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January 2008

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Defense Secretary Gates recently called for a build-up of American “soft power” instruments in order to better combat the long-term threats we face from Islamic extremists. In this essay, a frequent American Diplomacy contributor argues that such a build-up by itself is insufficient to address these challenges successfully. What we need, he maintains, are new structures and strategies for waging “irregular warfare,” a state of conflict that is neither war nor peace. - Ed.


Insurgency that attempts to weaken or overthrow those in authority is arguably the oldest form of conflict. Yet in his important speech at Kansas State University on 26 November 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that the United States is unprepared for such irregular warfare. However, he noted that this form of conflict “will be the mainstay of battlefields for years to come.”

We lack the structures and processes for effective policy formulation and the means, strategies, tactics, and methods for implementation to achieve success in irregular warfare at the lowest possible costs. There is no agreement on what irregular warfare is, who should be involved, the terminology to be used, what the outcomes should be, or how to achieve the desired outcomes. We are handicapped by philosophical concerns, political convictions, and institutional turf battles that are the legacy of the 'war or peace' dichotomy.

We have strategies for achieving victory in conventional war and strategies for achieving agreement in peace. We need strategies capable of maintaining stability through equilibrium in irregular warfare. The Department of Defense has the military and hard power of war and the Department of State has the diplomats and soft power of peace. We need career personnel — not confined by the war or peace dichotomy — dedicated to all aspects of internal security when insurgents are attempting to weaken or overthrow those in authority.

Irregular Warfare Threat from the Third Jihad
Our enemies have a two-part strategy. The initial part is to expel western influence from the Middle East so that they can overthrow regimes they regard as corrupt, i.e. the “near enemy.” The second part of their strategy is to establish a 'Great Caliphate' from Morocco to Indonesia that would then be able to convert the rest of the world to “the way of the Prophet,” and eliminate the “far enemy.” Our enemies include all of those that support, directly or indirectly, the global Islamic revivalist movement - not just al-Qaeda. Those who blame us for our “intervention into the Islamic world” either do not understand or misrepresent our enemies' motivations and methods. Our enemies understand that this is a battle of wits and wills, not of brawn.

The current conflict is asymmetrical, protracted, irregular warfare for influence over people. It is an existential battle. It is a “we” versus “they” struggle over values, attitudes, allegiance, and identity, not unlike any political conflict. The distinction is that violence is used in irregular warfare; it continues until one side is neutralized and the conflict reverts back to peaceful conflict and cooperation.

Policy Formulation for Irregular Warfare
Gates is correct when he said that our experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Somalia have shown that long-term success requires more than military power. In hindsight, it is easy to argue that it was a mistake to rely on military power in the Balkans and Somalia and to use the neo-colonial approach in Afghanistan and Iraq. Attempting to build, through “centralized political and economic development,” secular, democratic nation-states capable of being models for others Muslim countries was a mistake. Now it is easy to claim that our priority should have been local security and local authority of, by, and for the Afghans and Iraqis, or alternatively support of an oppressive authoritarian regime. Yet how many Americans and Europeans would have supported such policies rather than attempting to transfer Western ideas regarding democracy, law enforcement, legal procedures, and human rights?

There is no justification to the claim that the United States has relied on “ineffectual unilateralism” and hard power compounded with “militarism, swagger, self-righteousness, and complacent ignorance.” The United States used diplomacy in repeated attempts to build the required coalition of the willing. In fact the United States relied too much on the soft power of economic development, national reconciliation, and transfer of Western ideas before establishing security. The global Islamic revivalist movement we face is composed of non-state actors of various sizes and with various tactical agendas. The UN and international law are appropriate for negotiations to resolve disputes between states, but are ineffective in dealing with non-state actors of an aggressive movement. To rely on the UN, diplomacy, and international law would deny preeminence to U.S. national interests, and it would guarantee success for the militant Islamists attempting to remove Western influence from all Muslim countries.

We need to improve our ability to develop and implement foreign policies for the current conflict. However, more than the “soft power” and increased funding of the State Department suggested by Gates is needed. The threat of the global Islamic revivalist movement (Third Jihad) has brought to our attention the fallacy of the war and peace duality. We must now think in terms of a war-irregular warfare-peace trilogy. During policy formulation we must think of three subdivisions of conflict and cooperation — each having unique means, strategies, tactics, methods and techniques. Since the rise of the nation-state the focus has been on external security, resulting in the reality of irregular warfare being slighted. Also, irregular warfare presents some unique hurdles for the United States. In the eighteenth century it was assumed that that we would exist in relative isolation, and would never want to use the military for internal security.

It is true that “we must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military,” as Gates suggests; however, he fails to say what is needed: policies and strategies for stability through equilibrium. In other words, we need to create self-regulating systems that maintain internal stability through coordinated responses to any internal disruptions or input from its external environment. The goal of stability is to maintain a climate of order and satisfaction through a process of reciprocal and endless interactions that avoid the extremes of both status quo and chaos.

