Best Defense

How to beat radical Islamist terrorism (1): 10 great books on the principles of war

We have bombed ISIS for 19 months. We have 3,500 troops in Iraq. We are sending our Special Operations Forces to fight ISIS in Syria. We have postponed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.



By Henry A. Crumpton
Best Defense guest columnist

We have bombed ISIS for 19 months. We have 3,500 troops in Iraq. We are sending our Special Operations Forces to fight ISIS in Syria. We have postponed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Yet, nowhere are we winning the war against al Qaeda, the Taliban, or ISIS. Just the opposite. The enemy in Afghanistan now controls more territory than at anytime since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. ISIS now includes fighters from 100 countries, with 34 affiliated groups worldwide. Our efforts are limited, piecemeal attempts to support White House pretensions of success — an aspiration belied by the recent tragedies of Paris, San Bernardino, Jakarta, and elsewhere. US endeavors are not the manifestation of a strategy driven by political will, nor founded on relevant principles. And our national security apparatus is not built to win this kind of conflict. We must do better.

During 24 years of espionage, covert action, and war as an operations officer in the CIA, and thereafter serving as the U.S. Coordinator for Counterterrorism, I learned that principles precede — and provide a framework for — strategy. Policymakers must understand why and how a principles-driven strategy should work, and only then can they restructure and lead the national security community. Form should follow function. Policy-makers must also define and seek a goal: a peace, perhaps more like the suppression of mutating diseases, rather than conventional notions of post-victory stability. A peace, in whatever form, that must be defended every day.

But, which principles? Some are proven throughout the ages. Great books on conflict and change — written by warriors, strategists, philosophers, scholars, and leaders who have waged and studied war — hold enduring lessons for winning wars. These books can also teach us principles that undergird the fight against this enemy.

1. Define the Enemy and the Type of War with depth and precision, and within the context of our broader political objectives, as Carl von Clausewitz expounds in his classic 19th century treatise On War. The author stresses that war, ultimately an extension of politics, should not dictate politics. So, first what are our political objectives against which enemies? And how do we define our enemies and the kind of war required? Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morrell correctly describes ISIS as a brutal terrorist group, a Middle East proto-state, and a worldwide revolutionary movement. Our leaders must understand and specify these enemy ideas and elements, outline the bounds and type of war, illuminate allies and prospective allies, guide the selection and application of resources, and sharpen our points of impact while reducing the fog and friction of war. As an example, a key objective is the nullification of enemy leaders, committed combatants/operatives, and incorrigible supporters.

Yet, we must also provide alternative pathways for others, so they may desert, expose, or subvert ISIS and AQ. There will be multiple, overlapping, and evolving enemies, even new enemies, so coordinated priorities and sequences are crucial. In this complex, shifting political terrain, we must recognize the vast differences between inveterate foes such as ISIS and AQ, brutal dictators such as Assad, revolutionary enemies like Iran, political adversaries like Russia, and crucial allies such as Saudi Arabia that is also an ideological competitor. Clausewitz would argue that our defeat of ISIS should lead to greater leverage against other adversaries, not empowerment of them. So, we should first destroy ISIS, then undermine/change the Assad regime because it provides the fertile conditions for the next ISIS and offers a strategic ally for Iran, Hizballah, and Russia.

Ambassador Henry A. Crumpton, who led the CIA’s Afghanistan campaign 2001-02, retired from government service in 2007. He is the author of The Art of Intelligence.

(To be continued)

Image credit: Purple Slog/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1

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