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Thread: Before Abbottabad: hunting AQ leaders (merged thread)

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    Default Before Abbottabad: hunting AQ leaders (merged thread)

    I wanted to poll the SWC for input on a thought I've had for a while, and it centers on our vilification of Al Qaeda and, in particular, one Osama Bin Laden.

    Has our inability to produce verification that we have captured/killed OBL, actually worked against us in terms of actually bolstering the confidence of current and potential terrorist actors around the world?

    Or put another way, could we have avoided a Catch-22 by simply saying that we would seek to bring those responsible for 9/11 to justice, without using by-name references? Do we face a credibility gap because we haven't produced OBL's remains, and are terrorists out there confident that if OBL can remain aloof in the hinterlands of Afghanistan/Pakistan, then they stand a chance as well?

    I ask these questions from the perspective of future IO, as I wonder if we would be better served reducing the rhetoric. I read a lot from folks (military included) who believe that Afghanistan should have always been the main effort, and since that chapter has not closed, their attitudes about Iraq will always remain lukewarm.

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    Council Member tequila's Avatar
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    I think the failure to catch and kill OBL in the immediate wake of the invasion of Afghanistan was a major strategic failure. It revitalized jihadism when its main representative evaded capture to taunt us again and again. It showed potential jihadis that even when fully roused from its slumber, the U.S. was not invincible.

    A combination of other factors has sustained jihadism. OBL has become a cultural marker now, an Islamist Che Guevara. Killing or capturing him now would still be a major tactical victory, but it would not be the potential deathblow to Islamism that it would have been back in 2001.

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    Council Member marct's Avatar
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    Hi JC,

    That's a really good question - and a touch one. My suspicion is that, yes, there was too much aimed at Bin Laden (and Saddam Hussein), but not for the reasons you listed. From what I can see, a large part of the personalized rhetoric was aimed at the home audience, not the foreign one. I have a (totally unconfirmed) suspicion that part of the frustration with the current war in Iraq could be described as "We got SH, why isn't it better?".

    Marc
    Sic Bisquitus Disintegrat...
    Marc W.D. Tyrrell, Ph.D.
    Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies,
    Senior Research Fellow,
    The Canadian Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, NPSIA
    Carleton University
    http://marctyrrell.com/

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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    I think we should have avoided names, but that's more because of the rapidity with which terrorist groups can spawn new leaders (and I consider AQ to be more of a hybrid terrorist group/TNI than a true insurgency). I agree that the knee-jerk use of OBL was intended for domestic consumption, but it was a bad call.

    There's still too much of a tendency on the part of some to want to view everything through the lens of World War II. "Get Adolf and it's over." Well...it don't work that way now and hasn't for some time. When dealing with a decentralized cellular opponent, there ain't just one head you can cut off. But that urge lead us straight to Iraq (IMO) when we should have stayed focused on Afghanistan (agree with your friends there, JC).
    "On the plains and mountains of the American West, the United States Army had once learned everything there was to learn about hit-and-run tactics and guerrilla warfare."
    T.R. Fehrenbach This Kind of War

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    Aha!

    From what I can see, a large part of the personalized rhetoric was aimed at the home audience, not the foreign one.
    So is there a lesson to be learned there as well? Is home consumption strictly home consumption, and do we need to think deeply about what goes out across the airwaves, youtube, and liveleak? I'm trying to come up with a few Cold War analogies about perception vs. reality. That's what really started this idea.

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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    We always need to consider perception versus reality, especially with IO-type operations. One good Cold War parallel could be the rhetoric about "wars of national liberation." By seeing every insurgency as Communist backed or inspired, we backed ourselves into supporting some rather questionable folks, and gave the Soviets a free hand when it came to propaganda.
    "On the plains and mountains of the American West, the United States Army had once learned everything there was to learn about hit-and-run tactics and guerrilla warfare."
    T.R. Fehrenbach This Kind of War

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    Council Member marct's Avatar
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    Hi JC,

    Quote Originally Posted by jcustis View Post
    So is there a lesson to be learned there as well? Is home consumption strictly home consumption, and do we need to think deeply about what goes out across the airwaves, youtube, and liveleak? I'm trying to come up with a few Cold War analogies about perception vs. reality. That's what really started this idea.
    Oh, it's definitely a perception vs. reality dichotomy . I'm not sure, however, that the Cold War has that many good analogies for today's communications environment.

    First off, I would suggest that there really is little difference between a "home" and a "non-home" information market - at least in the sense of them being reasonably isolated and, hence, amenable to differing messages.

