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Fighting The Long War

By Marvin Hutchens | September 21, 2006

As should be evident to even the most disinterested observer, to win the 'long war' we must do more than just defeat the enemy on the battlefield. We have the military capacity to do that – so long as our military forces are free to engage the enemy with suitable force and in sufficient numbers. Likewise, our intelligence and counter-terrorism efforts are likely to continue to strangle the financial capabilities of the enemy, increasingly limiting his ability to operate and plan on the scale he desires. And further, our diplomatic and political efforts continue to work toward securing additional allies into the fold of our 'long war' – which is likewise their 'long war.' And still, the certainty of our victory is not yet apparent.

Why is that?

First among the reasons is that we as a society and as a nation have yet to fully engage in the war. This war requires more than an economic strangulation such as that which defeated an empire. This war requires something different than victory on the battlefields such as those we had in Europe or the Pacific. Ultimately, it requires more than the combination of the two, even when coupled with international and domestic policing efforts. Winning the 'long war' requires a battle we have been loathe to fight, and moreover, one that we have been ill prepared for. It requires that we fight and win a battle of ideas, a battle of values and a moral clarity that our enemies profess and we seem to hold in disdain. This war requires a knowledge of not only our enemy, but of ourselves.

The Situation

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001 the US has taken certain concrete actions to limit the capabilities of the enemy. We've fought and killed innumerable enemy combatants in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Major portions of our intelligence and security forces have been reorganized and focused on disabling the financial and logistical networks of al-Qaeda and ideologically aligned organizations world-wide. And we've shown a greater will to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan to fight against a resurgent enemy than the enemy believed we would – this despite the terrible loss of life and limb that accompanies such a decision.

That, however, is not enough.

Afghanistan remains vulnerable to attacks from an increasingly resurgent enemy. The Taliban and al-Qaeda have held on against the combined efforts of US and NATO forces. In neighboring Pakistan, political weakness, a powerful Baluch rebellion and popular support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda have limited President Musharraf's ability to engage the enemy. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are restoring their ranks and plotting against Afghanistan's nascent government and against our forces there, which are currently sized more for stabilization than warfare.

In Iraq, we found the potential of al-Qaeda, or similarly aligned organizations, working with Saddam Hussein or under his protection too great a threat to permit. Hussein's regime was defeated. The people of Iraq have stepped up to form a government despite their many real and perceived grievances and differences. Likewise, the enemy has sought to make Iraq the center of the battlesphere. The enemy has sought to exacerbate the ethnic and religious differences of Iraq's citizens in an effort to weaken their support for the US and, moreover, to create an environment conducive to their larger goals and objectives – our defeat and the establishment of a state from which he can plan, train and project their will. The final result for Iraq is not yet clear, and like Afghanistan – our support is vital.

Elsewhere – the war is largely seen as a challenge for the intelligence and police components of our forces. From here in the US to Europe to Western Africa to the Horn of Africa to the Levant through the Middle East and from the Indian subcontinent to the far reaches of the Philippines, our enemies plot against us. They are not all al-Qaeda. They are not apolitical or of uniform religious background or belief. Yet here, in our homes, in our offices, and in the halls of our political centers we are not yet at war with and, often not yet aware of, our enemies.

Our past experience has shown that we are slow to awaken to our enemies threats against us. Until we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, we believed that World War II was someone else's war. The Japanese enemy believed that we lacked the character and fortitude to fight a war in the Pacific. We awoke from our slumber and produced the means to defeat him, and further to lead the effort to defeat another enemy in Europe. Additionally, we produced the character and resolve that defeated both enemies simultaneously. These enemies fought for ideologies which stripped men of individual value, they fought for their life and often for their death. We fought for the lives of our brothers in the foxhole beside us, for our families at home sacrificing for a better – free – and prosperous future. Hope and the future were our allies – history and destiny were the allies of our enemies.

