After what we now knowingly call Gulf War I we celebrated with ticker-tape parades and fireworks as if we had defeated Hitler, Tojo, and Stalin all wrapped up in one. Yet a little more than ten years later we had to go back into Iraq to finish the job, and we’re still trying to finish it today. What should have been an incursion into Afghanistan has lingered on for more than a decade. The sad result of our nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan will end with Iraq as Iran’s most powerful ally and the Taliban back in power in Kabul.
One persistent question after politically directed wars is, “How do you win every battle and lose a war?” After sending the brave into Harm’s Way the generalissimos of the home front drag the fighting out by hamstringing the warriors than when war is no longer a vote getter they throw the victory away through peace-at-any-price diplomacy.
I deeply appreciate the heroic scarifies of our troops, and I’m thankful they’ve provided a life of peace and safety for myself and my family. I celebrate the victories just as I mourn the losses in this long war. The death of an enemy leader can have momentous impact upon a war. The death of Attila ended his empire; the death of Hitler would have ended World War II earlier and did end it when it came. But the death of FDR did not end the war or change the strategy, and the death of Osama Bin Laden will not bring the end to this undeclared war.
The history of irregular warfare didn’t begin with Al-Qaeda. It didn’t begin with the Viet Cong. Irregular warfare has existed as long as there has been ill-equipped resistance to far-flung empires. The United States has battled irregular forces at home and in the far corners of the world since the Indian Wars. We fought irregular forces the first time we faced Islamic terrorists on the shores of Tripoli. After we conquered the Philippines from Spain we fought irregulars for years finally winning a war the Spanish never could. We’ve faced irregular forces in Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In some places we’ve prevailed in others we’ve withdrawn. At times we’ve even used irregular tactics ourselves such as the 3000 volunteers of Merrill’s Marauders who fought behind Japanese lines in Burma during World War II.
A traditional military organization fighting irregular forces is more like trying to herd snakes than nail Jell-o to the wall, it may be hard but it isn’t impossible. However, the initiative is on the side of the irregulars because they can strike here, there, and everywhere while the regular forces must protect important components of the infrastructure. Revolutionaries and other disaffected groups using irregular tactics have instinctively followed the advice of Sun Tzu, “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” As the regular forces move into an area the irregulars melt into the population. The disruptions in the lives of civilians create recruits for the irregulars. This is the force multiplier of the irregulars. Every action at suppression brings fresh resources to circumvent future actions.
This will be the inevitable result of the death of Osama Bin Laden. The immediate aftermath was wild jubilation on the part of a segment of our population, electioneering on the part of the administration, and a gross overestimation of the military significance. One man does not make a movement and one leader does not encompass the enemy in an irregular war.
This is especially true in the case of Bin Laden and his brain child Al-Qaeda. This organization is post-modern or perhaps pre-modern in style. It doesn’t have a pyramid shaped flow-chart. It doesn’t have a top-down command structure. In many ways it’s more like a pyramid scheme where every franchise spins off new franchises and they spread out subdividing like amoebas into multiple places and shapes. These autonomous groups and rogue individuals are tied together by beliefs and ideology, united by tactics and strategy but each independent, separated and, anonymous. No leader knows all the followers and few followers are connected directly to any leader. These international conspirators are not united by personal contacts or unified by strategic planning; instead they’re forged into an inter-active whole by solidarity of purpose and continuity of world-view. In such a structure the death of any one person no matter how highly placed or inspirational will not have more than a marginal impact.
As omnipresent and as faceless as the internet and as private and personal as family relations the tenuous filaments of the interlocking terror networks will prove more resilient than expected and more tenuous than imagined. One man’s life can make a difference in the world, one man’s death rarely does. Grave yards are filled with indispensable people.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College. He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com View the trailer for Dr. Owens’ latest book @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ypkoS0gGn8 © 2011 Robert R. Owens [email protected] Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook.