Ten Years Later: Are We Winning the War?

By: Sebastian L. v. Gorka

The year 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the horrendous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. [1] Al Qaeda's religiously motivated murder of almost 3,000 people on that sunny Tuesday morning led directly to military operations in Afghanistan and then Iraq, which together mark the longest-ever military engagement by America since 1776. We are still fighting in a war that has already outlasted our combat in Korea, World War II, and even Vietnam. Whilst the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks is dead—thanks to the courage and audacity of the U.S. military and intelligence community—the war is not over, the enemy not vanquished.

At the decade-marker for this war, there remain two disturbing truths that the American policy elite has yet to recognize or understand:

  • Stunning tactical successes—no matter how numerous—do not necessarily lead to strategic victory.
  • The second related point is that today, a decade after September 11, America still does not fully understand the nature of the enemy that most threatens its citizens; and thus, its strategic response is undermined.

Know the Enemy

One of the more important reasons for the lack of an effective response to Al Qaeda is the lack of a clear and overarching strategy for the post-9/11 era. We have been given first the Global War On Terror (GWOT) and then the "Long War," and now the Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO). But we are still looking for the new George Kennan who will write a new version of the "Long Telegram," which can be used to formulate a doctrine that would be the strategic-level equivalent of the Cold War's containment policy.[2] Without a strategic-level doctrine, executing an effective response to any significant threat is very difficult.

After World War II, it was much easier to effectively communicate the stakes of the confrontation, why America had to act, and what we wished to achieve. This was due to several reasons. Communication is best when it clearly demonstrates values. After four years of engagement in a global war against a totalitarian enemy, America's values were clear. Likewise, after 30 years, the values of America's then-enemy, the Soviet Union, were not obtuse or difficult to grasp. When we witnessed the Berlin Blockade, the launch of Sputnik, and the first Soviet atomic test, it was clear that the game was one of survival—Them or Us. "The Enemy" was clearly an enemy; we knew what they were capable of and what they wanted; and most important of all, the previous four years—World War II—had shown us who we were. September the 11th was different.

In the hazy days of post-Cold War peace dividends, because our enemy had been vanquished, or rather, had become our "friend," it was hard to remember what America and the West stood for. The 9/11 attack itself came as a huge surprise. Despite the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 USS Cole attack, we did not appreciate the scale of the threat, the intention of the enemy, or his true capabilities. Even after 9/11, we have been obstructed in our understanding of our foe by the fact that his motivation is not simply political or rational but is religiously informed and has nothing to do with the logic of nation-state behavior. Thanks to this confusion, today, when you ask someone anywhere in the world, with whom they associate the word "caliphate," they will more often than not name Osama bin Laden. If you ask the same person which person or country they associate with the words "democracy" or "liberty," it is unlikely to be the United States. Not so long ago, neither statement would have been true.

To simplify matters—and given the urgency of the task—we can boil down the communications task into three fundamental questions the United States and its allies must answer if they are to have any chance of building a coherent, strategic approach that can delegitimize Al Qaeda. These questions are:

  1. Who is the enemy? The answer to this question should be short and simple.
  2. Who are we? What do we believe in; what do we stand for as a nation? And what do we require of other nations that hold themselves to be part of the community of peace-loving and freedom-loving countries?
  3. What are the core values that inform our behavior and our policies and that are not negotiable?

Given the weakness of communications to date, I would suggest one additional twist. At the moment it would be a waste to spend significantly more money trying to make the United States or the "West" look good in the eyes of non-Western audiences. This will most likely come when we are judged by our actions. Instead, we should focus on making the enemy look "bad." Why is it, for example, that since 9/11 Al Qaeda has been responsible for the death of far more Muslims than Westerners? Publicizing such information is one way we can delegitimize and marginalize Al Qaeda.

There is, however, one last point that has been omitted in all the discussion of strategic communications in the past seven years. There is a very important reason that we were much better at strategic communications (or rather propaganda and political warfare) during the Cold War. When America established tools such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe, it was targeting a completely different kind of audience. For the most part, the citizens of the captive nations behind the Iron Curtain were not staunch communists who had to be converted through these broadcasts. The people of Hungary, Poland, East Germany, the Baltic states, and so on believed in democracy and longed to be free. They didn't tune into our federally funded stations because they wanted to be converted to our values system. They were already on our side and simply wanted access to information denied them by their illegitimate masters. This is not the situation today. Yesterday's audience was with us but captive. Today's audience may be suffering under a less-than-democratic regime or an authoritarian government, but that does not mean they are necessarily on our side. The Cold War may have been about winning "hearts and minds," but today we are in the era of needing to win "hearts and souls."