The Challenge

As in the past, we again failed to foresee the danger our enemies presented. This despite their statements such as:

"The call to wage war against America was made because America has spearheaded the crusade against the Islamic nation, sending tens of thousands of its troops to the land of the two Holy Mosques over and above its meddling in its affairs and its politics, and its support of the oppressive, corrupt and tyrannical regime that is in control. These are the reasons for singling America out as a target." From Usama bin Laden's August 23, 1996 “Declaration of War Against the United States.”

And we continue to fail despite their actions following this declaration.

These statements and the actions of our enemies are clear signs that the danger we face has not diminished. The increasingly weak or divided public support for the war shows that we have not received the wake-up call we apparently require. It might be best left to the sociologist to determine why this is so. Yet some matters are clear. We, the American public, were told to go about our business at the outset of the war. As if doing so would smite our enemies – we have. Or perhaps we went on about our daily lives, just as before because we knew not what else to do. We understood the enemy to be foreign in values, as well as location. We saw the enemy's base of operations destroyed and then a developing potential ally removed from power. We then we witnessed attacks short of our shores – in Beslan, Madrid and London, among far too many others. And still we live as if we have nothing to fear from these declared enemies of America.

This might be because we live in the 'now' more than generations past. It may be a result of our ever increasing opportunities for escaping into the unreal worlds of entertainment and fantasy. Or perhaps it is simply that we are a people busied by the mundane everyday of our lives and we've not been told in terms 'real' enough that we are at War. It is true that we've not declared War and entrusted our government with the powers and, moreover, the responsibility to defeat the enemy and protect our way of life.

As a primary aspect of his discussions of the war, the President has often spoken of the power of democracy in the battle of ideas. And while there is much truth in the spirit of his words, particularly when seen as a preventative measure against supplemental causes for sympathies toward the enemy's ideas, much more is needed. Whether it is our media, our diplomatic corps, our politicians or our vaunted 'experts' – our knowledge of the motivations, intentions and beliefs behind the enemy and his supporters is severely lacking. As such, we use terms which are likely to offend those who call Islam their faith. We often lump the Muslim faithful into groupings that are ambiguous at best and more often, simply wrong (contemplate the number of believers who consider themselves part of the salafi or muwahidoon while not sharing the willingness to accept violence to achieve religious or political objectives). And worst of all, we fail to present ourselves in terms which would aid us in bringing the average Muslim into the fold of those opposing what should be a shared enemy.

When we consider the oft-referred to average Muslim (or the moderate Muslim, liberal Muslim, or any other of the many terms used) we have much in common. More often than not, we share more in common with him than the enemy does (including his shared profession of faith). The enemy is more effective in reaching the average Muslim though. The enemy speaks to the average Muslim in terms he is sure to understand.

The enemy's message is built on the things the average Muslim values – the basic texts of his faith and the values of his cultural heritage. That message also plays heavily off the things the average Muslim does not support – such as the more banal aspects of our society, the perceived inequities of his native lands, and the privileged life and status of those who rule over him (as well as their relationships with the West in all its good and bad forms). And finally, the enemy's message takes advantage of the simple fact that few other messages are heard by his audience, as much of the highly Muslim populated parts of the world remain constrained by a limited press and government censorship. The enemy's message is often the only message delivered other than the repressive government's message.

And here we find the need to know the enemy – and to engage him more fully in the battle of ideas. For while much remains uncertain, we are certain that our enemy is not yet defeated and that he has declared war on us. We also know that every day that passes without our full engagement in this bloody conflict results in an extension of the war along with more death and greater risk to our future safety, security and way of life.

The Enemy

While the 'Long War' has just entered its sixth year, it remains far from over. Our enemy believes that he understands us. He knows that we do not know him and he is confident that we will never understand the devotion he has to his cause. He knows that he is not limited to a nation-state that – once defeated – will render him incapable of continued hostility. He knows that his tactics – terrorism, deception and propaganda – are not limited by the lack of a state or the ability to raise and fund an army. In truth, he knows these are his great enablers – and the keys to our weakness.

