The Case for Slow War

History shows that wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am rarely works out for the best.

Military maxims often emphasize the need to seize fleeting opportunities swiftly and maintain momentum, but there can also be great value in studied slowness. In major military campaigns, however, the primary focus has almost always been and remains aimed at having a capacity for extremely fast-paced maneuvers, like the armored "thunder run" to Baghdad 10 years ago -- itself a distant echo of Hitler's blitzkrieg. Yet, in this case, the effects of the speedy advance soon faded in the face of a nettlesome Iraqi insurgency that was only countered, after years of hard going, by the patient, thoughtful creation of a network of small outposts and an information strategy designed to convince insurgents to switch sides. In many respects, the "outpost and outreach" approach that turned the tide in Iraq resembled the most effective aspects of some British counterinsurgent campaigns of the past half-century -- most notably in Northern Ireland, where an outpost network (with some positions sited atop high-rise buildings) along with skillful negotiations brought a peaceful, equitable end to the decades-long "Troubles."

Beyond the challenge posed by many of Britain's irregular conflicts in the modern era, it is notable that a tendency to conduct conventional campaigns at a moderate tempo has been a consistent feature of British strategic culture for centuries. Perhaps the most deliberate, unhurried campaigner of them all was Jeffrey Amherst -- for whom the American college is named -- who brought an end to the French empire in North America with his three-pronged march on Montreal in 1760. Yes, James Wolfe had won the battle for Quebec the previous year, but that hardly ended the war. The odds were still fairly even when Amherst set out and, as historian Lynn Montross put it in his classic book, War Through the Ages, "an offensive distinguished more for precision than thrills...laid the cornerstone of the world's greatest empire since the fall of Rome."

And when, half a century later, this great empire found itself engaged against swift-moving French forces in Iberia -- early on led in the field by Napoleon, later by some of his best marshals -- the answer once again was to operate with great deliberation, at a pace that was, most of the time, achingly slow. This time, it was the Duke of Wellington who operated with the same kind of stately precision that had been Amherst's hallmark. Wellington's special talent was to march his army to a threatening position that forced a French response, then stand on the tactical defensive so as to decimate the attackers. He won victory after victory in this way, even occasionally following up his successes with retreats. The French, shackled to their doctrine of mounting rapid pursuits, exhausted themselves and were harried by Spanish partisans. Wellington followed this pattern for a few years, eventually going over to a sustained, war-winning offensive that took him all the way across Spain and into France.

Fast-forward 125 years, and history repeats itself. The most famous British soldier of World War II was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a man almost never to be hurried. His forte was the set-piece battle in which, after much lengthy preparation, he regularly inflicted far greater damage on enemy forces than were suffered by his own troops. Much fun was made of him in the great war film, Patton, but the fact remains that he used his meticulous methods to rout one of the very best German generals, Erwin Rommel, at El Alamein in North Africa, then inflicted mortal damage a second time against forces "the Desert Fox" led in Normandy. Montgomery's only stumble came as his troops neared Germany, when he, uncharacteristically, drafted a bold, swift plan to use airborne troops and an armored blitz to seize a series of bridges leading to and over the Rhine. He lost this "bridge too far" battle, then reverted to his slow, steady style -- which was emulated by Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower -- and the war was won. More slowly, but also more surely.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given America's strategic culture, this "English patience" at war got only brief traction with the U.S. military. Just five years after the end of World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur tried to win a quick knockout on the Korean Peninsula with a bold amphibious left hook followed by rapid armored advances. He ended up being swamped by a Chinese counteroffensive, and the war ground on to an indecisive truce in 1953. A few years later, when nuclear weapons were becoming more plentiful, a so-called New Look -- championed by then-President Eisenhower -- enticed the Army to think in terms of swift victory with fast-moving tanks backed by atom bombs. The idea collapsed of its own weight, as Gen. Maxwell Taylor predicted it would in his critique, The Uncertain Trumpet -- when the Russians made it known that they could irradiate battlefields, too. And when the helicopter came into its own the following decade, the big idea of the day was to use it to "vertically envelop" Vietnamese insurgents from the air -- the brainchild of Gen. William Westmoreland, what historian Michael Maclear called "Westy's way of war." Needless to say, thousands of Bell-Hueys didn't garner a swift victory; indeed, thousands were shot down. U.S. leaders grew weary of the long slog that ensued and simply abandoned the war.

It is this sort of aversion to protracted conflicts that bedevils American military strategy today. It is a turn of mind clearly seen in the willingness to leave Iraq to its fate, despite the massive investment in blood and treasure made there. Antipathy toward long, slow warfighting has also put the pressure on to leave Afghanistan. But in this case, it seems that at least some senior military leaders like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno see the virtue of "slow persistence," which is manifesting itself in the call to keep a small, highly-skilled force in place for an indefinite period.

Thus the plan for the emerging Afghan endgame emanating from the White House, which calls for about 10,000 troops to remain indefinitely, appears a bit like the patient approach the British have employed in Northern Ireland. As to Britain's own experience in Afghanistan, it should be noted that Englishmen fought long and hard there during the 19th century, eventually reversing the effects of terrible early defeats with deliberate, ever more skillful tactics. A bit of this sort of English patience would go a long way today, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the long twilight struggle now unfolding around the world against networks affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda.

Proceeding slowly, mind you, is not always preferable to rapid, decisive operations -- but history shows that this method's overall track record is far better than that of flashy, fast-paced blitzkriegs. This should be kept in mind as the international community considers deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war. We live in a new age of conflict, where technology and firepower allow for quick, stealthy, and relatively bloodless incursions. But, likewise, our adversaries expect and are prepared to counter rapid, decisive operations, perhaps even to "pull a Wellington" of their own, attacking briefly, then retreating time and again. Defeating them will require a willingness and an ability to fight slowly, skillfully, and for the duration.

