Redefining the Enemy

The World Has Changed, But Our Mindset Has Not

By Brian Michael Jenkins

Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and one of the world’s leading authorities on international terrorism.

Pakistani supporters

Pakistani supporters of a religious party alliance known as Muttihida Majlise-Ammal shout anti-Musharraf slogans during a rally in Karachi, Pakistan, on March 26, to protest the Pakistani army operation against gunmen believed to be sheltering al Qaeda leaders near the Afghan border.

The end of the Cold War fundamentally changed the security environment, which changed further on 9/11 and yet again as a consequence of the war in Iraq. We in the United States have created new institutions to preserve our security. We have invented new approaches to how we conduct military operations, from the war in Afghanistan to the pursuit of al Qaeda to the occupation of Iraq. But we have yet to digest the full impact of these changes, seeing them as temporary tactical deviations, exotic interludes. We have barely begun to reexamine our obsolete assumptions about the way our enemies organize and operate.

We wage a "global war on terror"—a confusing conflation of threats—while we continue to concentrate on future conventional wars with hypothetical, nation-state foes. We still consign all "lesser contingencies" to the "other war" as opposed to the "real war." We still tend to view the enemy through the narrow bores and restricted optics of our existing national security structure. The 9/11 Commission hearings reveal the difficulty we have in addressing foes that fall outside our normal field of vision. We tend to focus on what we can hit with our capabilities.

Our imagination fails us when it comes to lowtech, high-consequence attack scenarios. At the other end of the spectrum, I believe that we overestimate the readiness of even those we label "rogue states" to provide uncontrolled terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, we cling to the comforting notion that terrorists cannot ascend above a certain level of violence without state support, that al Qaeda could not have done 9/11 on its own and certainly could not acquire a nuclear capability without government sponsorship.

While we argue whether organized crime would participate in a nuclear black market (which, in fact, would never operate like a traditional black market), we miss the more complex wildcat operation of Pakistan’s senior nuclear scientists. We tend to treat drug traffickers and terrorists as a single hyphenated foe—another simplistic conflation, albeit one that was useful in overcoming the equally mistaken notion that the United States could assist in combating the drug traffic in Colombia without countering the insurgents financed by it. But then priorities change, and we ignore the vital role of the drug traffic in central Asia as we single-mindedly pursue terrorists.

We continue to debate whether terrorism should be treated as war or as crime, with military force or through law enforcement. We underestimate the power of militarily inferior foes, tribal loyalties, difficult terrain, religious conviction, unceasing hostilities, gruesome images broadcast on television, and other unconventional measures of power.

It is time for us to take a deliberately unconventional, broad, and inclusive approach. The objective here is to avoid depicting the enemy as a convenient mirror image of our existing organization, missions, capabilities, and preferences, and instead to sketch a dynamic group portrait of the foes we are already dealing with today and will be dealing with for the foreseeable future. My intention is not to argue for one threat over another. No single scenario predominates. That is the point.

Sri Lankan soldiers

Tamil Tigers, who have been battling Sri Lankan soldiers for 20 years, march in eastern Sri Lanka. A peace process broke down in March when a rebel commander broke ranks with rebel leadership.

New World Disorder

For the United States, the enemy or—more correctly—the enemies we face have changed fundamentally over the past decade. In addition to a few hostile or potentially hostile states, our enemies include terrorists, weapons proliferators, organized crime affiliates, drug traffickers, and cyberoutlaws. In some circumstances, we may find ourselves confronting embittered factions motivated by longstanding religious, ethnic, or tribal conflicts. The enemies of yesterday were static, predictable, homogeneous, rigid, hierarchical, and resistant to change. The enemies of today are dynamic, unpredictable, diverse, fluid, networked, and constantly evolving.

There is no single military power that can match the United States, but the diverse adversaries pose an array of security challenges. Each one is unique, requiring great adaptability on our part. Predictability, which all institutions seek, is not on the horizon. Responses dictated by military doctrine will not work.

