August 09, 2005
How we Lost the War on Terror
The key to winning a war, any war, is to convince the other side that there is no hope for success. Killing the enemy or controlling territory are not enough to win, but are only important inasmuch as they send the signal to the enemy that there is no use in fighting--you cannot possibly win.
As long as there is hope, there is will to fight.
[Below: an image from a recent al Qaeda in Afghanistan video distributed on the internet. The man pictured has a British accent and calls on Muslims everywhere to come to Afghanistan and fight the 'lies' of Blair & Bush.]
Are we winning the war against Islamic jihad? No. Let us step back for a moment and assess the situation for a moment.
We have conquered two countries which fomented jihad. We have killed or captured tens of thousands of violent jihadies. We have recruited the vast majority of world governments in fighting against the global jihadi network. Nowhere on earth, today, can the jihadis openly train for war against the United States. Nowhere.
Every battle we have waged we have won. In fact, on paper, the war is over. We have won. Time to go home.
Yet, in spite of the facts on the ground, the jihad is still waged. We have not lost, but we we are not winning either.
The jihad movement is not shrinking. It is growing. It is as if nobody told the jihadis that they were losing. That they do not know that they have been defeated at every turn. That they are unaware that there is no hope for victory in Iraq. That the global caliphate is a pipe dream.
This is exactly what is happening. The jihadis believe they are winning, or, at least, that they can win.
[Below: An image from a recent jihadi propaganda video distributed on the internet. The video claims that it was made in Sweden. The message in the video is clear: we can build bombs in the West with impunity and we will use them against you]
We have won every battle we have waged, yet we are losing the war.
There is one battle which we have lost. It is the most important battle, yet the one least understood. It is the battle which will ultimately decide the war. It is the battle that we have not yet decided to fight. It is the propaganda battle.
Westerners have a particular distaste for that word, propaganda. It brings up the bad taste of Joseph Goebbels, or Pravda, or a scene from 1984. Propaganda, in our minds, smacks of the untrue. A lie spun for public consumption. Instead, we prefer to call the propaganda war winning the hearts and minds of the people.
In our minds, propaganda and truth are at opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Truth is objective. Truth is fact. Truth is good. Propaganda is subjective. Propaganda is a lie. Propaganda is bad.
The truth, we believe, will open the eyes of the enemy. The truth will set them free.
Unfortunately for us, our faith in objective truth, working on its own, is misplaced. Truth will not open the eyes of the enemy. It can't.
[Below: an image from a recent Army of Ansar al-Sunnah video distributed on the internet showing the dog tags of Marine sniper Cpl. Jeffrey A. Boskovich. The body of Cpl. Boskovich was also shown in the video. The propaganda message is that the jihadis are winning the war]
Before I continue, let me say that I am not a post-modernist. I am not arguing that, from a metaphysical standpoint, there is no such thing as objective truth. I do believe that there is such a thing as objective truth.
What I am arguing is that the truth, on its own, has never had the ability to win over the hearts and minds of people.
If I may misquote Paul for a moment here,
How, then, can they recognize truth which they have a propensity to disbelieve? And how can they believe in a truth which they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?Propaganda, in my mind, is simply a form of communication which is purposeful. It is not about lying, rather, it is about using communication to convince an audience that something is true.
That propaganda has been used in the past to try and convince an audience of a falsehood is not the fault of propaganda. Propaganda is a medium. It is neutral. It can be used for good or ill.
On all fronts we fight the terrorists, except for the most crucial front: the propaganda front.
[Below: an image from a recent jihadi propaganda video distributed on the internet showing two children preparing to becom terrorist-martyrs in retalliation for the killing of Muslim children around the world by Christians-Zionists]
If we wish to win the hearts and minds of the jihadi-terrorists that we are fighting then we must win the propaganda battle. We must set a purpose to our media. They are an essential asset to winning the war. Without them, we will lose.
