Issue 8 - Winter 2004
Terrorism and the Present Danger: A Perspective for the American Left (page 2 of 2)
By Carl Davidson

New Thinking on Warfare

There is, in fact, an important discussion going in the U.S. military on the concept of “netwar.” Spurred by RAND Corporation analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfelt, the non-traditional terrorist and drug cartel threats to peace and security require equally non-traditional responses. Arquilla introduces his views in a recent interview with the Foreign Policy Association:

“What we are seeing is a kind of dark league of networked non-state actors who have a great deal of capability to do harm. They capitalize upon a trend that is about a century long now, beginning with the rise of high explosives that has seen the increasing destructive and disruptive power of small groups. So some years ago, David (Ronfelt) and I came up with the notion that networks would fight in a particular way against hierarchical states, and other large institutional actors, and so we called that “netwar.” The idea being that these networks didn't need a territory of their own, so that they distribute themselves across a global grid, could strike at will, could mass when they choose, and would hold the initiative, would remain shadowy, perhaps we wouldn't ever know exactly who they were, and that they could cause a great deal of increasing harm over the years. We caught this glimpse of netwar some years ago, and now I am afraid to say we are living in this period. The terror war is indeed the first full-blown netwar.”

Arquilla describes al-Quaida, in information theory terms, as a “network of networks” chained together as a global “hybrid peer-to-peer network.” Most computer networkers will know exactly what he means. But to put it briefly, it means each widely distributed cell or node can communicate directly with any other cell, yet at the same time gain access to and share centrally stored resources. There is also a high degree of redundancy, meaning that taking out one or even several nodes or resources doesn’t necessarily bring down the whole network.

Arquilla and Ronfelt argue that “it takes a network to defeat a network,” meaning that traditional military hierarchies are not very effective. The December 2001 Wired Magazine sums up their theory in five points:

Decentralize Intelligence. This means information needs to be shared and open, although without compromising sources. National and bureaucratic firewalls won’t do. Case in point: A Middle Eastern man was detained in Minnesota on the tip of a flight school that had become suspicions because he paid cash and only wanted to learn to steer 747s, not takeoff and land. He was in jail on Sept. 11. But he was also at the same time being sought by French intelligence, who knew he was an extremely dangerous member of an Algerian terrorist group linked to al-Quaida. The U.S. and the French did not know about each others efforts on this matter until way after the fact.

Learn to Swarm. This is where small, dispersed forces quickly concentrate for attack, rather than the slower maneuvers of larger force structures. The Sept 11 hijackings are an example, as were the embassy bombings in Africa. The negative example on the other side is what the Soviets did in Afghanistan, bringing in large forces that could be bled to death.

Attack the Core. Although a peer-to-peer network, al-Quaida has core resources in training centers, money and leadership. Disrupt these, and the overall network is knocked down several levels. The local nodes are then easier to pick off.

Rethink Technology. Al-Quaida demonstrated the damage that could be done by fanatically combining boxcutters, know-how and the internet. Star Wars-type missile and anti-missile systems are a sink hole for resources and relics of a different era. It may be more cost-effective to spend more billions on the Peace Corps.

Manage the Story.

Terrorist groups all have a narrative, a story they tell about themselves to unite internally, bring in recruits and expand their supporters. Not only does their story need to be discredited and disrupted with accurate information, an honest counter-story needs to be projected by the anti-terrorists.

“I think that we have a terrible event that occurred a month ago,” said Arquilla to the FPA, “but it is also one that should galvanize us to build a global network to confront terror. We have this opportunity to do so before terrorists can strike with, say, nuclear weapons. I think that is the real stakes in this conflict…I would suggest that as much as religious belief is a basis for cohesion in al-Quaida, so we can build an international network, and indeed a national network within our own country, that can fight nimbly against al-Quaida, and it can be held together by this overarching mission statement, which is ‘We must defeat terror, before it acquires weapons of mass destruction.’ I don't know how much time we have to wage that war, but I have a real sense of urgency about it. It seems to me that the real glue in a network is the belief and the loyalties of its members. Al-Quaida achieves this through religion and kinship ties. I believe global civil society and our various allies around the world can achieve a similar level of cohesion.”

The nonmilitary, civil society methods of obtaining victories against terrorism and wider war-political mobilization, public discussion and education, participation in homeland defense, investigation and exposure, legal indictments and economic sanctions-are tedious and will try our patience and courage. There will be considerable contention and debate on how to proceed among the various class and social forces. Sometimes we will win and sometimes we will lose to other elements in the broad alliances we will find ourselves in. But these political and democratic methods are essential groundwork if our final victory is to affirm the values we want to defend in the first place.

Bin Laden’s terrorism opposes our democratic values. It is basically a political and psychological weapon to manipulate, twist and control mass consciousness of both friends and enemies. The control of symbols and meanings are extremely important to its craft. With ruthlessness and stealth, it creates violent, irrational spectacles that shatter the ordinary rational patterns of life, spectacles that evoke fear in the enemy camp and courage among friends and allies-the more violent, intimidating and daring the spectacle, the greater the fear, disruption and admiration to be evoked.

Terrorism is also judo-like in its inclusion of the enemy’s immediate reaction to the initial deed in its broader plan of changing public perception of the enemy among its potential friends. Terrorists often hope, for instance, to provoke an indiscriminant, violent response from the authorities so as to further expose the repressive, class character of the state in the minds of those they hope to win over, neutralize or agitate into greater confusion and division.

