On War #154

Army Wins One

By William S. Lind

[The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the opinions or policy positions of the Free Congress Foundation, its officers, board or employees, or those of Kettle Creek Corporation.]

If the Army’s record against Navy in football has not been too encouraging in recent years, West Point has nonetheless scored a big upset in a contest that counts for rather more. West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, a project of the Military Academy’s Department of Social Sciences, has just published one of the most thoughtful and potentially most useful papers anyone has written on the so-called “War on Terrorism.” Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al-Qa’ida’s Organizational Vulnerabilities – the title echoes John Boyd – offers a far more sophisticated approach to terrorism than the “kill or capture” method currently in vogue with the U.S. government.

The bulk of the paper is summaries of translations of some of al-Qa'ida’s own key documents, materials that allow other analysts to see al-Qa'ida as it sees itself. As the study notes, “Any external assessment of al-Qa’ida’s weaknesses will have inherent limitations. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point believes an internal assessment – from actual members of the al-Qa’ida organization – is the best method to accurately assess their own true vulnerabilities.” That is correct, and providing materials that offer such an internal assessment would alone make this a valuable paper.

But in fact Harmony and Disharmony does a great deal more. For the first time in any U.S. Army materials I have seen, it offers an approach to fighting al-Qa'ida that might actually work. As the paper’s authors state right up front, “Our analysis emphasizes that effective strategies to combat threats posed by al-Qa’ida will create and exacerbate schisms within its membership.” In other words, instead of trying to win a jousting game al-Qa'ida is too smart to play, we need to follow the old Roman rule, divide et impera.

The question, of course, is how to do this, and most of Harmony and Disharmony is devoted to answering this question. It does so in a variety of intelligent and imaginative ways. Working from the Fourth Generation war framework first laid out in the 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article, it offers an intellectual model for identifying exploitable fissures within al-Qa'ida and similar Fourth Generation organizations. The paper accepts that al-Qa'ida is a networked rather than a hierarchical organization, but instead of stopping where most such efforts do, with identifying the strengths of networked organizations, it goes on to probe their inherent weaknesses.

In doing so, Harmony and Disharmony notes that

The key insight is that terrorist groups, and other covert organizations, face two fundamental trade-offs. The first is between operational security and financial efficiency The second trade-off is between operational security and tactical control Strategies to mitigate these problems through greater control entail security costs for groups as a whole There are strong theoretical reasons to believe these problems are inescapable for all terrorist groups;

As to how these inherent tensions in networked, Fourth Generation organizations might be exploited, the paper goes on to say,

The problems outlined above fall into the larger category of “agency problems.” Such problems arise when three conditions exist: (1) a principal needs to delegate certain actions or decisions to an agent; (2) the principal can neither perfectly monitor the agent’s actions, nor punish with certainty when a transgression is identified; and (3) the agent’s preferences are not aligned with those of the principal Understanding why groups face preference divergence, and when preference divergence creates operational challenges, facilitates government actions intended to exacerbate internal organizational problems of the terrorists.

After looking at how agency problems led the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria to fail, Harmony and Disharmony compares Zarqawi’s Al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia with its Syrian counterpart. It then goes on to an extremely valuable discussion of “Organizational Vulnerabilities and Recommendations to Exploit Them.” Of critical importance, this discussion grasps that “kinetic solutions” are often the worst. For example, at one point the paper recommends that counter-terrorism forces

Refrain from actions that encourage preference alignment. Al-Qa’ida members who appear less committed should not necessarily be removed from the network if they can be reliably observed, even if they present easy targets. By leaving them in place, the probability that the group will identify agency problems and hence adopt security-reducing measures increases.

Harmony and Disharmony is too rich in substance for me to attempt to summarize it here. Let me instead just recommend that anyone and everyone who is seriously interested in 4GW get a copy and read it closely. The Combating Terrorism Center says the best way to obtain a copy is from their web site, www.ctc.usma.edu.

My copy, of course, came from Zossen, in cipher, by telegraph, so there could be minor differences.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

Archive of On War

If you would like to interview Mr. Lind, please allow me to be of assistance.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact:

Phyllis Hughes
Free Congress Foundation
717 Second St., N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002
Phone 202-543-8474

The Free Congress Foundation is a 28-year-old Washington, DC-based conservative educational foundation (think tank) that teaches people how to be effective in the political process, advocates judicial reform, promotes cultural conservatism, and works against the government encroachment of individual liberties.