October 1, 2006  

Ideological threats

Ralph Peters once again offers a needed perspective on the reality of today’s ideological fight [“The hearts-and-minds myth,” September]. While academia may loathe recognizing or acknowledging them, Peters offers several historical case studies as the evidentiary basis for his article. A recurring theme in his article is that he wants us to get this right, not just point out strategic errors.

U.S. military education, training and doctrine writers are falling over themselves to bring counterinsurgency training to the hearts and minds of the officer corps, all the while ignoring the possibility that we may not be fighting political insurgencies in the first place. Insurgency is defined as a rebellion against authority. The fighting offered by the Taliban, al-Qaida, Mahdi militia and numerous other threats is not rebellion against authority. In fact, at one time, the Taliban were the authority. This is an ideological war aimed at those in ideological opposition (combined with ethnicity, in some cases). In military decision-making, officers are taught to define the problem upfront. We have failed to correctly identify this problem, and we’re living with the result of applying incorrect means to achieve an end founded in myth. This is not to say that authorities are unaffected by an ideological war; rather, it clarifies the root cause and should serve as our historical compass from which to glean lessons learned and produce better strategy.

The U.S. military already holds deadly and destructive capabilities but has sought in recent years to confine killing to smaller and more compartmentalized spaces, in deference to legalistic targeting “oversight.” This mind-set has lessened our intensity and preserved some ideological opponents. Ideological warfare calls for consistent intensity. For example, if a Zarqawi is in your sights, use firepower that is precise but ensures death. This may mean that everything is destroyed and/or dead within a few hundred meters. The same applies to Mohammed Farah Aideed in Somalia, Saddam Hussein’s sons and the first time Osama bin Laden is spotted by a UAV operator. No hesitation on the trigger finger, no legalistic debate on collateral damage and no deliberate ground operation to preserve enemy bodies. These types of leaders could hold weapons-of-mass-destruction intentions that directly threaten the U.S., and their death must be quick and guaranteed.

For threats beyond individuals, entire towns may need to be destroyed. The affected populace will recognize consistent intensity and understand that being near a terrorist is perilous. Once faced with this reality, the affected populace will choose either to align itself with the terrorist, report the terrorist or move away. Fear can change hearts and minds, but some hearts and minds should be permanently cut off from society.

The U.S. military would be more prepared to flex military power if it focused purely on eliminating threats to our nation and then moved on to the next threat or redeployed. In some cases, airstrikes alone could accomplish this. When ground troop deployment is considered, the national resolve must strongly support eliminating the opposing ideology, especially if the problem is transnational. Power vacuums may be healthier than imposed democracy for the affected region, and post-conflict reconstruction should not be automatic.

Ideological conflict is not easily settled in a single operation. The localized elimination of ideological threats won’t produce decisive results, nor will the military ever be capable of destroying an ideology.

How does the U.S. officially classify and label “ideological threats,” and will the U.S. specifically name certain groups or sects as enemies of the state? This is the tough question facing not only the National Command Authority and Defense Department but especially Congress. Why? Congress has the power to declare war, regardless of NCA or Defense Department opinion. The U.S. has waged war against political ideology in the past, including communism and fascism, and clearly named those as enemies. Will the same resolve and consensus be formed against specific sectarian ideologies? Declaring war on nonstate actors is a logical next step in modern warfare, but “terror” is not an enemy, it is an effect. Congress must take responsibility and clearly name the threat that the U.S. will wage war against. The military has no problem targeting and destroying a defined threat, but we need national debate toward determining which ideological threats will be considered worthy of war.

Maj. Joe Rawlings, Army

Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.