizers, to hold this far-flung movement together. We needed to carefully aim at these points of vulnerability. If during these years we had degraded their ability to fund themselves, to communicate, to gain recruits by working to gain more political goodwill in the region, the enemy would have begun to reveal more weaknesses. When you attack a center of gravity, the other side leans on other legs to keep itself up and gives you more targets to hit.

The key to this counterstrategy is the leadership of the country under attack and its ability to show strength, to unify the population behind it (avoiding the polarization trap), while resisting the temptation for the overreaction. In this vein, in my book I mention Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle as two leaders who are exemplary in this way. It is not a question of politics, but leadership and intelligence. Terroristic fear is purely psychological and it is up to the leadership to paint the threat in realistic colors. When you overreact with a large attack, you only show the enemy your own impatience and weakness; they succeeded. When you respond with a carefully calibrated campaign aimed at their vulnerabilities, you show you really mean business and cannot be seduced by the terror spectacle.

At this point, I have to stress how critical it is that we, as military leaders, study grand strategy.  In the day-to-day life of the military, even in combat, our view of the world can be somewhat myopic--if you're not careful, you can find yourself focusing too much on inane topics like property accountability, what percentage of your soldiers have completed their mandatory EO training for the quarter, evaluations, the endless string of reports that are sent up, and so forth.  There's not always enough time to sit back and look at the role of the military, and indeed, the United States, in the grand scheme of things.  

We spend a lot of time talking about inane topics like line item numbers on a property book, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone in the military speak of terms like "globalization".  As we reach a stage of warfare where greater and greater decisions are being made by more and more junior leaders, we should give them the tools to succeed as they progress to higher levels of leadership by examining grand strategy from time to time.  


Boss Mongo said...

Good post. Will meditate on it while forcing my junior officers to perform by rote my exacting and detailed guidance.
PS-you forgot to mention 100% Suicide Prevention training (with a Chaplain or certified mental health professional attending and facilitating) NLT XXXX. Because we don't have enough ass pain in our lives.

Starbuck said...

That reminds me of something I was going to write about that CD-ROM training...try selecting "make the person see the mental health provider by force". Guaranteed awesomeness.