What Kind of War? Strategic Perspectives on the War on Terrorism

Article excerpt

Editorial Abstract:

In this article, Colonel Jogerst takes a look at the evidence for and the implications of three competing views of the global war on terrorism: the clash of civilizations predicted by Samuel Huntington, the criminal activity of isolated groups, and the widening of an ongoing insurgency or civil war in the Arab Islamic world.

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into something that is alien to its nature.

-Carl von Clausewitz

AFTER THREE YEARS of our global war against transnational terrorists, the strategy of the United States and its coalition partners in the civilized world continues to evolve.1 Ruling regimes that supported terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq have been destroyed. Terrorist movements in the Philippines and elsewhere are under attack. Individual terrorists have been arrested in nations around the world. The United States has published a National Strategy for Combating Terrorism that calls for "a strategy of direct and continuous action against terrorist groups, the cumulative effect of which will initially disrupt, over time degrade, and ultimately destroy the terrorist organizations."2 Yet, the national debate continues over the characteristics of, appropriate strategy for, and ultimate US goal in this war on terrorism.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001, various commentators characterized this conflict as an entirely new type of war.3 The global reach and integration of terrorist organizations, the possibility of their use of weapons of mass destruction, and the absence of a nation-state as an adversary seemed unprecedented. Our National Strategy far Combating Terrorism recognizes that this "struggle against international terrorism is different from any other war in our history. We will not triumph solely or even primarily through military might. We must fight terrorist networks, and all those who support their efforts to spread fear around the world, using every instrument of national power-diplomatic, economic, law enforcement, financial, information, intelligence, and military."4

Applying these instruments of national power in a coherent fashion requires a unified perspective-a definition of the conflict as well as a specific adversary-that applies from the tactical battlefield to the highest levels of US policy making. The academic and popular debate has coalesced around three candidates for such a perspective. One camp sees the conflict as a "clash of civilizations" inherent in our multicultural and globally connected world. Another perceives it as part of the never-ending task in a civilized, global society to root out and destroy evil elements that prey on that society. To a third camp, the current war on terrorism represents a new, wider phase in an ongoing civil war for control of the Arab Islamic world.

Even though careful analysis affirms the validity of the third perspective, the global arena and terror tactics of the insurgents blur our view. Our frame of reference for the war on terrorism has both immediate and long-term implications for US strategy and force planning. Each of these perspectives presents the United States with a very different set of strategic choices.

The Clash of Civilizations

In his article "The Clash of Civilizations?" and subsequent book on the same subject, Samuel Huntington describes the future of conflict not in terms of competition between nation-states for resources and influence, but in terms of friction between the world's great civilizations.5 In the past, members of different civilizations had either no contact or only intermittent contact with each other. Conflicts largely occurred between members of the same civilization who fought for local control of territory, population, or influence. …