“Our priority will be first to disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations of global reach and attack their leadership; command, control, and communications; material support; and finances. This will have a disabling effect upon the terrorists’ ability to plan and operate.”—National Security Strategy of the United States, September 2002
Politics and Counterinsurgency
If war is the continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz suggested, then counterinsurgency warfare is the extension of politics to the battlefield. The Prussian military philosopher understood that political objectives dictate the type of war to be waged, its scope, and its intensity. The importance of political considerations in counterinsurgency operations is nearly impossible to overstate. In waging counter-guerrilla conflicts, politics has played—and continues to play—a central role in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The political dimension includes a range of civic initiatives to win over the hearts and minds of the population. Refurbishing schools, building roads, digging wells, and treating the sick have long been standard counterinsurgency tactics around the world.
What is different today is the degree to which American power is being applied not just to the conventional hearts-and-minds campaign but also to “nation-building.” In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is wielding its power for the revolutionary goal of transforming authoritarian societies along democratic lines. These political endeavors transcend the traditional application of American might as conceptualized by Russell F. Weigley three decades ago in his classic book, The American Way of War, in which he wrote: “the strategy of annihilation became characteristic of the American way of war.” Today, American power is being exerted to build and preserve, not just to annihilate. Stabilizing society and fostering democracy represent one side of the counterinsurgent’s political coin. But the reverse side of this coin is less discussed.
It involves little effort to win over those caught in the crossfire between insurgent and counterinsurgent forces, whether by bullet or broadcast. On the contrary, this underside of the counterinsurgency coin is calculated to exploit or create divisions among adversaries for the purpose of fomenting enemy-on-enemy deadly encounters. It is an unconventional yet necessary component of this shadowy form of battle against an elusive adversary that does not stand and fight. In the current anti-terrorist campaign, however, small groups of Special Operations Forces (SOF) will continue to find themselves up against insurgents in societies marked by tribal and sectional differences that could be turned to the advantage of the special forces. Thus understanding and leveraging human fault lines to counter terrorism is like the joker in card games—it can be a substitute for the “card” of greater numbers and greater firepower. It is a tactic ideally suited to the world of stealth and counter-subversion.
Dividing and Defeating in Our Past
Sowing divisions among enemies is as old as warfare. By the time Niccolò Machiavelli cited the ancient political maxim divide et impera, the strategy of dividing to conquer had long been accepted in statecraft and warfare. U.S. military forces have not ignored the tactics associated with pitting one enemy against another. But those tactics have often been subordinated to the American way of war that relies on massive firepower. The global struggle against violent extremism is a highly political conflict where overwhelming combat “punch” is less applicable. By the same token, the extreme ideological and political divisions among the terrorists and insurgents open chinks to savvy and adaptable forces.
From the founding of the United States, the federal government has relied on subterfuge, skullduggery, and secret operations to advance American interests. Even in the midst of World War II, America’s greatest conventional war of the twentieth century, the United States resorted to cloak-and-dagger missions under the Office of Strategic Services. For example, the OSS, along with British intelligence services, aided the French resistance to the German occupation, helping prepare for Europe’s liberation. When divisions were absent in the Cold War, American operators instigated them.
During the Vietnam War, U.S. forces fabricated a fictitious resistance movement entitled the Sacred Sword of the Patriots League (SSPL). Although created by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1962, the SSPL was handed off to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observation Group (MACVSOG or SOG). Special Forces officers assumed oversight of SSPL and other “black” operations aimed at North Vietnam. SOG conducted a spate of espionage activities, psychological operations, and deceptions to throw North Vietnam off balance. For example, SOG operators sought to convince Hanoi that teams of enemy agents had penetrated deep into its territory by playing on the regime’s well-known paranoia about spies and saboteurs. Although SOG had unheralded successes as well as setbacks from 1964 to 1972, it constantly ran up against impediments from senior military officers, the State Department, and Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Official timidity and bureaucratic interference hampered operations and constrained missions to narrow agendas. In today’s anti-Islamist struggle, we cannot afford a repeat of this governmental inertia and interference.
Divisions within Afghanistan and Iraq
In present-day Afghanistan and Iraq, tribal loyalties, local attachments, shifting alliances, ethnic antagonisms, and religious hatreds abound. This makes the job easier for Special Forces operators. The previous regimes in power in Kabul and Baghdad traded on ethnic and religious differences to maintain power, but these factional divides left them vulnerable to foreign manipulation and, ultimately, regime change.
After the Afghans expelled Soviet forces in 1989, they reverted to fighting one another. By the early 1990s, a collection of militias made up of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other non-Pashtun peoples seized the capital—the first time in more than 300 years that the dominant Pashtuns had lost control of Kabul. But the northern warlords presided over an unruly country beset with brigands, cutthroats, and lawlessness.
It was in reaction to this turmoil that the Taliban, who adhered to an extremely conservative brand of Islam, was able to mobilize and prevail over the northern warlords. By 1996 it had seized the main cities and, by force of arms, imposed a semblance of order, if not enlightened government, in most of the country. The Taliban’s religiosity attracted Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, who set up terrorist training camps and instigated the terrorist acts that ultimately invited the American-led counterattack on Afghanistan and Al Qaeda.