    Second, I suspect that no "unified" message strategy, a least in the conventional sense, will work - there are just too many alternate venues for dissenting voices to appear.

    Third, and coming out of these two, I would suggest that there has to be a fair degree of decentralization of content production but grouped around as specific philosophical or ideological stance. Something along the lines of "We will track down the irhabi responsible for 9/11", followed by a tiny explanation of the word irhabi, and a call for Islamic states to support the suppression of them. Leave individuals out of it and cast it as a general world problem, even for the home audience.

    Just some thoughts off the top of my head...

    Marc
    Sic Bisquitus Disintegrat...
    Marc W.D. Tyrrell, Ph.D.
    Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies,
    Senior Research Fellow,
    The Canadian Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, NPSIA
    Carleton University
    http://marctyrrell.com/

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    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    JC

    From the IO perspective, you are absolutely correct. Fixation on an individual as a target for revenge is never good; you are for one thing staking your credibility internally and externally to getting the target. If you don't you lose in both arenas. If you do, you may still lose in the external arena by creating a martyr.

    From a war of ideas perspective, personalization of the fight has similar flaws. You say you are fighting for ideas and liberty then stick to the ideas and the liberty to express them. Getting into the demonization oif a figure like OBL adds to his credibility in the sectors he most wishes to cultivate.

    Although it would have been near impossible to do immediately after 9-11, certain use of humor and sarcasm would better serve our purpose. Here WWII does apply because we did use such tactics to diminish key personalities like Hitler.

    Put another way, we talked the talk about OBL after 9-11 but we never walked the walk. And yes it does affect us.


    Tom
    Last edited by Tom Odom; 05-16-2007 at 06:12 PM.

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    Council Member wm's Avatar
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    Whether it was a good or bad move is definitely open to debate.

    The fact of the matter is that we put a face on Terrorism, which gave the folks at home a "someone" to rally against. I suspect that a review of Orwell's 1984 might be instructive. After Winston Smith is arrested, he finds out the arch-enemy of the people(Goldstein is the name, I believe) is really a fiction created by the folks in power to give the people in the street a target against whom to direct their anger.

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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Odom View Post
    JC

    Although it would have been near impossible to do immediately after 9-11, certain use of humor and sarcasm would better serve our purpose. Here WWII does apply because we did use such tactics to diminish key personalities like Hitler.
    Agreed, Tom, but we also have the PC sensitivities now that didn't exist during WWII. I suspect that attempts at humor or sarcasm would be branded as racist almost immediately, whereas they were not during WWII. It would have to be very carefully done, if it were to be done at all.
    "On the plains and mountains of the American West, the United States Army had once learned everything there was to learn about hit-and-run tactics and guerrilla warfare."
    T.R. Fehrenbach This Kind of War

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    That's what I'm trying to dissect wm...did the benefit of putting a face on terrorism really bear any fruit, relative to a credibility loss? Did the balance of the scale favor us, and then shift as Afghanistan lingered, or was the balance always favoring the extremist

    I know folks are somewhat inclined to say that we shouldn't cry over spilt milk, but put our shoulder squarely into the business of finishing what we started. I read/hear that over and over again, but I believe we need to look at these "moot points" in order to make more informed decisions in the future. This is just one of those points that intrigues me.

    Don't get me wrong, I am all about making sure we have our share of boogeymen to use as a target reference points. I just think we need to be very judicious when we decide to set priority targets, cancel them, and roll to a new one.
    Last edited by jcustis; 05-16-2007 at 06:21 PM.

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    If he was caught today, it would be as important to us in the Western camp as the recent capture of 3 GIs in Iraq is to the jihadist camp. I suppose there are a rare few who would actually think that the capture of OBL would result in major cessation of jihadist attacks all over the planet. I for one have never had a problem believing that the jihadist camp simply wants us and our way of life dead and we need villains and heroes more than they do. They are more ideologically pure and driven and it shows in their tactics. I rather doubt his freedom has inspired very many to take up the fight, not nearly as much as fiery speeches in mosques, fatwas and videos have. If I were born in Iraq or Iran or Syria or Egypt or any number of other places, I would be fighting the West instead of waving the flag here.

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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    I don't consider this a moot point at all, but rather an opportunity to learn from what might be one of the bigger mistakes of the immediate post-911 period.

