Winning the War We’ve Got, Not the One We Want

LTG JAMES M. DUBIK 03 NOV 2004- 14 MAY 2007Retired US Army Lieutenant General Jim Dubik, Ph.D, is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. he has written an interesting essay that appears in ARMY, The Magazine of the Association of the United States Army, entitled “Winning the War We’ve Got, Not the One We Want.”

General Dubik begins by stating the obvious:

We need some hard thinking. We are not winning the war against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Iraq or Syria, or elsewhere across North and East Africa, the greater Middle East, South Asia and beyond. At best, one might argue that we are holding our own, but this is far from winning. The sooner we come to realize this, the more likely we are to identify a successful way forward.”

He also explains that:

We are facing a global revolutionary war, with a narrative that resonates with many. Most strategists are familiar with revolutions within a state; the near-global dimension of this revolution makes it different and more complex. Our enemies are not mere criminals. They have conquered, controlled and now govern territory. As their own strategic documents describe, their intent is to eject Western influence from the region, depose apostate (in their view) governments and redraw boundaries— as they already have between Iraq and Syria, ultimately remaking the map and adjusting the international order by creating a caliphate along the lines of the former Ottoman Empire.

He adds that:

Other parts of this global revolution include several power struggles: one between the Arabs and Persians; another between Sunni and Shia. Further, this revolution is an intra-Sunni struggle between the very small percentage of radical and violent Sunni Muslims seeking to redefine the faith of the vast majority of other Sunni Muslims. While the broad dimensions of this power struggle are important to understand, as in any revolution, the microdynamics of how it unfolds in each particular area are perhaps more important. And again, like all revolutions, this one has not only political but also social and religious dimensions to it.

And then concludes his introduction by saying that:

Finally, the geographic scope of this revolution’s context makes it an international problem, not just a regional one. In fact, one aspect of this revolutionary movement is to undo the international order produced after World War II and sustained throughout the Cold War.

General Dubik draws five conclusions:

  • First, success in this war will require a new Western-regional coalition, one that is committed to sufficiently common principles and goals and will follow a common civil-military strategy … A precisely defined “end state” may be the wrong construct to use in this war … And this war cannot be won without more participation from our Arab allies. We need to study carefully, learn from and adapt to the reasons why they have been hesitant.
  • Second, ideas and narratives are the fuel of revolutions, so the main effort of whatever counterstrategy is adopted must attack the enemies’ narrative both by coalition domestic and international actions …  Our current counternarrative campaign remains weak because our actions are disjointed and unconnected to a vision of a future different from and more compelling than that of our enemies.
  • Third, the “tissue” that connects our enemies is as important as our enemies themselves. This connective tissue consists of the means our enemies use to recruit, radicalize, plan, prepare, execute, finance and sustain their activities. This tissue lies in the open space of normal civil and economic communications flow, a space controlled by sovereign states and their security services. We have taken some action against this “tissue” but after 14 years of war, our actions clearly have not been sufficiently robust, coordinated or timely.
  • Fourth, while the “solutions” to this revolution are clearly local, local governance, economic, social and religious policies are as much causative to the rise of the revolution as are the policies and actions of “external” powers. So our reassessment must address the domestic policies of coalition members that our enemies are using to their advantage.
  • Last, the security aspects of whatever strategy the coalition adopts must include both military forces and domestic as well as transnational police forces. Our enemies operate in the space between crime and war, and between peace and war. The coalition must close these spaces.

 Then he drills down to the core problem:

This global revolution has been clear to some for years. Also clear is that the U.S. strategic approaches used since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have not been sufficiently successful. Our enemies have occasionally been disrupted, parts have been dismantled; but they have not been defeated and certainly are not destroyed … Simply put: While we have had some successes, neither the expansive, near-unilateral strategy of the former Bush administration nor the minimalist, gradualist, surrogate approach of the Obama administration has worked. One might even say that both strategies have used approaches that have strengthened the enemies’ narrative and ideology rather than diminished it.”

In my opinion, America’s strategic vision and leadership have been cloudy and weak since the early 1960s, and it shows no signs of improving. It is, in some respects, hard to blame Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for wanting to back away from American military efforts against Da’esh/ISIL because, as general Dubik says, successive US adminsitratuions have adopted approaches which might “create the illusion of a multinational effort, but [do] not reflect a serious attempt to align nations around similar interests and common goals.

What to do?

General Dubik, pretty obviously, prescribes a “rethink” which he says must understand that “Bombs, raids and any other kind of kinetic actions are necessary,” a point that

Liberal leader Trudeau walks on the tarmac after arriving in Saint John

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to take on board, but the “Destruction of a revolution requires more. Revolutions ignite moral indignation about one power arrangement, then maneuver to replace that arrangement with another promulgated as better. Bombs and raids do not take the wind out of the sail of moral indignation. As long as we act as if defeat or destruction is a military task, success will continue to elude us. We need a coherent set of civil and military strategies, policies and campaigns, in service to a broader goal.” Canada can and should want to be part of defining that broader goal but, in order to do so we cannot afford to be “left out” of the discussions … as we are now, thanks to Prime Minister Trudeau’s decisions to base serious foreign policy decisions on juvenile quips made during a TV interview. Do do that, to be taken seriously by our allies, he needs to stop campaigning and start governing.

I support General Dubik’s analysis of the problem. I am less certain about all of his prescriptions in so far as he “situates the appreciation” of the outcome of the “rethink” both he and I agree is needed, but no matter what, Canada needs to get “back in the game,” and that means breaking a foolish election promise and being welcomed back into the room, with the allied grownups.

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