After Abbottabad—America and the Strategic Principles of Counterterrorism

The May 2011 special forces raid against Osama bin Laden in Abottabad, Pakistan, will clearly become the textbook example of how to perfectly execute high-risk military operations in the post-9/11 world. In locating and killing Osama bin Laden on foreign soil, America again demonstrated its peerless capacity at the tactical and operational level. Nevertheless, as the supreme military thinker Sun Tzu taught, "tactics without strategy is simply the noise before defeat," and it is my firm conviction that the past 10 years of this conflict have lacked the strategic guidance demanded by a threat of the magnitude of transnational terrorism.

This concept can be illustrated with one simple observation. Since the escalation of the Iraqi insurgency in 2004, the subsequent rewriting and rapid application of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Field Manual 3-24 on Counterinsurgency, and the release of General Stanley McChrystal's report on operations in Afghanistan, Washington has persisted in calling our approach to the threat in theater a "Counterinsurgency Strategy." (In fact, a basic Internet search on the term "Counterinsurgency Strategy" yields more than 300,000 results). This terminology is used despite the fact that counterinsurgency always has been, and always will be, a doctrinal approach to irregular warfare, never a strategic solution to any kind of threat.

Strategy explains how one matches resources and methods to ultimate objectives. Strategy explains the "why" of war, never the operational "how to" of war. The fact that even official bodies can repeatedly make this mistake so many years into this fight indicates that we are breaking cardinal rules of how to realize America's national security interests.

With regard to the requirement to understand the enemy, I will share a personal experience. Several years after 9/11, I was invited to address a senior group of special operations officers on the last day of a three-day event analyzing progress in the conflict. As I rose to speak on the final day, I told the assembled officers—all of whom had just returned from the theater of operations or who were about to deploy there—that I would have to discard my prepared comments. The reason was that for 2½ days I had witnessed brave men who were risking their lives debate with each other and us, the invited guests, over who was the enemy they were fighting. Debates focused on whether Al Qaeda is an organization, a movement, a network, or an ideology. This, I said, would be akin to U.S. officers debating each other in 1944 over the question of what was the Third Reich or what did Nazism actually represent. The plain fact of the matter is that we have institutionally failed to meet our duty to become well informed on the threat doctrine of our enemy. And without a clear understanding of the enemy threat doctrine, victory is likely impossible.

The reasons for our paucity in this area are many. In the preceding section, we discussed the functional problems, most of which stem from two serious and connected obstacles of strategic magnitude. The first is a misguided belief that the religious character of the enemy's ideology should not be discussed and that we need not address it, but should instead use the phrase "violent extremism" to describe our foe and thus avoid any unnecessary unpleasantness. The second is that even if we could demonstrate clear-headedness on the issue and recognize the religious ideology of Al Qaeda and its associate movements for what it is—a form of hybrid totalitarianism—we still drastically lack the institutional ability to analyze and comprehend the worldview of the enemy and therefore its strategic mindset and ultimate objectives.

Here it is enlightening to look to the past to understand just how great a challenge is posed by the need for our national security establishment to understand its new enemy. It is now well recognized that it was only in 1946, with the authoring of George Kennan's classified "Long Telegram" (later republished pseudonymously as The Sources of Soviet Conduct) that America began to understand the nature of the Soviet Union, why it acted the way it did, how the Kremlin thought, and why the U.S.S.R. was an existential threat to America.[3] Consider now the fact that this document was written three decades after the Russian Revolution, and that despite all the scholarship and analysis available in the United States, it took more than a generation to penetrate the mind of the enemy and come to a point where a counterstrategy could be formulated. Now add to this the fact that today our enemy is not a European, secular, nation-state—as was the U.S.S.R.—but a non-European, religiously informed, non-state, terrorist group, and we see the magnitude of the challenge. Whilst initiatives such as Fort Leavenworth's Human Terrain System (HTS) and the teams they provide to theater commanders are well-meaning efforts in the right direction—trying to understand the context of the enemy—they still miss the mark on more than one level.

To begin with, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to provide the contextual knowledge we need to understand and defeat our enemy if we rely solely upon anthropologists and social scientists, as the HTS does. Today, our multidisciplinary analysis of the enemy and his doctrine requires just as much—if not more—expertise from the regional historian and the theologian, the specialist who knows when and how Sunni Islam split from Shia Islam and who understands the difference between the Meccan and Medinan verses of the Quran. We should ask ourselves honestly how many national security practitioners know the answers to these questions, or at least have somewhere to turn within government to provide them such essential expertise.

