Article submitted to the Washington Post

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Submitted this a while ago. Enjoy.     


 Al-Qaeda: When winning means losing


          Have you noticed of late that Al-Qaeda has been reduced to the proverbial bearded-lady of the world-stage? No more is the terror organization thought of as a monolithic entity, capable of frustrating even a superpower with its liquid structure and indelible will. It seems that Al-Qaeda is now a sideshow. When we hear of an attack somewhere that involves the once-great foe of the West, we want to know more, but only as a gawker at the circus’ freak tent.


            What happened? After all, was not 9-11 the most devastating attack ever initiated by foreign enemies on American soil? Had not Al-Qaeda successfully bombed U.S. embassies in Tanzania , Kenya and Nairobi , almost sunk the USS Cole, one of the most advanced warships in the US arsenal? Mentioning the 9-11 attacks seems almost trite in it’s unsubtly, but we must consider that with the destruction of the Towers and the deaths therein, combined with the aforementioned attacks, it did seem unlikely that America could deliver a similar blow to the blood and treasure of a ghostly—and yet very corporeal—enemy. Terror organizations have no economic mega-complex, no billion dollar warships. So loose is their organization, that it’s difficult to come close in estimating numbers of operatives.


            Looking through history, it’s easy to find tactical victories that led to strategic defeat. Carl von Clausewitz defined strategy as, “the employment of battles to gain the end of war.” Perhaps an even better definition of strategy is proposed by the great English military historian and strategist, Liddell Hart: “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.” Tactics involve the maneuvers and handling of individual elements of an army in order to defeat local enemy forces.


            When I was at the Army’s intelligence school, an instructor posed the question as to how Japan was able to score such a great victory at Pearl Harbor . Several of the other students stated that various gaps in America ’s intelligence had led to the devastating attack. My response was that I did not consider the attack on Pearl Harbor to be a victory, at least in the strategic sense. The Japanese had vastly underestimated the economic and industrial power of the United States, so much so, that America was able to break a cardinal rule of war-fighting; engage in a two-front war, one with the Japanese Imperials and the other with the most professional and efficient army in the world, the Wehrmacht. Pearl Harbor was in fact, a monstrous intelligence failure by the Japanese. Within three years of December 7, 1942, Japan ’s representatives were signing the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri.


          Vietnam represents possibly the largest chain of tactical victories leading to strategic defeat, in history. Most people don’t realize that America never lost a major tactical engagement in the Vietnam . The famed Tet Offensive of 1968 amounted to a catastrophic tactical defeat for the North Vietnamese, whose casualties some experts estimate to be 100,000 dead. America and her allies mounted favorable 12 to 1 kill-ratios. The North Vietnamese, Nguyen Hue Offensive of 1972, did somewhat better, but not much. 40,000 North Vietnamese died while South Vietnam and the United States suffered approximately 10,000 deaths.


            But America’s strategy–that of containment–was not able to overcome the strategy of the North Vietnamese, that is, the destruction or removal of American forces and the capture of Saigon. In initiating a war of attrition, North Vietnam targeted the weak point in American armor, US will. Clausewitz again: “The importance of victory depends on the importance of the object which secures it to us.” This is not to say that American will is weak.  It was difficult to convey importance to Americans, whose sons were dying for a land which they could only see on television, especially when no one really could be brought to believe that Vietnam posed any threat to the continental US. If pajama-clad Vietcong were popping up in the American heartland, the story would have been different.



One thought on “Article submitted to the Washington Post

    Daniel Griffin said:
    May 15, 2009 at 12:21 am

    1) pyrrhic victory
    2) Thinking about this lately: you don’t have to kill Americans or attack on American soil to cause lasting and severe damage. The terrorists just need to terrorize the right people, and on the flipside, terrorizing the wrong people/too many (9/11) is detrimental. You have to own the mindset of your enemies, you can’t just analyze what their moves mean…

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