Osama bin Laden is playing this political game with considerable skill. In less than 20 years, he has transformed himself from an oil-rich Saudi playboy into an anti-Western hero in the eyes of millions of Islamic youth around the world. The only way to defeat him and unravel his organization is to turn that equation around. His “freedom fighter” status must be changed to “criminal and mass murderer” through a protracted and resourceful public opinion battle, especially among his sympathizers. Some of the friends of al-Quaida know where the terrorist “heros” are hiding, in the Afghanistan mountains as well as in their safe houses in other countries. But if the hero status is stripped away and the more sinister nature revealed, even former friends can be convinced to give them up and help bring them to justice.

Terrorism and anti-terrorism, then, is all about “winning hearts and minds.” As British military historian Sir Michael Howard puts it, “Without hearts and minds one cannot obtain intelligence, and without intelligence terrorists can never be defeated.” Every military and economic action has to be measured with this yardstick. An air war can destroy its military targets, but it can still be turned into overall defeat with unacceptable civilian casualties. In the end, al-Quaida’s forces have to be seized or destroyed on the ground. But it is next to impossible to do so amidst a civilian population that has been enraged and alienated by indiscriminate attacks destroying their lives and livelihood.

Critical Battles Ahead

It is also important to be clear about where the front lines are in this conflict. Strategically, they reach far beyond Afghanistan. The most important political battle exists all along the fault line revealed by the hundreds of thousands of Islamic youth that turned out in the streets in demonstrations supporting bin Laden, the Taliban and “jihad” against the West. The fact that the mullahs were rallying the poorest of the poor against the richest of the rich did not make the political thrust of these events any less reactionary.

What these demonstrations reveal is the depth of the problem: Corrupt and anti-democratic regimes persist throughout the Islamic world in a context where the medievalist, fascistic opposition to their rule is often far stronger than any democratic, progressive alternative.

One thing is certain. Strategically, the America of Empire is part of the problem, not part of the solution. To secure oil for bankrupt energy policies, it has spent billions after billions, decade after decade, to bankroll militarism in both Israel and the Arab oil-producing countries. Playing power politics in regional conflicts, it has manipulated Iraq against Iran, then Iran against Iraq-all the while indifferent to a million dead on the battlefield and mutual ruin of the peoples concerned. In the name of the Cold War, it went to every length to destroy a progressive Islamic left and nurture a traditionalist Islamic right. Globalization and technology, which hold the promise of overcoming North-South inequality, have expanded in the face of deep unemployment and harsh living conditions throughout the Islamic world.

“In a globalized world with instant communications, it is impossible to have excessive opulence alongside grinding poverty without something, sometime, somewhere, exploding,” said William Van Dusen Wishard, a former official in the Commerce Department and president of WorldTrends Research.

Our America, on the other hand, can be part of the solution. With all the resources of civil society, of a broad movement against terror and war, we can severely limit, in the short run, the harm the American Empire could do by ignoring civilian casualties and suffering, expanding the war to Iraq or Iran, one-sidedly encouraging Israel against Palestine, or aggravating divisions between India and Pakistan. As an American left, we would do best to build a broad consensus, here and abroad, around the following points:

  • No Wider War. Opposition to the hard right’s efforts to subvert the global coalition against terrorism by invading Iraq and Iran. Change can be brought about in these countries by other means.

  • Oppose the attack on civil liberties, especially Bush’s new military tribunals. Oppose torture of prisoners and other detainees. Respect for the U.S. Bill of Rights at home and the UN Declaration on Human Rights abroad.

  • Support an UN transitional government in Afghanistan that support basic human rights and would be representative of all Afghan nationalities. Support the development of oil and gas pipeline resources that would primarily benefit the peoples of the region, rather than the energy companies.

  • End the food, medical and other nonmilitary sanctions against Iraq. These do little to weaken Hussein and cause great suffering to the people of Iraq.

  • Support Palestinian Statehood and oppose Israel’s ongoing seizure of Palestinian land through its “settlement” policies.

  • Work to secure and then eliminate all weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear and bacteriological weapons.

  • Work for a Green Energy and Transportation Policy. Shift tax subsidies from nonrenewable carbon-based energy to wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable resources. Shift tax subsidies from air travel to high-speed intra-city rail systems.

In the long run, we can do even more. Since we are not constrained by a lust for profit or hegemony, we can take on the global plunderers who think global equality is a race to the bottom and everything human is a commodity. But this doesn’t mean making alliances with the anti-modernist attack of the mullahs on globalization. There is a positive, progressive high road through globalization and beyond that can bring the benefits on modern science, technology and culture to the vast majority of humanity.

But we can’t do so by ignoring the present danger. It is said that the mistakes and tragedies of war are caused by generals who try to fight today’s conflicts with the battle plans of the previous war. Today the same danger faces the peace movement; it must not make itself a prisoner to old ideas formed when the only enemy was at home and the just cause was on the other side.

Carl Davidson ( cdavidson@igc.org ) is the editor of the cyberMarxist journal, cy.Rev available at www.cyrev.net. He is also a national committee member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, although this article does not necessarily reflect the views of CCDS. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was a national leader of the student and peace movements.


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