A Department of Stability?
Today there are two broad contending views regarding policy formulation and implementation for irregular warfare:

1. Focus the military on conventional war against the armed forces of other states and focus the Foreign Service on diplomacy and negotiations to avoid war, while muddling through irregular warfare.
2. Recognize irregular warfare as being distinctive from both war and peace by creating a new Department of Stability with career personnel dedicated to irregular warfare.

The first view has strong support within the military from those that do not want war-fighting forces to be used for internal security against insurgents attempting to overthrow those in authority. They do not want to be the handmaidens of “political strife,” and they want to avoid the cruel, violent, and unrewarding activities of internal conflict. Yet they want to remain the “defenders of the nation” and to prevent political activists, lawyers, pacifists, and diplomats from meddling in “military” affairs. They know that those involved in internal security are universally despised whenever it is necessay to move beyond peacetime law enforcement. They know there is no way to prevent some error, mistake, misconduct, or crime from inflicting discredit on those responsible for internal security during irregular warfare.

This first view sees the solution in a plan that unites all agencies of the U.S. government. These agencies have different philosophical, political, and institutional agendas. Therefore, how to coordinate all U.S. government agencies involved in foreign affairs (State, Defense, Justice, CIA, NSA, etc.) during policy formulation is the critical challenge. Until this is done there will be turf battles, uncertainty, delays, and ineffectiveness.

The second view places responsibility for irregular warfare in a single department. With the Defense Department focused on war fighting and the State Department focused on diplomacy, a Stability Department could focus on (1) separation of hirabahists (evildoers using terror) from other Muslims; (2) strategic communication to increase support for our actions and weaken support for our enemies; (3) uniting the enemies of our enemies with our allies and friends into an alliance of the willing; and (4) implementing the tasks (methods and tactics) for achieving stability through equilibrium and neutralizing hirabahists. Such changes in structures and processes would be the most efficient way to develop policies regarding irregular warfare. But such dramatic bureaucratic changes would be very difficult to achieve.

A Stability Department would allow the development of career personnel (military and civilian) dedicated to determining and using the means, strategies, tactics, and methods necessay for irregular warfare. This should make both policy formulation and implementation more effective and more efficient. The result would be professionals without preconceptions shaped by war fighting or diplomacy, without institutional allegiance to either the military establishment or the foreign policy establishment, and without mindsets appropriate only for either war or peace. Hopefully these professionals would be able to determine how to achieve stability through equilibrium at the lowest possible costs.

Policy formulation for irregular warfare must recognize that the means, strategies, tactics, and methods of irregular warfare differ from those of war (conventional, civil, or total). The truths of conventional war usually do not apply for irregular warfare: (1) rarely is a “vital national interest” at stake; (2) often there is not popular support; (3) usually there is no declaration of war; (4) there is rarely an exit strategy; and (5) the application of overwhelming force against a critical mass is replaced by protracted presence of stability forces (intelligence and local security forces as opposed to war fighting forces). Also treaties regarding war and the treatment of prisoners of war do not apply.

Those that see diplomacy as war by other means to advance state interests are needed for success in irregular warfare. These are the warriors. However, many in the foreign policy establishment are not warriors. Some stress commerce, conciliation, and compromise. These are the shopkeepers. Some see the solution in the transfer of their own political or economic convictions. These are the neocolonialists. Others give priority to world interests. These consider nationalism evil. The latter first saw their expression in “open covenants, openly arrived at,” then in international law, regional treaties, and international organizations as replacements for countervailing coalitions of nation-states, and finally in nongovernmental organizations.

Implementation of Policy for Irregular Warfare
The strategy we need for the current conflict must emphasize (1) our national interests; (2) strategic communication; (3) the separation of hirabahists (evildoers using terror) from other Muslims; and (4) the tasks (methods and tactics) to neutralize the insurgents of the aggressive global Islamic revivalist movement. Gates did not discuss these in any detail.

Any effective strategy for irregular warfare requires clarity of our national interests. National interests provide the guidelines used by those responsible for the implementation of our strategy, and the basis on which diplomats negotiate agreements in precise and ratifiable form. Agreement on national interests makes unity of effort possible. All U.S. officials should agree on and advocate U.S. national interests. The loyal opposition can debate national interests in public — not U.S. officials.

It is in our interests to neutralize all elements of the Third Jihad in far away lands in order to minimize their ability to do damage to our interests. For example, our strategy should use means not acceptable in peace to contain the aggressive Islamic revivalist movement. This includes insuring the availability of oil at market prices until economically viable alternate sources of energy are developed. On the other hand, is it necessarily in our national interests to restore “our commitment to international law and comity” and to change “our contempt for the constraints of international law?” Some anti-nationalists argue these are “among the most urgent tasks before us.” Warriors reject this.

Strategic communications is the center of gravity in irregular warfare. The current aggressive Islamic revivalist movement has simply changed the battlefield — the result of changes in transportation and communication. Formerly waged within a specific group or in the territory of a single state, we must now face worldwide irregular warfare. Strategic communications is intangible, conceptually unfamiliar; and its results are difficult to quantify. The message of this movement is accepted, respected, and supported by many peaceful and naïve Muslims. Gates referred to this task when he said: “Success will be less a matter of imposing one's will and more a function of shaping behavior — of fiends, adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.” Our own people must also be included. Success in irregular warfare requires communication superiority, but to date our enemies have been more successful. Our conflict with the Third Jihad will be won or lost in this battlefield.

We need to distinguish those who advocate Islamic conquest through violence, i.e. the Third Jihad, from those who merely use Islam for spiritual guidance to improve their personal behavior. We need to separate the extremists that believe in Muhammad's edict that Islam is to be spread through warfare without limits from the Muslims that limit their belief to the personal, inner, nonviolent Jihad (struggle) al Akbar. Today many self-styled “moderate” Muslims refuse to condemn and work against the global Islamic revivalist movement.

Fortunately, the words hirabah (unholy warfare) and hirabahists (evildoers who use terror and will incur Allah's condemnation on Judgment Day) allow the distinction that needs to be made. It is long overdue for U.S. officials to use hirabah (unholy warfare) rather than jihad (holy war) and use hirabahists rather than jihadists, terrorists, or Islamists.

The Four Tasks
The implementation of any strategy to neutralize the insurgents of the Third Jihad requires continual attention to four interrelated tasks (methods and tactics). These tasks cannot be divided into categories to fit our current governmental structures. Until there is a Stability Department there must be a plan to coordinate all U.S. government agencies involved in foreign affairs during both the formulation of policy and the implementation of all four tasks as we respond to the threat of the Third Jihad.

While policy can be centralized in Washington, implementation should be decentralized. Regional military combatant commands (COCOMS) currently have the responsibly for armed forces in their regions. A similar structure is required to supervise assets needed for all aspects of irregular warfare.

Our objective during implementation should be to change the culture that is the breeding ground for hirabahists. When done correctly, implementation will ensure reciprocal and endless interactions of the following four tasks in order to maintain a climate of order and satisfaction — the prerequisites for orderly progress:

1. Achieve stability.
2. Provide effective local authority.
3. Organize and motivate the people.
4. Satisfy aspirations of the people.

Achieving stability is a prerequisite for the other three tasks. However, stability cannot be seen as an end in itself, since that will result in disequilibria rather than equilibrium. Unfortunately, this is what the neo-colonialists, who made our policy for Iraq from 2002 until 2006, did.

Stability is achieved when the government of a state has a monopoly on force within the territory of that state, and no group within that territory is willing to use force to achieve political ends. Any group committed to the use of force to weaken or overthrow the established government, i.e., insurgents, must be neutralized.

A second task is to provide effective local authority. Each individual lives in a concrete, human, face-to-face world of clear and specific events and situations which local leadership addresses. Local leadership must be: alert for signs of problems, inequalities and injustices; able to use initiative and flexibility to win loyalty and produce results; capable of countering acts of intimidation, violence, and destruction; able to see that everyone can earn a decent living; and loyal to the established institutions.

The third task is to organize and motivate the people. Stability is only maintained when the people are welded together by a common destiny. This task creates and maintains shared values, attitudes, habits, and goals which shape the institutions through which the people live and grow: patterns of cooperation and conflict; the fabric of sanctioned relationship; the unseen lines of magnetic strength which link, join, and confine; and the elusive cultural environment. This task creates kinship

The fourth task is to satisfy aspirations of the people. The fuel of progress is the never-ending attempt to satisfy aspirations. Aspirations can unite people in common effort; yet, aspirations can set one against another. Satisfying aspirations is an elusive task. Sole concern with satisfying aspirations can only result in turmoil, frustration, and bitterness, causing disequilibria. For all Muslim countries, this means a replacement of the pseudo-religious radicalism taught in the mosques with the progressive, compassionate teaching of Islam. It means changing the culture that is the breeding ground for hirabahists

We must improve our ability to develop and implement foreign policies. We need a strategy for irregular warfare capable of maintaining stability through equilibrium. This strategy must emphasize national interests, strategic communication, the separation of hirabahists from other Muslims, and the tasks (methods and tactics) for achieving stability through equilibrium; and in the process it will neutralize hirabahists.

Sam C. Holliday is a graduate of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, a former director of Stability Studies at the Army War College, and a retired army colonel. He earned a master's in public affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate in international relations from the University of South Carolina.

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