But the Taliban’s repression had steeled the resistance of the anti-Taliban groups, who fled Kabul to carry on their struggle as the Northern Alliance. This loose network handed the United States a ready-made ally against Al Qaeda and its theocratic host. Unlike SOG’s subversion against North Vietnam, U.S. operatives did not have to fabricate an opposition front. What’s more, the CIA still had liaisons with Soviet-era resistance fighters in Afghanistan, which afforded its agents and Special Forces troops invaluable contacts within the war-torn society. They bribed, armed, and somewhat organized the fiercely nationalistic Northern Alliance into a tactical ally and proxy force. In times past, the Northern Alliance would have opposed a U.S. invasion, but now America was the enemy of their enemy and thus a friend.
Instead of sending in a huge ground force (and facing the logistical nightmare of resupplying it), the U.S.-led coalition was able to rely on air power, Special Forces, and the Northern Alliance to bring down the Taliban regime. Additionally, SOF and the CIA worked among the Pashtuns (the southeastern Afghan community) to split them from the Taliban.
Iraq presented another dramatic illustration of ethnic and religious cleavages put to good use by invading U.S. forces. The Ba’athist Party, a secular and socialist movement, ruled Iraq as a police state for decades by relying on the Sunni population, which made up about 20 percent of the country’s population, to suppress the Shiite majority (some 60 percent of Iraq), the Kurds (less than 20 percent), and many other smaller segments of the populace. President Saddam Hussein employed purse and dagger like a Mafia don to buy patronage and eliminate opposition, but these power plays left him vulnerable among the excluded communities when the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq. In addition to their commando-style missions of securing oil wells and neutralizing missile batteries in western Iraq, SOF played a vital role in converting Saddam’s Kurdish opponents to an American asset during the invasion phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Red-on-Red Conflicts in Fallujah
The post-invasion stage in Iraq also is an interesting case study of fanning discontent among enemies, leading to “red-against-red” firefights (this color-coding derives from U.S. training exercises, in which red designates enemy combatants and blue designates friendly forces). Like their SOG predecessors in Vietnam, U.S. elite forces in Iraq turned to fostering infighting among their Iraqi adversaries on the tactical and operational level.
Events during fall 2004 within the central Iraqi city of Fallujah showcased the wily machinations required to set insurgents battling insurgents. Ensconced within the Sunni Triangle—an anti-coalition stronghold—Fallujah had become a “no-go” zone for U.S. forces, a terrorist safe haven, and the headquarters of the notorious Jordanian-born Palestinian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi. He orchestrated multiple car bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings. As a result, the city descended to a Taliban-like polity of Islamic extremism, posing a heavy military setback to the coalition’s counter-insurgency campaign.
But Fallujah was hardly a unified camp—the city seethed with internecine tensions. Zarqawi’s strict Salafi beliefs clashed with the more moderate Sufi views of the Sunni residents. Additionally, the Zarqawi jihadis and nationalistic Fallujans disagreed over the use of terror tactics. Both wanted the Americans out of Fallujah and out of Iraq, but they differed on the methods. Many of the city’s inhabitants opposed kidnappings of foreign journalists, indiscriminate bombings that killed Iraqis, and sabotage that blew up crucial infrastructure. Many also believed that the jihadi tactics focused undue coalition attention on Fallujah.
Evidence of factional fighting between the residents came to light with nightly gun battles not involving coalition forces. U.S. psychological warfare (PSYOP) specialists took advantage of the internal warring by tapping into Fallujans’ revulsion and antagonism to the Zarqawi jihadis. The PSYOP warriors crafted programs to exploit Zarqawi’s murderous activities—and to disseminate them through meetings, radio and television broadcasts, handouts, newspaper stories, political cartoons, and posters—thereby diminishing his folk-hero image. Battles among anti-coalition forces killed enemy combatants and heightened factionalism. Thus, red-on-red battles enhanced the regular blue-on-red engagements by eliminating many insurgents.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Like the warning to physicians in the Hippocratic oath, SOF and PSYOP troops must beware of doing more harm than good when planning to foment or benefit from infighting within enemy ranks. Exacerbating the Sunni-Shiite divisions, for instance, would contravene U.S. strategic aims in Iraq and the stated policy of Iraqi political leaders. But exploiting rivalries or animosities among insurgent bands in Fallujah (or other anti-coalition havens) is well within U.S. goals and the rules of warfare. Devising techniques to instigate red-on-red conflicts is worthy of study, codification, and analysis for societies wherever SOF troops operate.
A deep understanding of the political landscape that derives from intelligence and experience is a requirement for this type of operation. SOF should be not only consumers of information but firsthand providers of intelligence on potential divisions among red forces. In addition, they should take the lead in encouraging and assisting line units to gather and disseminate political information as well as regular military intelligence.
As with other weapons in our arsenal, the orchestration of red-on-red clashes has a correct time and place. Not all hostile environments will accommodate application of this tactic. But as another arrow in the counter-terrorism quiver, it can, when aimed deftly, be discriminating and lethal.