My piece yesterday, Obama and the Global War on Whatever, caused discussion and touched a nerve inside the Beltway for its forthright critique of this White House for its lack of seriousness in discussing our Salafi jihadist enemy. Tongues have been wagging and I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback, some quite detailed.
Among the responses was an extended comment from an old friend who’s retired from military intelligence after a distinguished career, someone who’s “been there, done that” with me, spookily, in several countries. We don’t always agree but we always learn from each other.
He is a “name” on Planet Counterterrorism, and he works for the Pentagon now at the policy level, so writing on the record would be not, ahem, career enhancing, particularly in this most thin-skinned and vindictive of administrations. Therefore I’m letting him go to e-press anonymously, since I think this critique merits discussion. I vouch for his credentials and that he has the relevant DoD, IC and CT mugs and t-shirts. Enjoy.
Anonymous on Obama’s Global War on Whatever
As usual, John has hit upon the crux of the problem and exposed some uncomfortable truths about the conduct of the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda and its offspring. A salient point in a recent post should be even further sharpened because of its central importance to the discussion. Specifically, it is the continued confusion over what to call this resurgent threat and the decision that some terms, such as “radical Islam,” are off-limits. As John argues, and I agree, if the term “Salafi jihadist” fits, we should use it. In an ironic case of violent agreement, it’s because its use acknowledges the reality of what they are and all that they claim to be. It is fact, not opinion or approval.
None of this debate is new and has its roots in the Bush administration’s grappling with terminology. Back then, it was believed that the use of “mujahideen” and “jihad” conferred a mantle of legitimacy and religious justification upon the actions of Osama bin Laden and his followers. Yet, when used in context, such as trying to adopt the enemy’s perspective and understand his thinking, these terms proved extremely useful and avoided ambiguities. For example, al-Qaeda has always considered itself a global, multi-generational “movement” more than merely a “terrorist group” or “network” – a vital distinction that makes a difference.
The waters are again muddied in the “what’s in a name?” game, and the more generic “violent extremism” is preferred. The White House just announced a summit next month – delayed from last October – on countering violent extremism. This announcement was timed to show solidarity with the historic events in France. They march, we hold panel discussions – it’s the Beltway way. The summit will focus on accurately labelled threats from “terrorists” and “foreign fighters,” although it’s unclear how “radicalization” per se is a danger or even a topic of discussion if no reference to “radical Islam” is allowed. A radical departure indeed.
Also, the issue of naming (and shaming) arose over what to call the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL and whether the term “Daesh” should be uttered at the highest levels. Taking the lead from France, John Kerry has begun to use the term, which is itself notable because the State Department is the only arm of the U.S. government that still attempts what used to be called “strategic communication” – another term consigned to the GWOT dustbin. So, in this case, it is less helpful to use a group’s preferred name due to its implied aspirations to an Islamic state and even a caliphate and more appealing to use one that they consider derogatory. To be sure, “Daesh” is a powerful tool of satire in the right hands. However, mockery is a fine policy line to walk, which President Obama discovered with his “JV” comment, and is best left to the professionals like sketch comedy performers on Middle Eastern TV. It is not apparent that policy-makers even know how to employ this rhetorical weapon to its fullest advantage. In this instance, Washington is the JV team.
As a result, we are left with more uncertainty in combating violent Salafi jihadism just as it is ascendant again. Once again, the lack of clarity is self-inflicted. The basic premise should be to deliberately choose those terms that both clarify the problem set for planners and decision-makers and create problems for the enemy by serving a larger strategic purpose. But we’ve already created a terrible dilemma by declaring the unattainable goal of the destruction of something (the Islamic State organization) that is essentially part of a much larger phenomenon, an “-ism” that threatens the Muslim world and beyond. As John already noted, we’ve over-complicated all of this while underappreciating what is at stake and inflating the wrong threats.
There are many folks, especially in the Pentagon, who are weary of this whole business and wish that the AQ-spawned thugs would just get off their national security lawn. But that’s not going to happen any time soon because al-Qaeda’s original dream of this struggle being one of the strong-stomached and zealous-minded versus the weak-willed and disinterested is still alive. Whatever else we call it, it’s a “wicked problem” that’s here to stay.