Today’s foes do not threaten the global devastation that would result from an all-out nuclear exchange—the paramount concern during the Cold War—but their capabilities could nonetheless ascend to disastrous levels of destruction. And, because of the greater likelihood of their initiating hostile action, today’s foes, were they able to obtain even primitive weapons of mass destruction, may be considered even more dangerous than would those of yesterday.

Demonstrators in Casablanca

Demonstrators in Casablanca, Morocco, protest against terrorism on May 25, 2003, following the May 16 attacks that targeted Jewish and Spanish sites in the city, killing 43 people.

Meanwhile, borders have dissolved. There are no front lines. There are no noncombatants. Our defenses begin abroad but do not end at our borders. Our defenses must continue within our own territory. Increasingly, our foes operate not on conventional battlefields but in a gray area where traditional notions of crime and armed conflict overlap.

In the case of international terrorism, we in America originally viewed the problem as primarily a law enforcement one, seeking the cooperation of the international community either in outlawing and preventing attacks against certain targets (commercial aviation, diplomats, and diplomatic facilities) or in preventing the use of certain tactics like taking hostages, while asserting our legal jurisdiction either to apprehend terrrorists abroad or to use military force in response to terrorist attacks. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have treated international terrorism more as a form of war, although we still depend heavily on law enforcement, here and abroad, to apprehend individual terrorists. We should be learning that we cannot choose between one or the other, either law enforcement or war. Effectively responding to the foes we face requires orchestrating activities in both dimensions. In addition, we need to invent some entirely new—for us, at least—concepts.

The threats we face today are likely to engage us for many years. Chronic conflicts lasting decades persist in several parts of the world: Burma, Colombia, India, Peru, the Philippines, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and the Basque region of Spain. In a similar fashion, our terrorist foes see war as a perpetual condition. They are determined to beleaguer us, destroy our domestic tranquility, disrupt our economy, make our lives untenable. For Americans, accustomed to thinking of war as a finite undertaking, the notion of permanent war is especially hard to accept.

Political, economic, and technological developments during the past 15 years have also fundamentally altered the ecology of armed conflict and crime. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire, the globalization of the economy, and the rapid development of information technologies have generated new causes of conflict, created new vulnerabilities, and provided adversaries with new capabilities. Consequently, we now face a far more complex tapestry of intractable threats:

  • large-scale terrorist attacks that may take place anywhere in the world, including the U.S. homeland
  • the continuing development in some countries of weapons of mass destruction and the possibility that these may come into the hands of political or criminal gangs
  • chronic warfare that in some countries has become a lucrative economic enterprise
  • local and regional ethnic and tribal conflicts that may suddenly erupt in genocide and humanitarian disasters or that may preserve chaotic ungoverned badlands where warlords and terrorists find refuge
  • increasingly globalized organized crime engaged in drug trafficking, the smuggling of human beings, and possibly trafficking in the ingredients of weapons of mass destruction
  • the exploitation of the Internet by criminals or terrorists
  • the potential for sophisticated remote sabotage.

All of these threats have been elevated to the level of national security concerns, meriting the employment of military assets, at times requiring military intervention even in cases where U.S. security may not be directly threatened. Of particular importance to those charged with national security, these threats do not align with how we have organized ourselves—our military assets, our troops, our planning scenarios—to deal with national security.

We have begun to adapt, as evidenced by structural adjustments within the government: the merger of several departments to create a separate department for homeland security, the erection of "scaffolds" (such as the Terrorist Threat Integration Center) to bridge gaps between institutions, the creation of entirely new entities like the Transportation Security Agency and the Pentagon’s new North America Command, the continuing exhortations to improve information sharing and interdepartmental cooperation, and talk about additional new entities to address specific tasks now performed with difficulty by existing institutions—an MI5 for America, modeled on the British security service. We have reconfigured our institutions to better address "the spaces in between," but we have been far more reluctant to tamper with the basic institutions themselves. We have not fundamentally changed our habits of thought.

Most of the threats also transcend national frontiers, demonstrating the limits of protection that any national government can provide to its citizens. Combating the threats will require sustained political will and a level of international coordination that remains to be achieved. But how much coordination can be achieved without affecting the core element of sovereignty? Our European allies are struggling with this issue now.

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