Colonel Cardinal's Iceberg Theory


Jul 29, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune on July 29, 2008.

Immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, I had the pleasure of working for Colonel Chuck Cardinal. He was the director of the Pacific Command's inter-agency coordination group for counterterrorism, and I was one of his Special Operations planners. He was an earnest, practical leader who sought to clarify issues with collegial discussion.

Under his guidance, we assembled professionals from the U.S. Departments of Defense, Justice, Treasury and State, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency, to develop a plan, setting aside diverging agency agendas and challenging the accepted notions of fighting terrorists.

We developed a good plan for the Pacific Theater. The flag officers liked it and approved it. And even though the plan had to compete with other priorities in 2002, it received some support and saw partial implementation.

As we continue to pour invaluable resources into our sixth year in Iraq, and the U.S. public and politicians wonder what we should do next, now may be a good time to revisit the overarching theory of our campaign plan in the Pacific: Colonel Cardinal's Iceberg Theory.

It's simple. It's clear. But it was difficult to win acceptance for this theory because it was a counterintuitive response to the horrific attacks on Sept. 11.

After 19 al-Qaeda operatives flew airplanes into buildings, our leaders saw those attacks as a global jihad. They extrapolated al-Qaeda's capabilities into an expansive network that threatened free-minded people throughout the world. Our leaders launched a "global war on terror" and gave al-Qaeda the epic jihad it wanted – elevating its marginal cause into a global military threat, characterizing its members as holy warriors rather than violent criminals.

Back at Pacific Command, our staff avoided this emotional vortex and professionally considered all facets of the attack and an appropriate response. We considered the desire to destroy al-Qaeda tactically, and the realistic capacity of our military to combat nonstate militias operationally.

The result was a campaign plan with numerous lines of operations interwoven across diverse objectives.

The next step, as with any plan, was to convince commanders these suppositions were worth trying. Here is where Colonel Cardinal, now retired, stepped in. With decades of experience convincing generals, he knew we needed a simple graphic representation. Colonel Cardinal pushed us to explore all sorts of depictions – bone charts, matrices, clouds. I'll never get back the days I spent conceptualizing the plan into a Rubik's cube where different efforts, objectives and countries could be twisted in various sequences to arrive at a solution.

Then Colonel Cardinal floated his Iceberg Theory. This analogy depicts Islamic extremists as an iceberg drifting in a sea of moderate Muslims. Icebergs, like terrorist networks, are only partially visible. They depend on the surrounding sea to remain dark and cold enough to support their frozen existence, much as Islamic extremists depend on their surrounding Muslim cultures to remain ignorant and dormant enough to acquiesce to their presence in their neighborhoods.

The model also depicts overt U.S. military force as a cloud that darkens the sea of moderates while it strikes at the iceberg, chipping what little ice is exposed into the sea, chilling the environment and making terrorist networks actually grow larger.

The theory explains what we have done wrong, and it suggests what we should do to make things right. We need to shine light on the moderate Muslim majority. We need to warm their environment to Western cooperation and trade. We need to stir moderate actors in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iran, and support their efforts to help their neighborhoods subdue the extremists.

Colonel Cardinal's theory is a simple representation of a much more complex problem, but it is founded upon lessons from Northern Ireland, Malaysia and Vietnam. And mounting evidence supports it.

Look at the localized results in Iraq's Anbar province after U.S. forces shifted tactics from fighting the tribes to engaging them. When U.S. forces moved units off their sequestered citadels and into the neighborhoods, the moderates had enough support to begin melting al-Qaeda and shrinking their network.

Look at the Gallup study set forth in John Esposito's and Dalia Mogahed's new book "Who Speaks for Islam?" After 50,000 interviews of Muslims from over 35 countries, it found 93 percent declared themselves moderates.

Look at the list of moderate groups described in the recent RAND study "Building Moderate Muslim Networks." Consider the moderate teachings and ascendance of Egypt's Grand Mufti, Sheik Ali Gomaa, described in U.S. News & World Report.

The sea of moderate Muslims exists. We need to stop chilling that sea with our conventional strategy of invading states and attacking extremists. We need to seek multilateral measures that promote moderate Muslims, their legitimacy and regional stability.

Acknowledging the limits of the military "surge" and implementing the diplomacy recommendations from the Baker-Hamilton Commission would be a start. Engaging and supporting Muslims so they can effectively resist the extremists in their midst is ultimately how we as a world community would melt these violent organizations.

Hoffmann was a Navy SEAL at the Pacific Command from 1998 to 2002. He recently finished 20 years of service and is currently a defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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