But the most important way in which we are losing the propaganda war has nothing to do with the MSM. The jihadi holed up in a Tikrit safe house does not read the NY Times. They don't care about Geraldo. They've never heard of Bryan Williams.
Americans may be demoralized by negative media messages on CNN, but the jihadis won't.
The reason they have hope is because of an informal media network. The reason they have hope is the internet.
Imagine you are a 'fence-sitter', as many like to call your potential jihadi. You believe America is an occupying force, they are raping your women, they have humiliated yet another Muslim country with their swift defeat of Iraq, they have murdered thousands of civilians in Fallujah--you believe all of this to be true because this is what you see on TV and how the facts on the ground are spun in the Islamic and the extreme-leftist media, if you were subjected to messages from al Jazeera and al Aribiya on a daily basis you would likely have this perception, too. You believe it is just to fight the Americans.
You would like to fight. But is it worth it?
At the local cafe you watch a video of the latest 'operation' by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq. The video is of poor visual quality, because it has been copied from the internet, but it inspires you. Here is the evidence you need. Fighting the Zionist-Crusader forces has purpose. You can win.
Don't downplay this scenario. It happens much more than most of us would like to admit. There is something reassuring in assuming that terrorists are madmen with no rationality. So, we set aside the disturbing thought that maybe the terrorists we fight are rational people who have goals larger than killing the infidel. That maybe they fight for a purpose other than anarchy. That maybe they fight because they believe they can win.
[Below: an image from a recent al Qaeda in Afghanistan video distributed on the internet of Osama bin Laden's #2 man, Ayman al Zawahiri warning the West of new attacks and offering a truce to those that would pull out of Muslim countries]
Our enemy understands the propaganda war, and they are winning it. As friend of The Jawa Report, Evan Kohlmann, of Global Terror Alert and the Counterterrorism blog, recently remarked to the Washington Post:
Zarqawi is a new generation. The people around him are in their twenties. They view the media differently. The original al Qaeda are hiding in the mountains, not a technologically very well-equipped place. Iraq is an urban combat zone. Technology is a big part of that. I don't know how to distinguish the Internet now from the military campaign in general in Iraq.Speaking of the Nick Berg beheading video being uploaded to the internet, Evan continues,
It was...the 9/11 of jihad on the Internet -- momentous for them and momentous for us.As Evan has said in the past, Zarqawi became a rock star. As disgusting as it may seem to our sensibilities, the analogy is apt. For whatever missives the jihadi culture may have about the tactics of al Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi is a super-star. He is a hero worshipped by hundreds of thousands around the world for standing up to the Americans. For showing them that they are not invincible. His penchant for cutting off the heads of his captives, whenever you find a jihadi who believes this is wrong, is dismissed as a character flaw. Like the drug addiction of your favorite rock star.
[Below: an image from a recent jihadi propaganda video distributed on the internet. The video glorified the 7/7 London terrorist bombings, juxtaposing the images of the dead and mourning in London with terrorist-martyrs and images of dead Muslims around the world]
More important than the messenger, who will change from time to time as this or that pop-star terrorist is killed or driven to the point of seclusion, are the messages being sent by the jihadi propagandists through the medium of the internet. The most recent edition of al Qaeda's online magazine confirmed the fact that the jihadis understand there is a propaganda battle going on:
In an essay aimed broadly at the Muslim world, the magazine claimed the 7th-century Koran as a useful blueprint for today's wired warriors in Iraq, calling its story of the prophet Muhammad's pitch to the people of Mecca "a very good example of how to conduct an information battle with the infidels."The story being told by the jihadis is this one: The Americans are the mightiest nation in the world, this we admit. Yet the mightiest nation in the world cannot subdue the warriors of God. We, the warriors of God, are slowly killing them and their proxy armies down. In the end, we will win.
Battles can be won in Iraq but then ultimately lost if they are not on the Internet. "The aim is not to execute an operation, which is followed by complete silence, but telling the reason why it was executed," the magazine advised. "It is a must that we give this field what it deserves. . . . How many battles has this nation lost because of the lack of information?"
