I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the — those who use terror as a tool are — less acceptable in parts of the world.In response to a post I wrote at my own blog, Matt from Stop The Bleating wrote:
This isn't the kind of war that either side can "win" in any conventional sense. Our enemies can't destroy us militarily, because we're far too strong. We can't destroy them militarily, because they're too disbursed and decentralized. So we'll be taking potshots at one another for a long time to come. What's the end game? I don't know. How will a permanent state of war affect American politics, our collective psyche and our liberty? I don't know. It's a frustrating and frightening thing.Great minds may think alike, but I'm afraid I must respectfully disagree with both of these learned men. We can win this war.
Matt, of all people, should know as a boxing fan that a lot of times the winner of a bout is decided by who makes the first mistake. He's right in saying that al Qaeda can't destroy us because "we're far too strong." Therefore, no mistake on our part can end the conflict.*
But if al Qaeda, and the radical Islamist movement it has spawned makes a mistake, we can and will crush them in such a way as to end the war. What is the particular mistake that will cause our enemies to lose? I'm getting to that.
As the situation stands now, al Qaeda et al. have the initiative and the upper hand in the GWOT. As it stands now, we cannot deal them a death blow. That's because in the most basic sense, all warfare is about control of geographic areas.† The great strength of the terrorist is that there is no geographic area which we can push him off of. That's what Matt meant when he wrote that the enemy is "too disbursed and decentralized."
President Bush's big contribution to the theory of warfare is the "Bush Doctrine," which in part addresses the terrorist's strength: their lack of geographical origin. On September 11, 2001, he said that the United States, when hunting down the terrorists, "will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." Nine days later, in his greatest speech, the President restated that doctrine in more detail:
This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion. It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat.The administration's war planners realized very quickly that you can't win a war against an ephemeral enemy unless you can tie them down to a piece of land and then destroy them on that land. That's why we got this oft criticized "you're either with us or against us" part of the Bush Doctrine. The idea was to nullify the terrorists' advantage of not being attached to any state, by attaching them to a state.
Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.
It was a brilliant and necessary idea, but unfortunately it has not been entirely successful in practice. Geopolitical considerations have blunted the doctine's effect, as I think the war planners probably anticipated. We've seen the doctrine work beautifully in Libya, but in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for instance, there have been mixed results. We had to make a difficult compromise with those countries because an imperfect alliance with their governments is still of great value to our interests. As a result, we have to accept that, for the time being, there will be some laxity in their efforts to control the extremism within their own borders. We can't fight everyone all at once, and especially not if Pakistan and the Saudis assure us that they are on our side.
The Bush Doctrine alone cannot win this war. So what is the mistake that the Islamists dare not make? What is the mistake that will enable us to win? It is the very thing that the enemy hopes to gain: a pan-Islamic caliphate.
Think back to the 1930's. That was a time when the democratic world looked at the growing threat of fascism and was unable to do anything to stop it. I would argue that appeasement and half-hearted reaction was inevitable then, just as it seems inevitable now. The world simply wasn't in a place where strong and united action was possible. Democracies have many strengths, but swift action is not one of them. In the 1930's there was still a system of alliances that finally mandated a response to Hitler, but the response came almost too late.
The Allies responded to Hitler only after he started taking territory by force. Now fast forward a few years. We responded to the Japanese after they started advancing across the Pacific. We responded to the North Koreans when they invaded the South. Same thing in Vietnam. Same thing when Saddam invaded Kuwait. When territory is invaded by an expansionist enemy, we never seem to have any trouble responding appropriately.
What would happen if Osama bin Laden got what he wanted — the restoration of Islamic territories to a fundamentalist theocracy under Sharia law? My thesis is this: If the Islamic fundamentalist movement were to become attached to a state, and that state were to adopt expansionist ambitions, the Western World would and could oppose them successfully.
We know that one goal of Islamic fundamentalism is to recapture territory lost to the infidel, or lost to secularist governments such as Egypt and Turkey. That is their end game. Their fatal mistake would be to actually start achieving those goals. Once the terrorists start to add nations to their idealized pan-Islamic caliphate, they will become a concrete threat that the world can unite against. Instead of being an ephemeral enemy, unconnected with any state and therefore immune from retaliation, they would suddenly become constrained by the same realities of warfare that have prevailed for centuries — and at which we excel.
The bad news is that my thesis presupposes a long period of very bad setbacks for our side. But I don't see any other way around it. The West has proven that it does not yet have the will to unite against its enemy, and even if it did, fighting insurgents and terrorists is like fighting ghosts. You can bomb a nation into submission, but I think we all know by now, it's pretty hard to bomb suicide bombers into submission. Just ask the Israelis. They've always been able to beat any nation-state with one hand tied behind their back. But they just lost their very first war, against a bunch of terrorists who were disavowed by any government.
The really bad news is that, in my view, the timeline for this caliphate solution to come about is on the order of ten to twenty years. By that time, Iran will have nuclear weapons. I think we all know that it's inevitable. So when Iranian troops spearhead the invasion of Greece, or Spain, or wherever, and the West finally gets up the gumption to oppose them, we will be firing missiles at each other.
I know this post sounds like I've been reading too many Harry Turtledove books, but if you think about it, you'll see I'm right. Countries win wars by finding a way around the enemy's defenses. Islamic terrorists hide within "neutral" states and behind innocent civilians, that is their main defense. But they lose that defense once they attach themselves to a piece of land and call themselves a nation. Therefore the seeds of their own destruction lay inside their own express goals.
* I can hear the nay-sayers now. "But we're already making mistakes that will cost us the war, by being too soft on the enemy, on homeland security, on our borders, etc." I don't disagree that we're being too soft. But what is the probable result of our softness? A major attack? And the result of a major attack will be that our softness is replaced by a hardness in proportion to how bad the attack is. Bottom line is that no terrorist attack, however horrendous, will cause the United States to become part of the pan-Islamic caliphate. That is a danger that exists solely in Europe, due to their lack of moral character, their lax immigration policies, their societal decision not to reproduce, and their sixty year reliance on the United States' security umbrella, which caused them to forget how to defend themselves. But I do not see that fate happening to us. As a people we are too stiff necked and independent. And we love our Constitution too much to replace it with the Koran. (Sure we got some nutty ideas in this country. But when the Swedes are considering a tax on all men to pay for domestic violence treatment — and the idea is taken seriously — all I can say is we have a long way to go in the U.S. before we reach the European level of self-destructive insanity.)
† I know von Clausewitz said, "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means," but I'm talking in the micro sense. There's a guy standing on a piece of land that I want to stand on. He's got a gun and I've got a gun. War is how I use my gun to get him to let me stand on that piece of land. He either dies, runs away, or steps aside.