BY ACCLAMATION, THE GEORGE PACKER ARTICLE
I thank the many people who have brought this to my attention by blog, thread, comment and email. It’s a remarkably good piece. Key excerpts:
“KNOWING THE ENEMY“
“During the years that Kilcullen worked on his dissertation, two events in Indonesia deeply affected his thinking. The first was the rise—in the same region that had given birth to Darul Islam, and among some of the same families—of a more extreme Islamist movement called Jemaah Islamiya, which became a Southeast Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda
…“I saw extremely similar behavior and extremely similar problems in an Islamic insurgency in West Java and a Christian-separatist insurgency in East Timor,” he said. “After 9/11, when a lot of people were saying, ‘The problem is Islam,’ I was thinking, It’s something deeper than that. It’s about human social networks and the way that they operate.” In West Java, elements of the failed Darul Islam insurgency—a local separatist movement with mystical leanings—had resumed fighting as Jemaah Islamiya, whose outlook was Salafist and global. Kilcullen said, “What that told me about Jemaah Islamiya is that it’s not about theology.” He went on, “There are elements in human psychological and social makeup that drive what’s happening. The Islamic bit is secondary. This is human behavior in an Islamic setting. This is not ‘Islamic behavior.’ ” Paraphrasing the American political scientist Roger D. Petersen, he said, “People don’t get pushed into rebellion by their ideology. They get pulled in by their social networks.” He noted that all fifteen Saudi hijackers in the September 11th plot had trouble with their fathers. Although radical ideas prepare the way for disaffected young men to become violent jihadists, the reasons they convert, Kilcullen said, are more mundane and familiar: family, friends, associates.
….Last year, in an influential article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Kilcullen redefined the war on terror as a “global counterinsurgency.” The change in terminology has large implications. A terrorist is “a kook in a room,” Kilcullen told me, and beyond persuasion; an insurgent has a mass base whose support can be won or lost through politics. The notion of a “war on terror” has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses. In a counterinsurgency, according to the classical doctrine, which was first laid out by the British general Sir Gerald Templar during the Malayan Emergency, armed force is only a quarter of the effort; political, economic, and informational operations are also required. A war on terror suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to “disaggregate” insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan’s tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so that they aren’t mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad. Kilcullen writes, “Just as the Containment strategy was central to the Cold War, likewise a Disaggregation strategy would provide a unifying strategic conception for the war—something that has been lacking to date.” As an example of disaggregation, Kilcullen cited the Indonesian province of Aceh, where, after the 2004 tsunami, a radical Islamist organization tried to set up an office and convert a local separatist movement to its ideological agenda. Resentment toward the outsiders, combined with the swift humanitarian action of American and Australian warships, helped to prevent the Acehnese rebellion from becoming part of the global jihad. As for America, this success had more to do with luck than with strategy. Crumpton, Kilcullen’s boss, told me that American foreign policy traditionally operates on two levels, the global and the national; today, however, the battlefields are also regional and local, where the U.S. government has less knowledge and where it is not institutionally organized to act. In half a dozen critical regions, Crumpton has organized meetings among American diplomats, intelligence officials, and combat commanders, so that information about cross-border terrorist threats is shared. “It’s really important that we define the enemy in narrow terms,” Crumpton said. “The thing we should not do is let our fears grow and then inflate the threat. The threat is big enough without us having to exaggerate it.
….Kilcullen’s thinking is informed by some of the key texts of Cold War social science, such as Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer,” which analyzed the conversion of frustrated individuals into members of fanatical mass movements, and Philip Selznick’s “The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics,” which described how Communists subverted existing social groups and institutions like trade unions. To these older theoretical guides he adds two recent studies of radical Islam: “Globalized Islam,” by the French scholar Olivier Roy, and “Understanding Terror Networks,” by Marc Sageman, an American forensic psychiatrist and former covert operator with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. After September 11th, Sageman traced the paths of a hundred and seventy-two alienated young Muslims who joined the jihad, and found that the common ground lay not in personal pathology, poverty, or religious belief but in social bonds. Roy sees the rise of “neo-fundamentalism” among Western Muslims as a new identity movement shaped by its response to globalization. In the margin of a section of Roy’s book called “Is Jihad Closer to Marx Than to the Koran?” Kilcullen noted, “If Islamism is the new leftism, then the strategies and techniques used to counter Marxist subversion during the Cold War may have direct or indirect relevance to combating Al Qaeda-sponsored subversion.”
Read the whole thing, which is much longer, here.
What is depressing is how far removed from influencing operations, much less informing the reconfiguration of strategy, Kilcullen actually is, despite the unusual position he holds as a citizen of a foreign (albeit closely allied) state. Turning the Queen Elizabeth on a dime is easier than moving the USG to abandon outdated institutional cultures.