In last Sunday's Washington Post, John Brennan, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, gave an interesting analysis on the size of the knot that currently binds us, and how we're approaching the "problem" on our enemy's terms .
Osama bin Laden's plan to use terrorism to trigger an Islamic reawakening that will challenge Western dominance of world events and assure the ascendancy of Sunni extremists is moving forward -- at an alarming rate.
Terrorism, in bin Laden's strategy, is only a tactic, a means to achieve what he believes is a providentially ordained objective -- global domination by an Islamic caliphate. Yet dangerously, the United States is focusing on countering that tactic, missing the growth of the extremist Islamic forest as we flounder among the terrorist trees.
I respect Brennan's opinions, but disagree with him on a couple of points. Like many analysts, he makes the mistake of dismissing terrorism as a "tactic." An act of terror is a tactic. Bin Laden's coordination of acts of terror to establish a regime of global terrorism was a strategic masterstroke. Quite arguably, his terrorism strategy has had more impact on the world political scene than all the armies, navies, and air forces in the history of humanity combined.
I also disagree that the United States is focusing on countering terrorism. Nearly everything we have done has distracted our efforts away from countering terrorism. In fact, our "war" on terrorism has only served to increase it, and our attempts to attrite terrorists have merely added to their number.
But Brennan and I are in accord on two points. Bin Laden's grand strategy is to use all instruments of power available to him to achieve the aim of establishing a pan-Islamic coalition of states that geographically resembles the old Ottoman Empire. And, as Brennan asserts, bin Laden's plan is progressing at an eye-watering pace.
The biggest hitch in our Gordian knot is the conflict in Iraq, a diversion that has turned into one of America's most complex entanglements. It's a counter-insurgency operation, a nation-building project, a massive economic drain, and yes, a civil war, all rolled into one untidy package.
Few things in warfare are black and white, or fit the neat categories that military scholars often try to shoehorn them into. But it is important that we recognize that a civil war--a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country--is underway in Iraq, and has been going on for some time. We need to accept that reality because it has critical importance to what our troops are doing in the middle of it, and how long we want to keep them there.
As with all wars, no two civil wars are identical, but they all have similarities. The Iraq civil war meets the common criteria of armed conflict between and among different factions within the country. Outside influences are involved in Iraq, directly or indirectly, and that too is common in civil wars. And as we see in Iraq, civil wars often involve guerilla forces, militias, insurgents, asymmetrical forces, terrorism, religious and cultural clashes, and struggles to establish fledgling governments.
The Iraq civil war is somewhat unique in several ways. It followed on the heels of an invasion that toppled the existing government. The new government, though popularly elected, is having trouble gaining the acceptance of the populace that elected it. Unlike the American Civil War, there is no clear "Union versus Confederate" delineation of belligerents. The main warring factions in Iraq are the Sunnis and the Shiites, but there are factions within factions. Both sides posses numerous militias loyal to religious leaders whose loyalty to the central government is tenuous at best. The government's army and police forces are largely made up of former militia members whose loyalties to the government are tenuous as well. To that mix, add Zarkawi's al Qaeda in Mespotamia, which brings the greater agenda of Sunni extremism to the conflict.
Add one more thing: the invading force that overthrew the old Iraqi government still occupies the country.
U.S. forces in Iraq have so many conflicting and shifting priorities they can hardly be expected to know which way to point their gun barrels. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the war chiefs may try to cast our trops in the role of "peacekeepers," but experience illustrates that peacekeeping efforts only work when all parties involved are genuinely committed to keeping the peace. At first blush, we might find reports of Sunni leaders' willingness to return to talks to form a new government to be a positive sign. I genuinely hope these overtures lead to a lasting stability, but I'm not about to bet a paycheck on it. We've seen this before. In the Iraqi version of Groundhog Day, there's no real progress. Every day is a near exact replica of the one before. Bill Murray will be knocking back martinis in the great beyond with W.C. Fields before he ever gets the girl.
"Inevitable" is a bad word in military scholarship circles. We don't want to assume that because "b" followed "a" in one historic case study, it's destined to happen this time. When dozens or hundreds of examples indicate a predominant trend, though, we need to make plans for the worst-case scenario to be the probable case.
In the Iraq scenario, the probable case is that this next round of talks between the Sunnis and the Shiites will produce a peaceful solution that lasts for weeks at best before the country erupts into yet another round of violence. At some point, our troops will be forced to take a side, and it will almost certainly be the side of the Shiite majority.
And we'll continue to pursue an unattainable resolution of an insoluble problem, fight bin Laden on his terms, and fuel his grand vision of establishing a Neo-Ottoman Empire.