Who is he?

Our enemy is not terrorism – though we are right to oppose those who use such tactics. Nor is our enemy Islam – though our enemies profess a belief in the Islamic religion. Our enemy is not all Muslims - though far too often we appear to be opposed to all Muslim people. Muslims, adherents of Islam, are as varied and distinct in their beliefs as the sects of any other religion might be. Perhaps more so given their numbers – over 1 billion.

For the uninitiated, Islam is the name of the religion as presented by Prophet Muhammad. In the eyes of an adherent of Islam – a Muslim – it is the one and final revealed religion of God (Allah in Arabic) for all mankind. All Muslims, whether Sunni, Shi'a or Sufi, believe in a basic set of tenets (with slight variances) that include a statement of faith, prayer, giving to charity, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca.

At the highest levels, the Sunni and Shi'a are separated by their belief in who possessed the authority to rule the Islamic state following the death of Muhammad. The Sunni believing that the four 'rightly-guided' successors to Muhammad had that authority and the Shi'a believing in a bloodline-based caliphate, the caliph being the successor to Muhammad as leader of the Muslim ummah – or community (nation).

After the death of Muhammad, those who would become the Shi'a believed that his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, should have been the successor. He was eventually the fourth caliph and the last of what the Sunni consider the 'rightly-guided.' The largest Shi'a sect believes that there are twelve infallible Imam's who would follow Muhammad with Ali being the first. The twelfth Imam being the Mahdi. The Mahdi is believed, by the predominant Shi'a sect, to be in an occult state and will reappear, at a time determined by God, to lead (along with Jesus, Isa in Arabic) the Muslim faithful.

Again – we are not at war with Islam, either Shi'a or Sunni.

For our purposes here, we will only begin to explore the distinctions between Muslims and the enemy, who also profess such a faith. In a separate series of discussions we'll explore the religion and its many various forms. Likewise, we'll continue our discussion of the strategic aspects of the war, the things we know and the things we need to know in a continuation of this document in the coming weeks.

So – who is our enemy? He is al-jihadiyun. Or in our anglicized parlance – the jihadi.

The jihadi believes himself to be a Muslim, in fact an adherent of 'true' Islam. Moreover, he most likely believes that most who call themselves Muslim are falling short of their obligations as believers and may even go so far as to consider them apostates and, therefore, among the unbelievers.

Why is this? For the sake of brevity – it is his understanding of Islamic definition of 'tawhid' first and foremost. Tawhid is essentially the Islamic concept of the oneness of God (monotheism). However, the jihadi believes in an expanded form of tawhid that precludes him from obeying any other than God. The laws of man, even the participation in creating them, are outside the religion as they represent a form of submission to someone other than God. As such, the jihadi is isolated from any government (including an 'Islamic' government) that does not follow the known and agreed upon laws of Islam as derived from the Qur'an and the various approved hadith – the reported sayings and actions of the Prophet. When taken in conjunction with the jihadi's belief that it is an obligation on him to fight against that which is outside the religion, he is suddenly at war with the majority of the world.

While there are many more aspects of the jihadi's faith and in the imagery, metaphors and historical events that guide his actions that we fail to fully understand, the primary elements of understanding required to fight his message are found in these two radical interpretations of legitimate components of Islamic belief:

• Jihad fi sabilillah – the struggle for the cause of God, and
• Tawhid – the oneness of God.

Seeking to understand the jihadi or the ideas behind his actions has a significance beyond the mere attainment of knowledge. It is the key to countering the message of the jihadi in the ideological component of the war. His message has been far more refined than any counter-message of the US or our allies. It is, quite frankly, more refined and available to the average Muslim than traditional non-jihadist beliefs. And it is for this reason that the jihadi is able to find and develop additional like-minded believers in nations all around the world (including within our own prisons, universities and neighborhoods).