Louisa May Alcott may have said it best when she noted that, to achieve a worthy goal, "it takes a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together before some of us even get our feet set in the right way."


National Security

How to Defeat Cyber Jihad

Taking the war on terrorism to the Internet.

A great paradox of the conflict with al Qaeda is that the terrorists, largely driven by 14th century Islamist ideology, make such skillful use of 21st century information technology. Whether to tell their story of a sacred mission to reduce the shadow cast by American power over the Muslim world, to motivate recruits to join the jihad, or to provide a form of "distance learning" in terrorist tradecraft, al Qaeda operatives have made extensive use of cyberspace-based connectivity. And somehow, after more than a decade of being so relentlessly hunted, they still enjoy the largely unobstructed use of this virtual haven. It is just as important as their somewhat harried physical havens in the mountains of Waziristan, Yemen, and a few other remote fastnesses.

The Boston bombing once again reminded the world of the benefits al Qaeda reaps from cyberspace, as it appears that the Tsarnaev brothers were radicalized and trained via jihadist websites. In this they were hardly alone. The London bombings in 2005 (which killed 52), the fizzled Glasgow Airport attack in 2007, the foiled plot against Fort Dix in 2007, Nidal Hasan's rampage at Fort Hood in 2009 (which killed 13), and the failed attempt to bring down a Northwest Airlines plane that same year all featured terrorists who made extensive use of online motivational and training materials. Information from and links to websites of the late Anwar al-Awlaki -- killed in a drone strike in 2011 -- and Abu Mus'ab al-Suri were found in each of these cases.

While al-Awlaki's influence as a propagandist seems to have died with him, al-Suri's strategic concept about the rise of a "leaderless network" of small jihadist cells -- thoroughly exposited in his 1,600-page web tract, The Global Islamic Resistance Call -- has become a principal al Qaeda playbook. He was taken into custody several years ago, interrogated by American intelligence personnel, then "rendered" to the Syrians, of all people. From there the trail goes dark, save for the tantalizing message from the Assad regime, released shortly after the start of the uprising, that he had been released. Who knows? The important point is that his blueprint is the one being followed. It is what to watch for: the rise of little terrorist teams in unexpected places. Not particularly skillful jihadists -- there are limits to how much can be learned online -- but motivated, dedicated, and skilled enough to cause damage that captures world attention.

The questions now before the global counterterrorist coalition are the same ones that have resonated for the past decade, but are now perhaps more urgently voiced in the wake of Boston: How is online jihad to be stopped? Can al Qaeda be driven from its virtual haven in cyberspace? The United States has played a leading role in strategy formulation, focusing primarily on efforts to present and disseminate a more moderate view of Islam, as well as to highlight the heinous acts of the terrorists. The simple problem with each of these efforts is that neither works. Over 95 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims already reject al Qaeda and other extremists -- but the jihadists don't need massive popular support to fill their ranks, just a sliver of Islamic society, still numbering in the many tens of millions, from which to draw recruits. Our moderate messaging won't sway them. With regard to highlighting acts of terror, the jihadist rebuttal -- featuring scathing indictments of the invasion of Iraq, abuse at Abu Ghraib, the killings of innocents by drones, and more -- has proved quite effective.

As to attempts to disrupt or shut down jihadist websites, these too are ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive, undertakings. It is all too easy for material on sites that have been shut down to pop up again quickly on new sites. This sort of cat-and-mouse game has been going on for many years, with all too little to show for the effort. Besides, many intelligence professionals make the point that there is more to be learned from keeping these sites up and monitoring them than from taking them down. Clearly, though, not enough is being learned about al Qaeda's intentions, about the identities of potential recruits, or even, after all these years, about money flows. If intelligence gleaned from cyberspace had given the counterterrorist coalition anything like the "information edge" enjoyed by the Allies against the Axis powers in World War II, the age of terror would already be over.

Perhaps it is time to follow the example of the British "boffins" of Bletchley Park. They broke the codes of the German Enigma cipher device and enabled great victories -- even at a time when the Nazis still held the material advantage in the war. In that conflict, some 70 years ago, the key was to create the world's first high-performance computer. Today, at a "New Bletchley Park," the challenge would be not so much to crack a complex code as to discern ways to "back hack" and geo-locate both those posting jihadist information and those accessing it. The first boffins included mathematicians, chess masters, even magicians -- among many others. Twenty-first century boffins would no doubt require master hackers, software designers, and probably still chess (and Go) masters -- and magicians, too.

Several years ago, I met with senior intelligence officials to pitch the case for a New Bletchley Park. No dice. They were already doing just fine, I was told. I then took the matter up inside the Pentagon, finally reaching a then-serving member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was very supportive of the concept, and expressed concern that jihadists were being "given a free ride in cyberspace." But he felt that the matter had to be carried forward by...the intelligence community. No joy. Fast forward to the present: The old three-prong strategy of website-based observation, ideological disputation, and selected site disruption continues, despite the fact that al Qaeda still enjoys that virtual free ride.

At a time when it is glaringly apparent that post-bin Laden terrorist networks will thrive, rise up, and strike at the world, largely thanks to their continuing confidence in being able to rely on web-based connectivity for recruitment and training, it is simply unacceptable for the counterterrorist alliance to continue to pursue a strategic approach that clearly does not work. Maybe senior leaders should convene a meeting at Bletchley Park, where the unquiet ghosts of the boffins may scare some sense into them.