Secondly, we must—after seven years—take the counsel of the 9/11 Congressional Commission seriously in recognizing that the threat environment itself has radically changed beyond the capacity of our legacy national security structures to deal with it.

In the case of how two of the 9/11 hijackers (Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Midhar) were flagged as threats but still permitted to enter the United States legally, we see proof of how our national security structures do not match up well to the threat our new enemies represent. This problem is not unique to the United States, but is a product of what the academic world calls the Westphalian system of nation-states and how we are structured to protect ourselves.

In the 350 years since the Treaty of Westphalia marked the end of the religious wars of Europe, Western nations developed and perfected national security architectures that were predicated on an institutional division of labor and discrete categorization of threats. Internally, we had to maintain constitutionality and law and order. Externally, we had to deal with the threat of aggression from another state. As a result, all our countries divided national security tasks into separate conceptual and functional baskets: internal versus external; military versus nonmilitary. And this system worked very well for 3½ centuries during which time states fought other nation-states—the age of so-called "conventional warfare." However, as Philip Bobbitt has so masterfully described in his book, The Shield of Achilles, that age is behind us. Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, or even the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be forced into analytic boxes which are military or nonmilitary, or into internal or external threat categories.[4] We must recognize the hard truth that the threat environment is no longer primarily defined by the state-actor.

Take, for example, the case of the most successful Al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, the Fort Hood massacre. A major serving in the U.S. Army decided that his loyalty lay with his Muslim coreligionists and not his nation or his branch of service. He was recruited, encouraged, and finally blessed in his actions by Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and Muslim cleric who was hiding out in Yemen. When Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was about to be deployed in the service of our country, he instead chose the path of holy war against the infidel and slew 13 and wounded 31 of his fellow servicemen and their family members and colleagues on the largest U.S. Army base in the United States.

How Westphalian was this deadly attack by Al Qaeda? What does it have to do with conventional warfare? Was this threat external or internal in nature? Was it a military attack or a nonmilitary one? As you see, the conceptual frameworks and capabilities that served us so well through the last century fail us today in the 21st century. As a result, we must develop new methodologies to analyze the threats to our nation and new ways to bridge the conventional gaps between government and agency departments and their respective mindsets—gaps which are so deftly exploited by groups such as Al Qaeda.[5] We must recognize that the master of military strategy, Carl von Clausewitz, wrote his meisterwerk in the context of station state war. His trinity of government, people, and military and the related characteristics of reason, passion, and skill do not pertain in the realm of irregular warfare as they do in conventional war (see Figure 1). Today the enemy is more flexible and not driven by rational conceptualizations of raison d'etat.

Figure 1. Clausewitz Versus Irregular warfare

The paradox of Al Qaeda is that whilst we have in the past 10 years been incredibly successful in militarily degrading its operational capacity to directly do us harm, it has become even more powerful in the domain of ideological warfare and other indirect forms of attack. Whilst bin Laden may be dead, the narrative of religiously motivated global revolution that he embodied is very much alive and growing in popularity.[6] Whilst we have crippled Al Qaeda's capacity to execute mass casualty attacks with its own assets on the mainland of the United States, we see that its message continues to hold traction with individuals prepared to bring the fight to us individually, be it Major Hasan, would-be Times Square attacker Faisal Shahzad, or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day or "underwear bomber."

Counterterrorism: Beyond the Kinetic

Although we have proven our capacity in the past 10 years to kinetically engage our enemy at the operational and tactical level with unsurpassed effectiveness, we have not even begun to take the war to Al Qaeda at the strategic level of counterideology. To paraphrase Dr. James Kiras of the Air University, whose views I highly respect, we have denied Al Qaeda the capability to conduct complex, devastating attacks on the scale of 9/11, but we now need to transition from concentrating on dismantling and disrupting Al Qaeda's network to undermining its core strategy of ideological attack. We need to employ much more the indirect approach made famous by our community of Special Forces operators of working "by, with, and through" local allies—moving beyond direct attacks on the enemy at the operational and tactical levels to attacking it indirectly at the strategic level.