Here at ThreatsWatch we have been cautious – too much so for many – in both our tone and references to various aspects of the Islamic faith or the broader community of believers. Why? Because we believe, as we've stated before, that Islam and the average Muslim believer is also under attack by the jihadi and his ideological compatriots. And in order to defeat that enemy, the broader Muslim community must play a significant part – perhaps the critical part that has thus far been missing.

The Message

What message should we present to Muslims? This would, of course, be dependent on who the speaker is. Yet, certain things should be apparent no matter the speaker. First – recognition of Islam and its believers as a faith separate from and distinctly suffering due to the action of the jihadi. By no means should this prevent evangelism or anything like that, for those so inclined – instead merely an admission that being a Muslim does not make one a terrorist or a jihadi and that the faith itself is not the root of the issue. Likewise, “we” includes some portion (far too small) of the Muslim population already – and our inclusion of their understanding and their established relationships in the community of believers should be a major objective.

For the US and its allies to win this war, we must address the Muslim believer in terms that reflect both our ideals and his perception of us. By using terms such as 'salafi' or 'wahhabi' to describe our enemies – many, particularly those who believe themselves to be a follower of early Islamic tradition (prior to the development of the madhab system) are wrongly thrown in with our enemies. The consequence of this is should be clear. Rather than hearing us, these men and women, who are often simply seeking a pious life, turn us off and turn instead to the few alternative sources available to them. Perhaps the single most prominent among the alternatives are the religious proselytizing groups who profess the jihadist ideology. If the average Muslim's faith is largely inherited, and their personal knowledge of its deeper roots is limited, as is the case for much of the Muslim world, it is not a stretch to imagine such a believer being led toward the jihadi's view. Add to that the many 'softer' influences such as economic and political disparities, and it becomes even easier to see them seeking resolution through the jihadi's Islam.

We must find the means to communicate with the millions of Muslims who as of yet have taken no stand in this war. While we favor democracy and the democratic republic which protects our own individual lives and liberty, we should not impose a form of government on any people in the Middle East or elsewhere. Their traditions, faiths and values should be the primary determining factors in the formation of their states or governments. From these shared traits nations with internal unity can be formed. And that unity of purpose and values may serve as a guide for them – a guide to peaceful co-existence with the non-Islamic and Western world. They will and should become the army that defeats the jihadi, and forever the defenders of their faith from the false and blasphemous notions of the jihadiyun.


It is not within the scope of this piece to offer a complete solution to the ideological battle that must be addressed. In lieu of that – let's begin the discussion of how best to encourage the the Muslim world to engage in the war against the jihadi. We must understand that the concept of jihad is, and ever will be, a part of Islam. Most Muslims understand this to be primarily a personal struggle to overcome their more base nature and to live a more holy life.

We should recognize that the just war we fight against the jihadi – just as the personal jihad a believer fights against his more base nature – will not be won through force as much through education, understanding and engagement. This does not deny or in any way lessen the significance or necessity of our military and police actions against the jihadists worldwide. But only when we have engaged Muslims will they be prepared to join the fight against those who have subverted their faith – for now they are both afraid of the jihadi and isolated by our combined ignorance.

When considering this war, it should be clear to all that it is not a hunt for Usama bin Laden, nor was it to be the removal of the Taliban or the primary leaders of al-Qaeda. It must be a proactive defense of our people and resources, an offensive attack on the jihadi and his ideology and a direct engagement of the nearly 1 billion Muslim men and women who are neither jihadists nor at war with the world.

Political efforts to isolate the war in Iraq as something other than a major front in this war, and other efforts to minimize the extent to which our enemy is prepared to go to see our destruction are particularly damning. We have not discussed Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Venezuela, Hizballah or Hamas and the policy challenges they present or their potential impact on the war. Nor have we discussed our quasi-allies and their complicit or duplicitous policies. This is because the first steps in addressing the war has to be at home. Each of us must commit to doing what is necessary to win this war.