    Tom's right in that humor and sarcasm could have been used, but I tend to think they should have been aimed at the group in general. While it can be handy to have a "face on the evil menace," that same face can also grant legitimacy to someone who might not otherwise have it. It also sets you up as targeting that person, whether or not that's actually a valuable or practical option.
    "On the plains and mountains of the American West, the United States Army had once learned everything there was to learn about hit-and-run tactics and guerrilla warfare."
    T.R. Fehrenbach This Kind of War

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    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    Steve

    I was thinking of DeNiro's now classic skit on Saturday Night Live...

    Besides as a former FAO I am expected to suggest possible cross cultural gaffs...

    Seriously, I agree 100%; it would have to be done carefully but it could be done. The Arabs I have worked with do have a sense of humor that is quite developed, subtle and at once crude when it fits their mood.

    overall though I believe the salient issue in this thread is the "rush to speak memorably" versus a more cautious but necessary "imperative to speak convincingly".

    Best

    Tom

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    overall though I believe the salient issue in this thread is the "rush to speak memorably" versus a more cautious but necessary "imperative to speak convincingly".
    Good summation. Anyone know of analysis on 9/11 and OBL that speaks to this? I imagine it's a lot like opinion polling, but I'm curious nonetheless. Someone's written a master's or doctorate thesis on this...

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    Council Member wm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jcustis View Post
    That's what I'm trying to dissect wm...did the benefit of putting a face on terrorism really bear any fruit, relative to a credibility loss? Did the balance of the scale favor us, and then shift as Afghanistan lingered, or was the balance always favoring the extremist

    I know folks are somewhat inclined to say that we shouldn't cry over spilt milk, but put our shoulder squarely into the business of finishing what we started. I read/hear that over and over again, but I believe we need to look at these "moot points" in order to make more informed decisions in the future. This is just one of those points that intrigues me.

    Don't get me wrong, I am all about making sure we have our share of boogeymen to use as a target reference points. I just think we need to be very judicious when we decide to set priority targets, cancel them, and roll to a new one.
    I'm not sure that we can cancel the priority targets that simply. Even the FBI tends to leave folks on their 10 most wanted list for a long time, despite putting their priorities/sights on other bad guys.

    I think we might need to look for other targets to take out, but we probably need to do so very quietly.

    As others have pointed out, putting a face on a bad guy in an asymmetric war provides a rallying point for the folks on the short end of that assymmetry to rally around--I think that is the ultimate point I would derive from my reading of 1984--real or not, a rebel name provides a point arond which nascent rebels can rally. Since there will probably always be rebels, it may be a good thing to give them a focus that makes it easier for the powers that be to locate and target. In other words, keeping OBL around may be a good thing because at least we have an idea where the threat comes from -- he and AQ will draw the bulk of the malcontents who desire to disrupt the status quo. At least that is the point I get from Orwell (as well as the other anti-Utopian writers I've read, like Aldous Huxley in Brave New World).

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    Since there will probably always be rebels, it may be a good thing to give them a focus that makes it easier for the powers that be to locate and target. In other words, keeping OBL around may be a good thing because at least we have an idea where the threat comes from -- he and AQ will draw the bulk of the malcontents who desire to disrupt the status quo.
    Excellent point, perhaps more so when looking at our surreptitious collections effort. "he must take these to brother Osama" must make for a decent spike to orient on.

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    Council Member slapout9's Avatar
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    From an LE standpoint it was one of the worst possible things we could have done along with GWOT. The war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on poverty were and are political slogans that set you up to loose. The moment you call it a war it implies an enemy and a victory date, none of which is going to happen in the long war. Which is why we should call them global law enforcement operations or something like that. Take the wining and loosing part out of the equation. You need to position him (OBL) as a psyco-mass murderer of all people, not a War Hero which is exactly what you do when you call it a War. When you call him a criminal the capture date is left open because people are used to seeing the effort and time required to catch people like serial killers in our country, but they also see that you never close the case until he is caught or killed by us or someone else. My2.5 cents.

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    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    The only issue I see with labeling him a criminal is that you then get into that odd position of having to "arrest" him (at least according to MSM criteria), "try" him, and so on. It creates a whole new level of expectations that may not be at all suited to the situation at hand.

    I have mixed feelings about calling it a global law enforcement operation. Not sure why, but it just doesn't sit right.
    "On the plains and mountains of the American West, the United States Army had once learned everything there was to learn about hit-and-run tactics and guerrilla warfare."
    T.R. Fehrenbach This Kind of War

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    Council Member slapout9's Avatar
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    Steve, no doubt the name sucks, I just couldn't think of anything else. Key word is try to arrest, no requirment to be stupid and it dosen't mean you don't use military forces.
    Remember the man from U.N.C.L.E.? United Network Command for Law and Enforement. See we already had a TV show about it.

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