If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
This famous maxim by the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu is familiar to every student of military science and strategy. His counsel is simple: understand your enemy, understand yourself. Nearly eight years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, important segments of our military infrastructure dedicated to training and educating the next generation of military leaders have woefully failed to heed Sun Tzu’s advice. Two recent blog posts by Washington Post military correspondent Tom Ricks related to policies and publications by the U.S. Army War College give evidence to this strategic collapse in the War on Terror.
Two weeks ago, Ricks reported on a new publication by Army War College research professor Sherifa Zuhur on Hamas and Israel that informs readers that Hamas has been misunderstood due to the misreporting by “Israeli and Western sources that villainize the group.” Zuhur concludes that Hamas isn’t so bad after all, so we all just need to get along and embrace the terrorist group through negotiations — a view apparently endorsed by the Army War College when it published her defense of Hamas.
A second post last week, “Fiasco at the Army War College: The Sequel,” records an exchange between Ricks and defense expert and author Mark Perry. Assessing the academic state of affairs at the War College, Perry informed Ricks:
It’s worse than you think. They have curtailed the curriculum so that their students are not exposed to radical Islam. Akin to denying students access to Marx during the Cold War.
This is hardly the first complaint that the military has failed to investigate and assess the strategic writings related to radical Islam and Islamic war doctrine. William Gawthrop, former head of the Joint Terrorism Task Force of the Defense Department’s Counterintelligence Field Activity, says in a military intelligence journal article that:
As late as early 2006, the senior service colleges of the Department of Defense had not incorporated into their curriculum a systematic study of Muhammad as a military or political leader. As a consequence, we still do not have an in-depth understanding of the war-fighting doctrine laid down by Muhammad, how it might be applied today by an increasing number of Islamic groups, or how it might be countered. (“The Sources and Patterns of Terrorism in Islamic Law,” The Vanguard: Journal of the Military Intelligence Corps Association, 11:4 [Fall 2006], p. 10)
One effort to remedy this strategic deficiency identified by Gawthrop was undertaken by Joint Chiefs of Staff analyst Stephen Coughlin, who published his finding in his master’s thesis at the National Defense Intelligence University, “To Our Great Detriment”: Ignoring What Extremists Say About Jihad. In his thesis, Coughlin examines texts from multiple schools of Islamic jurisprudence to evaluate the respective traditions on jihad and their contemporary use by Islamic terrorists, concluding that failing to investigate these sources has left our military “disarmed in the war of ideas.”
Coughlin’s thesis had barely seen the light of day before he was sacked from his position with the Joint Chiefs, having running afoul of another Pentagon official, Hesham Islam, a top-ranked Muslim advisor to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, who took issue with Coughlin’s academic analysis.
Another vocal critic identifying this wide gap in our military’s strategic studies is Army LTC Joseph Myers. He has recently voiced his concerns in an interview with Congressional Quarterly and in a review article published in the Army War College journal Parameters, where he argues that understanding the Islamic doctrine of war is a basic necessity for our military leadership:
To understand war, one has to study its philosophy, the grammar and logic of your opponent. Only then are you approaching strategic comprehension. To understand the war against Islamist terrorism one must begin to understand the Islamic way of war, its philosophy and doctrine, the meanings of jihad in Islam — and one needs to understand that those meanings are highly varied and utilitarian depending on the source.
In an assessment published last May, Myers adds that the failure to study the strategy of jihadists leaves our own military strategy aimless and increases our long-term vulnerability to further terrorist attacks:
National security strategy is policy and policy implies a theory — a theory for action. To date we have no concrete theory of action because we have no fully articulated global threat model. We are seven years into a global war with armed combat and many dead and wounded, and yet still lack a common analytic paradigm to describe and model the enemy. It is a stunning failure to propel the country to war without a fully elaborated threat model that clarifies and specifies the enemy and makes clear our true objectives.
The lack of a threat model and a theory for action explains our schizophrenia, our failures, and homeland security shortcomings.
Understanding the enemy — “the threat,” his threat doctrine and the authoritative statements, sources, and philosophy undergirding that doctrine — is a primary duty. That is the first step in developing a threat model. It is the vital step in the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield process, to template enemy doctrine by laying it over the terrain: the physical, human, and cultural terrain to understand its manifestations in reality. These are the first relevant questions to be answered for U.S. national security analysis.
This intellectual and strategic groundwork for the “long war” against Islamic terrorism will never be accomplished as long as our senior service schools and military academies continue to neglect this vital area of strategic study. Regardless of what one might think about the relation between Islamic theology and jihadist justifications for terror, it is a fact that they believe they are operating in accordance with Islamic tradition. Islamic war doctrine ought to be studied on that basis alone.
But returning to Sun Tzu’s maxim, perhaps the root of our military’s strategic schizophrenia is not so much about our refusal to understand our enemies as much as it is a failure to understand ourselves. As a nation, we no longer have a sense of who we are, what we believe, or even why we fight. At the height of World War II, would a faculty member at the Army War College have even considered attempting to defend Nazi fascism or Japanese imperialism, as War College professor Sherifa Zuhur has now done with Hamas? That is a fitting testimony of how far we are from both aspects of Sun Tzu’s counsel.