As a people, we will determine only our part in this war. We will elect the future leaders of this 'long war' and we will raise the next generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who will take up arms to defend our shores.

Time is not on our side. Understanding, moral clarity and force of will should be.

[TW Note: As mentioned above, the issues brought up in this commentary will be addressed further in two series. One will look into the various aspects of Islam, its sects, history and traditions – particularly compared with that of the jihadi. Another will explore the strategic aspects of the war and what we must do to win it.]


Listed below are links that reference Fighting The Long War:

» Moral clarity anyone? The Long War from Liberating Propaganda
Wonderful article out of Threats Watch. Here’s just the conclusion. While the prospects are sobering, it is heartening to see that the focus on values, and moral clarity, are recog... [Read More]


Great article. Question though - in terms of identifying the enemy, certainly the Jihadi is top of the list; however, how would you place the secular crazy dictators, either North Korea, or Venezuela (for starters). Thanks! Vicktorya

Vicktorya - at a later point in this series I'll address our allies, belligerent states, and the enemy's allies in more detail. For the purposes of the 'long war' - no states are, as of yet (after the fall of the Taliban and Hussein) properly classified as participants against the US. That is likely to change, and we'll definitely look into the implications of such events.

Marvin, excellently analysed...thanks for putting this so concisely. I have relayed (FYI; with ref to the site and yourself as well) to some whom I think will appreciate your candid approach of thoughts.

I must (however sadly) say that it is not only the US who has "failed to foresee the danger as presented by the enemy". The world, by and large, seems not to have recognised the signs of this tide...and in some cases still hesitate to do so.

Many indications were shunned aside, disregarded to an extent, as these were not of primary concern or focus to the issue then at hand.

The US and its allies do have a long trek in this GWOT - it requires much fortitude and will require a lot of "mutual cooperation"... when one is to consider the history and backgrounds of some of the US's allies, some of which have been wary of full involvement in the 'near' past this will not be a downhill ride... but persevere we all must, and as you put it so well "Understanding, moral clarity and force of will"...it's what we all need!


The Koran is the words of Allah. To the Muslim, here really is only one Islam and, either you believe in the teachings of [God's] prophet or you don't.

Can you convince a dominant majority of Muslims that changed conditions can supersede the Koran's seeming commands, since some of those commands easily lend themselves to brutality? I think that this question cuts to the core of your thesis.

The Koran states, for example, that Muslims must fight unbelievers and slay apostates; it demands that unbelievers submit to the authority of the Islamic state, either by converting or paying a poll tax; it regards women as "tilths" (Sura 2:223), gives men authority over them (when it is permissible to beat them), permits men to marry up to four of them (in addition to keeping others as "captives" (4:3)); it gives women half the inheritance rights of men and counts their testimony in court as worth half a man's; it goes on.

That doesn't mean (to me) Islam requires the destruction of all what the world has evolved into. But it does pose a problem for reformers, if such exists of Islam.

There is to my knowledge no interpretation of what the troublesome teachings mean that is more compelling than what the militants are offering. It is what it is. I think that you will have a hard time convincing Muslims that the militants are perverting doctrine--which is what you must do to marginalize and defeat them.

I will be very interested to read your solution.

Recorded on C-Span, Intel Director John Negroponte declared that "the world's basic political units are still nation-states." Though little noted, his declaration stands in stark contrast to the line of those who, since 9/11, have projected an image of an impenetrable, shadowy, trans-national enemy who cannot be overcome by well-understood military or political methods. Considering the relative correctness of these alternative outlooks, we might recall that, over history, states - or coalitions of them - have often championed religions or secular equivalents thereof like communism, all in the pursuit of state interests. Nor are state-supported trans-national terrorist groups a novelty. One may, therefore, raise a question as to why Negroponte's observation has sunk like a rock in the media pond.