The enemy that dare not speak its name
Islamic religious fanaticism is central to terrorism
America’s two presidential candidates are duking it out over who is best-suited to be commander-in-chief of the world’s only superpower. At the heart of the debate is a disagreement about how to handle the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrat Barack Osama consistently has advocated withdrawal to avoid defeat and humiliation similar to that suffered in Vietnam. Republican John McCain, a hero of the Vietnam War, insists that there are inherent differences in America’s current enemy and the enemy a generation ago. The simplest way to separate these wars is to define classical and contemporary insurgency and how it applies in the relevant cases.
The fundamental difference between classical and contemporary insurgency is based on different global contexts of the times. In the past, when the nation state or a centralized government was the major institutional guarantor of stability, insurgents sought to undermine and replace that power base. We can refer to that phenomenon as classical insurgency. Insurgents, to be able to confront and defeat superior enemies, must be flexible and adapt as times change. Thus, as governing and business institutions evolved from a largely national posture to a broader international focus, insurgent organizations adapted to keep pace with the times and assumed an identity, operational vision and battlefields less defined (and less constricted) by national boundaries. Likewise, contemporary insurgents harbor less cohesive post-insurgency plans. A more globalized but less precise philosophy of insurgency is part and parcel to what we understand to be contemporary insurgency. Modern insurgency has gone global to upset the apple cart that is our modern interconnected world.
One example of contemporary insurgency is the modern jihadist movement. One of the dangerous characteristics of this contemporary insurgency is the popular support aspects of its agenda have among wide swaths of Muslims internationally. As Michael Vlahos explains in his report, Terrors Mask: Insurgency Within Islam, the modern Islamist insurgents enjoy an unprecedented meeting of the minds among their ideologically targeted population. Referring to what he calls an overarching web of significance, Dr. Vlahos puts forth that much of the worlds Muslim population and their cultural and societal institutions share a similar world view as the insurgents. While al Qaeda and the Taliban represent extreme interpretations of particular aspects of Sharia, he writes, what is important is how their message resonates their continuing appeal tells us that the resonance is strong indeed. In other words, while many Muslims might not agree with some of the tactics undertaken by al Qaeda and other Islamist militants, many do in fact agree with the greater vision of a muscular and purified Islam with a more preeminent place in the world. Contemporary Islamist insurgents thus have an advantage over counterinsurgents in that they do not have to focus on winning hearts and minds because many are predisposed to their struggle already.
The religious nature of the conflict makes this enemy hard to defeat because it takes advantage of one of the Wests cultural weaknesses: political correctness. In the modern age, free thought and freedom of belief are valued to such a degree that there is no recognition that some thoughts and some beliefs are dangerous. Diversity of opinion and religious ecumenism, including the religious opinion that society should be destroyed, ironically are considered to be cultural strengths. This dogma is so unquestionable that it is impermissible to question any unorthodox perspective, including that of al Qaeda. This politically-correct sensitivity makes it complicated to define the enemy because it cannot be honestly identified as a religious-based one in the interests of not offending any religious sentiments. This presents a predicament, as Dr. Vlahos puts it: Can we defeat an enemy that we are afraid to name? Contemporary insurgency takes advantage of a Western intellectual constipation that prevents its commanders from openly discussing many aspects of the current war. This weakness did not frequently set back classical counterinsurgency efforts because the insurgent enemy clearly was defined as independence/usually Communist forces.
The central religious element of the Islamist movement takes insurgency to new levels not common in classical insurgencies. Because it is an insurgency within a religion as much as one against ruling powers, it has literally millions of sympathizers within that intramural ideological dispute. Because Islam is found all over the world, this insurgency has no borders, and so is potentially unlimited (or very difficult to limit) in scope. Obviously a global insurgency is harder to contain and defend against than a classical insurgency that has more concrete targets in a more easily defined space. For example, the aim of the Malayan insurgency of 1948-1960 was to kick out the British colonial power (and later the new native government of the newly independent Malayan state) and was limited to Malayan territorial borders. Todays Islamist insurgency has no such borders and for that reason can select from literally millions of soft targets all over the map. With such an unlimited target area that is impossible to protect, the insurgents can strike a blow for their cause practically by hitting anyone, anywhere at any time. Because the battle space is so spread out, the insurgents do not have to go for the throat and finish the job by actually defeating the established power in the field; modern insurgents can win by merely continuing to exist and frustrating the major powers that seek their elimination in vain. (Classical insurgency had been heading in this direction for some time, but the insurgent ability to bide time has been more fully realized by the current global conflict.)
This theme of classical-versus-contemporary insurgency is addressed in the journal Survival by David Kilcullen, chief strategist of the U.S. State Departments counterterrorism office. In an article entitled Counterinsurgency Redux, Mr. Kilcullen discusses the difference between classical insurgency, which was most commonly found in the so-called wars of national liberation from 1944 to about 1982, and contemporary insurgency, which he describes as based more on resistance to the established power and attempts to spoil the established powers position than to seize power itself. As he explains, For example, in Iraq multiple groups are seeking to paralyze and fragment the state, rather than to gain control of its apparatus and govern. Insurgents favor strategies of provocation (to undermine support of the coalition) and exhaustion (to convince the coalition to leave Iraq) rather than displacement of the government. This is a resistance insurgency rather than a revolutionary insurgency. Insurgents want to destroy the Iraqi state, not secede from it or supplant it.
Chaos can be the goal of contemporary insurgency because its ultimate aim is to destroy society. Oftentimes contemporary insurgents have no strategy and no plan for a post-insurgency power vacuum. Because contemporary insurgents need no unified vision, force multiplication is simpler because coordinated effort is unnecessary above and beyond immediate destruction. For this reason, one significant difference between classical and contemporary insurgency is that the former sponsored a guerrilla counter-government while the latter does not. Modern jihadist insurgency is in no need of a blueprint because fundamentalist belief is that power ultimately will be established as God wills it. The end game of classical insurgents was eventually to take control and govern a defined space, so the struggle had parameters. An intrinsic aspect of contemporary jihadist insurgents is the spiritual sanctification that can be earned through religious war. Such fanaticism has fewer limits, especially in the growing radical Islamic world. Classical insurgency was prolonged by design; contemporary jihadist insurgency recognizes no beginning and no end. As ever, this war is a contest of wills.