The reason this story is being told is because we have allowed it to be told. We, the Western world, are so committed to the idea that objective truth will win out in the end that we cannot fathom any one believing the story. Further, our commitment to the notion of free-speech has become so absolute that many of our fellow Westerners believe that our enemies have a right to tell their story.
[Below: an image from an al Qaeda in Iraq video released on the internet showing the identification of the murdered Egyptian ambassador to Iraq Ihab el-Sherif.]
This is an odd conception of a right. For some reason many of us are more attached to the right of our enemies to speak than we are to the right of our enemies to live. Killing the jihadis is ok, but censoring them? That is barbaric.
If we wish to win the war on jihadi terrorism then we must not only offer a different story for public consumption, but we must also kill the competing story. Let us try to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, but let us not do so with blind faith in our own rightness and in the power of truth.
A certain portion of the Islamic world would be genuinely moved by stories out of Iraq that reflect the compassion of our soldiers, their heroism in protecting innocent life, and the lengths to which we have gone to rebuild that country. This is an important part of the propaganda effort we must wage. If the MSM does not wish to help us win this war then they should be forced to. Yes, as I have proposed from day one on this site, I am proposing some amount of censorship--and more--the spreading of a message of despair for our enemies and of hope to our allies.
The American owned media is American. If their commitment to some made-up sense of ethics is greater than their commitment to the cause of America, well then, we know where there priorities lay. If they do not wish to help us win this war, then let them practice their journalistic ethics somewhere else.
However, no matter what we do or say, the 'fence-sitter' will always be inclined to believe that we are the enemy. If we cannot win their love, let us settle for second-best and at least earn their fear.
The Japanese and German armies did not surrender because they loved us, they surrendered because they feared us and they realized that there was no hope of winning.
[Below: an image from a jihadi website showing President Bush as Nick Berg, shortly before his gruesome murder]
People are generally not inclined to fight for losing causes. I would suggest that many of our friends on the Left that do not wish us to continue the fight in Iraq do so not because they think we are wrong and not because they want us to lose, but because they think we cannot win. The truth is, they are right in their sentiments.
War is not like a football game where you play an opposing team even if you know you are going to lose. Wars are not fought for the sport of it. In war, you either play to win or you don't play at all. Hence, wars that cannot be won are wars that are not worth fighting.
The jihadi understands this in his own way. He fights because he thinks there is a chance of winning. If it was a lost cause you might get the odd-man-out depressive-psychotic terrorist, but the vast majority of them would stay home. Some terrorism and jihadi activity, yes. But certainly there would be little organized resistance.
So, can we win the propaganda battle if we decide to fight it. ABSOLUTELY.
The propaganda war is not only winnable, but at least when it comes to killing the messages of hope our enemies send to their base, the war is easily winnable, will kill no one, and can be won with limited damage to our normal peace-time commitment to freedom of expression.
[Below: an image released by The Army of Ansar al-Islam on the internet of murdered security consultant in Iraq, Bilprasad "Binkumar" Gurung, a Nepalese national]
Note that I said limited damage to freedom of expression. The community of nations will have to agree that the expression of jihadi sentiment must be quashed, but there is no need to exceed those boundaries. We should allow legitimate dissent, but dissent's legitimacy has always been circumscribed by the conditions of the times.
It was one thing to advocate a pro-Germany and anti-Soviet foreign policy on Dec. 6th, 1941. It was quite another to advocate that same position a week later.
We have the tools presently available to shut down every single jihadi message board, website, and distribution network out there. The information networks of the global jihad are well known to hundreds of civilian terrorism experts who follow such things. The servers used by the jihadis are often located right here in North America, and if not in North America, they are invariably located in Europe. It would not be a hard thing to simply shut each and every one of them down. Not hard at all.
