Warring the Narrative

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 10 months ago

Bing West has another good commentary at the Small Wars Journal Blog entitled Winning the Narrative.  There are two categories of Iraq observers, says West.  The first is the anti-terror camp.  This camp believes that the indigenous Sunnis rejected al Qaeda’s religious extremism when it became obvious that they could not wrest power from the Shi’a, and didn’t want proponents of radical religious ideas as their rulers.  West observes:

It’s conventional wisdom now to say that Anbar improved because the Sunni tribes aligned against al Qaeda. True enough, but an incomplete explanation. With inadequate manpower, the Marines and Army National Guard and active duty soldiers persisted year after year with gritty, relentless patrolling that convinced the tribes the American military was, as one tribal leader said to me, “the strongest tribe”. Hence the tribes could turn against al Qaeda, knowing they had the strongest tribe standing behind them.

West echoes my sentiments in Al Qaeda, Indigenous Sunnis and the Insurgency in Iraq, where I said that:

The coup is not merely that the tribal chiefs and their people are cooperating with U.S. forces.  It is larger than that.  The coup is that the insurgency, properly defined as indigenous fighters rather than terrorists and foreign fighters – those who were previously pointing a gun towards U.S. troops – are now pointing them at the terrorists.  Not only have many of them made peace with the U.S., but in a development just as important, the U.S. forces have made peace with them.  This has been accomplished with the new difficulty introduced by globalization (foreign fighters), and the new difficulty introduced by religious fanaticism (suicide bombers), and the new difficulty introduced by technology (stand off weapons such as roadside bombs).  This is a counterinsurgency tour de force, and as time judges this victory it will take its rightful place in the great military campaigns of world history.

The second is the sectarian camp, which believes that intransigent hostility between Shi’ites and Sunnis has caused a civil war, or more correctly, will blow up into a fully realized civil war upon the departure of U.S. troops, whenever that is.  Terrorism is still a major problem, but underneath this lies a current of sectarian animosity the depth and strength of which is not completely known (The Strategy Page has an article up on the possibility of an all-out civil war if the U.S. leaves.  Civil war has not happened yet, though it could).

The narrative, says West, has been inconsistent thus far, leading to the failure to support a single narrative.  To this, we respond the following.

The problem to which Mr. West alludes is greater than he credits in his insightful analysis.  Only hours after authoring Al Qaeda, Indigenous Sunnis and the Insurgency in Iraq, in which I claimed that the majority of the insurgency in Anbar had been indigenous Sunnis (while also discussing the nuances of the superimposition of terrorism by al Qaeda in Mesopotamia), and in which I claimed that the counterinsurgency victory by the Marines in Anbar would go down as the greatest in military history, an intelligence specialist wrote me to concur with the piece, saying that “if anyone thinks that al Qaeda controls more than 10% of the insurgency they’re crazy.”

Yet we have our Commander in Chief saying that the people we’re fighting in Iraq are the same people who were responsible for 9/11 (an assertion that correctly gets no traction with the American public), and the Multinational Force PAO office issuing thousands of press releases, many of which refer to degrading the ability of al Qaeda to conduct operations, and some of which should have been discussing the Iraqi insurgency or AAS.  Al Qaeda has become a surrogate for all of the enemy, and clear narrative has been sacrificed on the altar of convenience.  It is too difficult to explain what we are doing to the American people, or so it must be believed.

Think Aaron Copland and his brilliant “Americana” style compositions.  The majestic, broad, moving, sweeping, engaging and unforgettable movements of instruments together to create the emotional experience of literally hearing his thoughts.  We need this in our narrative, and it has been absent for so long that it may be irrecoverable.  But there is more.  We need the narrative to be smart, intelligent and sophisticated.  We need a national narrative to explain the “long war” to the American public.  I would even settle for pragmatic at this point, straight from Ralph Peters.  In the event of a precipitous departure, the following would occur:

  1. After suffering a strategic defeat, al-Qaeda-in-Iraq comes back from the dead …
  2. Iran establishes hegemony over Iraq’s southern oil fields and menaces the other Persian Gulf producers.
  3. Our troops will have died in vain.
  4. A slaughter of the innocents.

I recently attended a funeral for an elderly person, and the elderly there counted many World War II veterans.  Each one wanted to know my son’s location, billet, MOS, and unit.  As they talked, each one said to me that although my son may be coming home soon, God willing that is, the war will not be over for a long, long time.  And they were not referring to the war in Iraq.  They knew.  In their eyes you could tell.  They knew that we are in the “long war.”

Our national narrative has failed to match the magnitude and stakes in the long war.  But rest assurred, the enemy’s narrative has no such weakness.  Not all of the future enemies of America in the long war will fight for religious reasons, and perhaps not even the majority.  I have gone on record saying that the insurgency in Anbar was primarily indigenous Sunni, and that the strategy to settle with them was brilliant and will go down as the template for future COIN campaigns.  But for some of the enemy, the narrative is clear, and it is powerful.

“With al Qaeda, we are in a global fight between two worlds,” he said. “Al Qaeda is not a territorial organization. It’s not Hamas, it’s not Hizballah and it’s not the Taliban.”

Instead, it should be compared to the Marxist revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s that attracted young Westerners to fight in places like the jungles of South America. Al Qaeda, Roy said, is in fact part of a global revolutionary tradition.

“Today the narrative of the revolt is religious. Forty years ago it was Marxist. Today it is religious and particularly Muslim. But we are still in a global revolt against the system, without having a clear vision of an alternative system,” he said.

Roy contended that al Qaeda members are anti-American only because America incarnates the “world order” — and this “world order is perceived as unjust.”

Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a specialist on the Middle East from the French Institute of Foreign Relations in Paris (IFRI), identified al Qaeda terrorists as “people who don’t think they have their place in globalization.”

Bing has written a smart commentary that is “gilding the lilly.”  Before we can even hope to develop a narrative of Operation Iraqi Freedom, we need to develop a national narrative.  National leadership is needed, and so far it has not been forthcoming.

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You are currently reading "Warring the Narrative", entry #546 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Department of Defense,Iraq,Islamic Facism,Jihadists,The Long War,War & Warfare and was published July 18th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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