The primary metric in war is attaining one’s strategic aims. In the post-9/11 war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, who is winning? Both the U.S. and al Qaeda have done a lot of killing, but attrition alone is not decisive. The U.S. is now on its third strategy in this war. This strategy seems as unlikely to attain America’s strategic aims as the previous two.
Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001, but it was not their first attack against us. The December 1992 bombing of two hotels in Yemen that had housed U.S. troops in transit to Somalia was the first. In February 1993, an al Qaeda-trained truck bomber attempted to bring down New York’s Twin Towers. Al Qaeda-trained Somalis brought down a U.S. helicopter in October 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia. In August 1996, Osama bin Laden publically declared war against the U.S., and in August 1998, al Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The USS Cole was attacked by suicide bombers in October 2000. These were the major attacks that succeeded; there were others that were foiled.
These attacks were not isolated acts; they were tactical actions, part of campaigns designed to attain strategic aims. Al Qaeda’s campaign objectives are:
- Conduct “bleeding wars,” wars intended to defeat Western powers in Iraq and Afghanistan by causing their withdrawals, and attacks on Europe and the U.S. intended to further bleed the West’s will.
- Establish safe havens and franchises throughout the rest of the Islamic world, the ultimate franchise being Palestine, with the intent to create bases for future operations as well as cadres of leaders and fighters who can take advantage of local situations as opportunities arise.
Al Qaeda’s three strategic aims are:
– Drive the U.S. from the Muslim world.
– Destroy Israel.
– Create a jihadist caliphate along the lines of the Ottoman Empire at its height.
The U.S. should understand by now that al Qaeda’s aims are to control land and peoples. Al Qaeda may use irregular forces, employ terrorist, guerilla and insurgent tactics, and be a network rather than a nation-state, but its strategy is a classic offensive one: conquer, defeat and control.
Though pushed out of Afghanistan in 2001, al Qaeda has retained its safe haven in Pakistan, from which it threatens that country’s government and seeks to return to Afghanistan once the U.S. departs. Al Qaeda has taken advantage of the civil war in Syria and established itself as a main contender for power. It is on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, the southern entrance to the Red Sea: in the Arabian Peninsula (on the Yemen side) and in East Africa and Al Shabab (on the Somali side). Another group, al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, is active in Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, and it has links to other terrorist and criminal organizations. An al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, operates in North Caucasus, Chechnya and the surrounding areas. These are the main affiliates; there are other associates, supporters and sympathetic organizations. The Army of Islam operating in the Gaza Strip, for example, is inspired by al Qaeda, even if it is not yet a fully recognized affiliate. The network is dynamic and complex, and names change as do leaders; the threat does not.
This is the enemy context against which one must understand U.S. war aims and strategies. Following 9/11, the Bush administration used a counteroffensive strategy. America waged war in three theaters: Afghanistan, Iraq, and globally against al Qaeda leaders, networks and support activities. This was a strategic counteroffensive against terrorism and those who support it, but it was never adequately resourced or conducted properly, domestically or internationally. As such, it was unsustainable. Furthermore, it was an overly militarized strategy with insufficient attention given to the diplomatic actions that would be necessary to capitalize on military success and create long-term solutions.
The Obama administration withdrew from Iraq, is withdrawing from Afghanistan, and has focused its attention on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda. We initially employed a strategy of attrition, a strategy focused on capturing or killing selective al Qaeda leaders and operatives. This strategy also continued the emphasis on military action.
Over the past decade, the strategic initiative was sometimes with the U.S. and the West, other times with al Qaeda. Clearly, both sides have made mistakes and miscalculations. Both sides have had internal disagreements as to strategies, policies and campaigns believed necessary to achieve war aims. Neither side is guaranteed to win. Each side has been partially successful. As to the U.S. and the West, bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda may be disrupted at specific times and places or in specific ways, but it is neither dismantled nor defeated. As to al Qaeda, they might claim to have driven us from Iraq and Afghanistan. They have expanded their safe havens and franchises and continue their bleeding wars and raids. They have not destroyed Israel, nor have they created the caliphate they desire.
Democracies generally have difficulty sustaining will in protracted wars of attrition. Perhaps sensing that the assumption underlying the U.S. strategy of attrition—that America can last longer than al Qaeda and that attrition will prevent the enemy from its campaign objectives and strategic aims—was problematic from the start, the President announced a new direction in his May 28 speech at West Point.
In announcing the third strategy since 9/11, the President quoted Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s position that “war is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men,” but Eisenhower’s position has a corollary: Once war is forced upon you, as it was on 9/11, it is equally tragic, folly and a crime to prolong war unnecessarily. Many of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines being recruited now were 4, 5 and 6 years old on 9/11.
The President’s new strategy is a shift “to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” He did not change the part of the strategy associated with killing or capturing individual enemies when that is possible and consistent with the conditions the administration has set. This new strategy appears to be an offensive strategy of leadership attrition mixed with coalition warfare; it does not appear any more sustainable or effective than the other two strategies America has attempted.
The problem with this strategy is that the U.S. will be partnering with governments and security forces that are fledging, weak, corrupt or otherwise ineffective—the very environments that al Qaeda uses to establish its foothold. The time necessary to make effective partners out of these countries will more likely inadvertently help al Qaeda’s strategy rather than achieve U.S. war aims of disrupting, dismantling and defeating the now-transformed al Qaeda network. Moreover, targeting individual leaders or operatives as we develop partners, while necessary, does not appear to be sufficient in providing a decisive advantage. Executing this strategy is likely to commit the next generation to a war.
The U.S. and its allies need a more comprehensive strategy—one that retains the efforts to make partners out of some nations and to wear down selective al Qaeda network leaders and operatives—but it involves more. Perhaps the most critical component is conceptual. The President rightly lauded American post-World War II wisdom in creating institutions that helped keep the peace and support human progress. Such wisdom and leadership have been absent in creating the international legal and diplomatic institutions necessary to fight a global war against a non-nation-state. If al Qaeda were a nation-state invading countries and using force to achieve the strategic goals as it has, the world response would be much different from what it is now.
More aggressive action is also necessary to confront and reduce the already existing and expanding al Qaeda network safe havens. These actions must be more like strategic or operational raids than invasions and occupations. The U.S. cannot do this alone. Allies must be involved, and the partners we seek must make up a substantial part of any raid, but they cannot do this alone either. If they could, they would not be in the position they are in, and to wait until they are capable is to wait too long. Military action alone, however, is not a long-term solution. Therefore, the U.S. and its allies should insist that the partners we seek implement a governance and security reform agenda as a condition for help in reducing the existing threat they face and assisting them in implementing this reform agenda.
Perhaps this more comprehensive framework from which a strategy may emerge is unacceptable to the American people. If so, it is dead in the water. All should realize, however, that wars end in one of three ways: One side defeats the other; one side concludes that it cannot win so takes formal or informal action to end the fighting—even if temporarily; or both sides sense that neither can win so they reach an accommodation. U.S. strategies have, so far, prolonged the fighting.
Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, USA Ret., is a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq and a senior fellow of AUSA’s Institute of Land warfare.