In fact, should the U.S. government wish to actually win the war on terror I would find it an interesting and rewarding career change if I was given the tools and legal go ahead to begin hacking said servers. I know of at least a dozen other people, starting with Aaron over at Internet Hagganah, who would probably jump at the opportunity to make a few bucks shutting down the propaganda arm of the global jiahadi network.
[Below: a screenshot of al Qaeda's website shortly after it was hacked]
The CIA, FBI, State Department, or Department of Defense could do all of this---easily. But if they wished to keep their hands clean of the dirty work of censoring the jihadis, why not set up a system of privateering.
As many of you may know, privateers were the legal equivalent of pirates in ages past. The privateers were businessmen armed with ships and legal grants of recognition from their home country to plunder the booty of the enemy on the open seas. The line between privateer and pirate was often a thin one, and many of the most famous privateers of the 17th and 18th century were later hanged as pirates for their excesses.
The pirate and the privateer could only be distinguished by the ends of their endeavors and the legal grants given to them. Both plundered ships for financial gain, but the privateer did so with the backing of their country and was seen as part of an overall war strategy. Pirates were hanged. Privateers were given titles of nobility.
[Below: TeamZ USA strikes again, taking down another al Qaeda website]
If hackers are our modern pirates, why not turn their mischief to the common good? A hacker is bad when they shut down my site. A hacker is good when they shut down the site of the enemies of the United States. Given the proper reward structure and immunity from prosecution, hackers could turn their skills toward winning this war.
Another option would be to do this covertly. Hire a large team of hackers on government salary, get them to shut down the jihadi sites, but don't tell any one. That is a fine option, too.
Either way, I disagree that the internet is too decentralized to crack down on jihadi propaganda distribution. The vast majority of jihadi messages are given at a few dozen websites. Further, when new websites are opened the jihadis must have a way of finding them. They do so through e-mail lists and other well-known forums that spread the message as to where to go to find the latest propaganda. Yes, if you shut them down more will spring up, but that is more of a question of how committed are we to winning the propaganda war rather than a question of the feasibility of the exercise.
Further, we do not need to shut down every site with a jihadi message. The goal is to slow the spread of the message to a minimum, not necessarily to end it altogether. The fewer fence-sitters who have hope in winning, the better.
In the end, we will not know if we can win the propaganda war until we begin to fight it. To this point, we have been unwilling to fight the jihadis with all of our available resources. We have been willing to kill them at every turn, but not in censoring them.
If we wish to win this war, and we can win it, then we must use the vast technological advantages at our country's disposal. This includes the advantage we have in producing media messages and the advantage we have in producing creative minds with the technological ability to wreak electronic havoc on our enemies.
It is said that war in the modern age is total war. Total war is war waged with all available resources a nation has to offer. Because we have been so succesful on the physical battlefield, we have been lulled in to believing that the war on terror will not need to be total war. That something less than the full commitment of our nations resources will suffice to win it.
It is true that our enemies cannot hope to win on the open battlefield. Thus, we do not need to engage in total war in the way our grandfathers did in WWII. In that war, the physical capacity of our entire nation was needed to win. This war will not need that level of commitment. We may need some small adjustments to troop levels---up or down, I'll let the experts decide that--but we will not need anything like a WWII level of national war production.
But we will need more of a commitment to winning the battle of ideas. A much greater commitment. The battle of ideas will not be won on its own. The truth of Western liberalism over Islamic fascism is not a self-evident truth. It needs a messenger and a purposive commitment on the part of our government. That commitment must be total, and include a commitment to defeating propaganda messages sent by our enemies.
We are presently losing this war. We can win. But only if we are willing to fight it.
UPDATE 8/10: John Hawkins has an interesting post on how the terrorists cannot win in Iraq and how all war is hell. Very good and important points about sticking with Iraq. Read it. However, it begs the point of the larger war on terror-islamic jihad: can that be won. It can, but it is still in the air if it will. We may not lose, but not losing is not the same as winning.