We Can't Win If We Don't Know the Enemy

By Bruce Hoffman
Sunday, March 25, 2007

From the moment that President Bush declared a "war on terrorism" and then led the country to war in Iraq, the United States has utterly failed to fulfill the timeless admonition to "know your enemy." This failure helps explain why we are so far from winning in Iraq or more broadly against al-Qaeda and its allies.

"If you know the enemy and know yourself," China's Sun Tzu famously advised in the 6th century B.C., "you need not fear the results of a hundred battles." But we have plenty to fear, because five and a half years into this struggle we lack a thorough understanding of our enemies: their motivation and mind-set, their decision-making processes and command-and-control relationships, their organizational dynamics and their ideological appeal.

Military tactics are doomed to failure when they are applied without a sophisticated knowledge of the enemy being pursued -- of how that enemy thinks, and therefore how he is likely to respond or adapt to the tactics being used against him. Without knowing our enemies we cannot successfully penetrate their cells; we cannot sow discord and dissension in their ranks to weaken them from within; we cannot think like them to anticipate how they may act in a variety of situations. This means that we cannot conduct an effective counterterrorist strategy by preventing or deterring terrorist attacks, or an effective counterinsurgency strategy by winning the support of the population and then dismantling the insurgent infrastructure.

Until we really know our enemies, America will remain on the defensive, inherently reactive rather than proactive. We will continually be surprised by our enemies' tactics and maneuvers. We will not prevail.

If we knew our enemy, we might not have been surprised by al-Qaeda's resurrection in Pakistan -- literally under the noses of our forces right across the border in Afghanistan. We might also have detected the warning signs of the Taliban resurgence long before the spring offensive now believed to be imminent. And we might have better understood why last year's killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had only an ephemeral effect on al-Qaeda in Iraq's capacity for continued violence and bloodshed.

This is not the first time the United States has faced an enigmatic, unseen enemy motivated by a powerful ideology that used terrorism and insurgency to advance its cause and rally popular support. That was also our situation in the Vietnam War. Though we lost in Vietnam, we did make a serious attempt to understand the enemy. Intelligence agencies used interviews with captured Vietcong soldiers and defectors, plus communist documents that were found or captured, first to figure out who the enemy was and how they operated, then to try to devise political, social and economic programs that would undermine the Vietcong and strengthen the South Vietnamese government that the United States supported. Studying the enemy was big business.

It wasn't enough, because then, as now, our conventional military commanders remained impatiently fixated on strategies of attrition and decapitation. They dismissed tactics that were based more on guile than firepower, hoping for quick results and avoiding tactics that would have taken time to work but in the long run might have been effective.

The United States is making no comparable effort today to study and understand either the terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda or the insurgents in Iraq. Our counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies appear weighted toward a "kill or capture" approach targeting individual bad guys. This reflects the conventional military's commitment to "enemy centric" warfare. Killing bad guys is easy compared with the "population centric" approach so important to effectively countering terrorism and insurgency. But our tactics are ineffectual, because they are based on the erroneous assumption that al-Qaeda and its allies or the insurgents in Iraq are organized, centralized armed forces that will respond to traditional definitions of victory and defeat. Our tactics presume that killing or capturing enough bad guys will end global terrorism and the Iraqi insurgency.

So the U.S. military and our intelligence community are focused on hunting down militant leaders, killing terrorists and insurgents, and protecting U.S. forces -- all laudable goals, but inadequate ones. Decapitation strategies have rarely worked against terrorist or insurgent campaigns. Occupations such as ours in Iraq that anger the local populace are similarly ineffective. Our fundamental problem is that al-Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgents appear to have little difficulty attracting new recruits to continue their fights against us.

The Pentagon has made a conceptual breakthrough by recognizing recently that we are engaged in "a long war" likely to continue for a decade or more. This acknowledgement provides a signal opportunity finally to begin to collect and analyze the information needed to truly know our enemy. We have to get serious about this right now, given the changes we see in the behavior and operations of our adversaries, who are much too elusive and complicated to be vanquished by mere decapitation.

Successfully countering terrorism and insurgency cannot be an exclusively military endeavor. It requires parallel political, social, economic and ideological activities. All of these need to be integrated in a systematic approach that is operationally dynamic -- able to quickly identify changes in our enemies' tactics, targeting and recruitment patterns and to respond effectively to them. We need to be able to exploit networks, the constellations of individual relationships that define terrorism and insurgency today, with the ease and facility that our enemies routinely do. We must master "soft" skills such as negotiations, psychology, social and cultural anthropology, foreign area studies, complexity theory and systems management. All are essential to operating effectively in the ambiguous and dynamic environment in which irregular adversaries circulate.

We cannot prevail without breaking the cycle of terrorist and insurgent recruitment and replenishment that have sustained both al-Qaeda's continued campaign and the ongoing conflict in Iraq. So psychological operations that seek to persuade insurgents and terrorists to surrender are particularly important. These proven, cost-effective measures can pay vast intelligence dividends if pursued with shrewdness and persistence. If, as the rule of thumb says, it requires 10 soldiers to successfully neutralize every terrorist or guerrilla, then one defector can reduce by 10 the number of Americans needed on a particular protracted mission. Yes, such efforts require time to succeed, but once launched they can have side benefits. In Vietnam, the suspicion and mistrust that we managed to create within the Vietcong forced our enemies to expend more time and energy watching their backs and monitoring their comrades. If we can do that now, insurgents and terrorists will have less time and energy to plan attacks against us.

The key to success will be to combine the most utilitarian aspects of our formidable military forces with smart, sophisticated political and psychological efforts to know our enemy much better than we do today. We won't succeed unless we can think and plan ahead to address the threats likely to be posed by the terrorist and insurgent generation beyond the current one. And we cannot do that until we have figured out who these enemies are, what makes them tick, and what their strengths and vulnerabilities are. When we know those things, we can build a strategy and tactics based on empirical knowledge and analysis rather than on conjecture or wishful thinking. And we can win.

Bruce Hoffman is a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and

a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center. He is the author of "Inside Terrorism" (Columbia University Press).

© 2007 The Washington Post Company