We need to bankrupt transnational jihadist terrorism at it most powerful point: its narrative of global, religious war. For the majority of the past 10 years, the narrative of the conflict has been controlled by our enemy. Just as we did in the Cold War, the United States must take active measures to arrive at a position where it shapes the agenda and the story of the conflict, where we force our enemy onto his back foot to such an extent that jihadism eventually loses all credibility and implodes as an ideology. For this to happen, we must rethink from the ground up the way in which strategic communications and information operations are run across the U.S. government. Additionally,

Our ability to fight Al Qaeda and similar transnational terrorist actors will depend upon our capacity to communicate to our own citizens and to the world what we are fighting for and how the ideology of jihad threatens the universal values we hold so dear. To quote Sun Tzu again, in war it is not enough to know the enemy in order to win; one must first know oneself. During the Cold War, this self-knowledge happened naturally. Given the nature of the Soviet Union and the nuclear threat it clearly posed to the West, from the first successful Soviet atom-bomb test to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, every day for four decades Americans knew what was at stake and why communism could not be allowed to spread its totalitarian grip beyond the Iron Curtain.

However, with the end of the Cold War and the decade of peace dividends that defined the 1990s, America and the West understandably lost clarity with regard to what about its way of life was precious and worth fighting for after the specter of World War III had been vanquished and the (Cold) War had been won.

The shock of the September 11th attacks did not, however, automatically return us to a point of clarity. The reasons for this flow from several of the observations I have already made, and also from the fact that our current enemy is a religiously colored one unlike the secular foe we faced during the Cold War.

Due in part to a misinterpretation of what the Founding Fathers actually meant by "separation of church and state," today we have hobbled our capacity to understand and counter this enemy at the strategic level. Based upon my experience with military operators and also U.S. law enforcement officers fighting terrorism at home, many in government senior management positions have misconstrued the matter to such an extent that religion has become a taboo issue within national threat analysis. This has been done despite that fact that all those who have brought death to our shores as Al Qaeda operatives have done so not out of purely political conviction but clearly as a result of the fact that they feel transcendentally justified, that they see their violent deeds as sanctioned by God. If we wish to combat the ideology that drives these murderers, we ignore the role of religion at our own peril.

The official decision in recent years to use the misleading term "violent extremism" to describe the threat is deleterious to our ability to understand the enemy and defeat it. America is not at war with all forms of violent extremism. The attacks of September 11 were not the work of a group of terrorists motivated by a generic form of extremism. We are not at war with communists, fascists, or nationalists, but religiously inspired mass murderers who consistently cite the Quran to justify their actions. Denying this fact simply out of a misguided sensitivity will delay our ability to understand the nature of this conflict and to delegitimize our foe. By analogy, imagine if in the fight against the Ku Klux Klan federal law enforcement had been forbidden from describing that group as white supremacists or racists, or if during WWII, for political reasons, we forbade our forces from understanding the enemy as a Nazi regime fueled and guided by a fascist ideology of racial hatred, but demanded they be called "violent extremists" instead. We did not do it then, and we must not do it now. The safety of America's citizens and our chances of eventual victory depend upon our being able to call the enemy by its proper name: Global Jihadism.[7]

To conclude, the past 10 years since September 11, 2001, can be summarized as a vast collection of tactical and operational successes but a vacuum in terms of strategic understanding and strategic response. To paraphrase a former U.S. Marine who knows the enemy very well and whom I greatly respect, we have failed to understand the enemy at any more than an operational level and have instead, by default, addressed the enemy solely on the operational plane of engagement. Operationally we have become most proficient at responding to the localized threats caused by Al Qaeda, but those localized threats are simply tactical manifestations of what is happening at the strategic level and driven by the ideology of Global Jihad. As a result, by not responding to what Al Qaeda has become at the strategic level, we continue to attempt to engage it on the wrong battlefield.

The 10th anniversary of the attacks in Washington, DC, in New York, and in Pennsylvania afford those in the U.S. government who have sworn to uphold and defend the national interests of this greatest of nations a clear opportunity to recognize what we have accomplished and what needs to be reassessed. All involved must begin anew to recommit themselves to attacking this deadliest of enemies at the level which it deserves to be—and must be—which is, of course, the strategic level.

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his ideology of global supremacy through religious war is far more vibrant and sympathetic to audiences around the world than it was on the day before the attacks 10 years ago. We need to guarantee the conditions by which the executive branch is able finally to produce a comprehensive understanding of the enemy threat doctrine that is Global Jihadism, a feat akin to Kennan's foundational analysis that eventually led to the Truman Doctrine and its exquisite operationalization in Paul Nitze's plan for containment, NSC-68.[8]

Ten years into this war, a strategic re-evaluation is justified. I suggest four successful principles that can guide such a re-evaluation:[9]

  1. The United States must suppress the sphere of mobility of Al Qaeda and its Associated Movements (AQAM). This war will not end in a neat ceasefire and peace treaty. It must consist of a constant pressure against both the will and the capability of global jihadists to do us harm.
  2. The American intelligence and national security communities must invest far greater effort into understanding the historic, economic, social and political factors that AQAM uses to mobilize its followers and operators. This is NOT a cause-and-effect relationship, but a dynamic whereby elite ideologies exploit objective conditions through a subject mobilizing religious ideology.
  3. This war is no longer simply about hijacked planes, IEDs or gunmen. Ten years after 9/11, it is perhaps more nonkinetic than it is physical. America must rediscover and deploy the tools it used so effectively in past ideological wars to build a powerful and globally applicable counter-narrative. This narrative must undermine the legitimacy and attractiveness of the enemy, as well as deter potential allies and recruits. America must drive the global agenda of justice and liberty, as it did during WWII and the Cold War.
  4. The American national security establishment must purge itself of well-intentioned but neutering concepts of political correctness and cultural sensitivity concerning the identity of the enemy and what the enemy intends. AQAM uses religion not only to win adherents, but also to justify mass murder. We must tackle this reality head-on. The religious nature of our enemy's ideology cannot obstruct us from defining and realizing our national interests.

Only if we have an overarching strategic response will America be able to defeat Al Qaeda and its associates before the next significant anniversary of 9/11.

About the Author(s): Sebastian L. v. Gorka, Ph.D., is director of the Homeland Defense Fellowship Program, College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University; and Military Affairs Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Washington DC. The author welcomes comments from CTFP Fellows and others at seb.gorka@gmail.com.


 The full testimony can be read at the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs website at http://www.censa.net/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=483:ten-years-on-the-evolution-of-the-terrorist-threat&Itemid=150, and the video is available on the You Tube website at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfmN86SlpKY. As with all CTX content, the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense or any other government agency.

[2] The Council for Emerging National Security Affairs has compiled a survey of national security practitioners and academics judging the various potential doctrines that have been penned but not yet won universal adoption by the administration. For details, see The Search for Mr. X at the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs website at www.censa.net.

[3] The declassified text of Kennan's original cable can be found on the Nevada Technical Associates website at http://www.ntanet.net/KENNAN.html. The pseudonymous article he later wrote for a broader audience in Foreign Affairs is on the History Guide website at http://www.historyguide.org/europe/kennan.html (both accessed June 15, 2011).

[4] Philip Bobbitt: The Shield of Achilles—War, Peace and the Course of History, (New York: Random House, 2002). I take the discussion further and discuss just how different this post-Westphalian threat environment is and how we need to reappraise key Clausewitzian aspects of the analysis of war in "The Age of Irregular Warfare—So What?," Joint Forces Quarterly, 58 no. 3 (2010): 32–38.

[5] For a discussion of how to institutionally and conceptually bridge these gaps and so be able to defeat the new types of threat we face, see the concept "Super-Purple" described in my chapter, "International Cooperation as a Tool in Counterterrorism: Super-Purple as a Weapon to Defeat the Nonrational Terrorist," in Toward a Grand Strategy Against Terrorism, ed. Christopher C. Harmon, Andrew N. Pratt, and Sebastian L. v. Gorka, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2011), 71-83.

[6] For the rise of jihadi ideology and what should be done in response, see Sebastian L. v. Gorka: "The Surge that Could Defeat Al Qaeda," (August 10, 2009), retrieved from the Foreign Policy website: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/08/10/the_one_surge_that_could_defeat_al_qaeda; (accessed June 15, 2011).

[7] For the best work on understanding the enemy we now face, see Patrick Sookhdeo's Global Jihad: The Future in the Face of Militant Islam (McLean, VA: Isaac Publishing, 2007); and the analytic works of Stephen Ulph, including: Towards a Curriculum for Teaching Jihadist Ideology, The Jamestown Foundation, available at the Jamestown Foundation website: http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=36999. For an overview of the key thinkers and strategists of global jihadi ideology, see Sebastian L. v. Gorka: Jihadist Ideology: The Core Texts, lecture to the Westminster Institute. Audio and transcript available at the Westminster Institute website: http://www.westminster-institute.org/articles/jihadist-ideology-the-core-texts-3/#more-385. (Both were accessed June 15, 2011).

[8] The declassified NSC-68 which operationalized George Kennan's enemy threat doctrine analysis of the USSR can be retrieved from the Air Force Magazine website: http://www.airforce-magazine.com/MagazineArchive/Documents/2004/December%202004/1204keeperfull.pdf (accessed June 15, 2011).

[9] For a lengthier discussion of these principles, see the forthcoming monograph "Developing an Integrated Approach to Counterterrorism: Connecting the Academic, Operational and Policy Arenas" (working title) by Gorka, Sloan, and Ishimoto from the Joint Special Operations University, U.S. Special Operations Command.

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