NEWPORT, RI -- The Bush administration's term "global war on terrorism" is an "inaccurate" label for what is truly a war against an insurgency, according to the three-star general in charge of Marine Corps forces in the Pacific region.
Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson said winning the "profoundly complex human conflict" depends not on killing and capturing enemies but on winning the hearts and minds of people around the world, particularly by improving the lives of the destitute and the poor living in troubled parts of the globe. He spoke June 15 at the Naval War College's Current Strategy Forum.
The United States and its allies are fighting a networked, global insurgency led by extremist Muslims, he said. The insurgent leaders do not speak for all of Islam, but they threaten to hijack the religion for their own purposes, he said. The United States needs to be on the side of moderate Islam and avoid being set up as an enemy of Islam, he said.
"This war has a popular label and a political label, but it's not accurate," said Gregson. "Terrorism is a means of power projection, it's a weapon, it's a tool of war. Think of it as our enemy's stealth bomber. This is no more a war on terrorism than World War II was a war on submarines. It's not just semantics . . . Words have meaning. And these words our leading us down to the wrong concept."
Gregson added, "What we're fighting is an insurgency defined as a popular movement that seeks to change the status quo through violence, subversion, propaganda, terrorism or other military action. But it's different from other national insurgencies that we've known in the past. This one is networked thanks to the wonders of technology. It's primarily ideologically driven, fundamentalist and extremist."
A new class of regional and global actors have linked these movements in a global network of ideology, financiers, document forgers, transportation experts and propagandists, he said. This includes al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah and other affiliated theater movements, he said.
"It's a collection or a confederation of movements empowered by regional and global fundamentalist extremist insurgents," Gregson said. "You can borrow an old phrase and say they think globally and act locally."
Winning the war will require more than just victory on the battlefield, he said.
"The center of gravity, the decisive terrain in this war is the vast majority of people who are not directly involved but whose support, willing or coerced, is necessary to insurgent operations around the world," he said. "Hearts and minds are more important than capturing and killing people."
After 1973, the U.S. military quickly dropped the study of insurgency and turned back to so-called "real war," he said, but now officials need to study this form of warfare, "not as it once was, but as it is now."
Following Gregson's initial remarks, a member of the audience noted in the Middle East the term "war on terrorism" gets morphed into "war against Islam," and suggested the term "war on insurgency" should be used instead.
"I would certainly concur," Gregson replied. "The global networked enemy that we're fighting is doing, very, very, very well in the information ops area and portraying our actions as anti-Islamic, anti-Islam, anti-Muslim. And we have to find some way to counter that." U.S. Central Command has recently started "engaging very heavily with Al Jazeera with interviews and speakers and low and behold Al Jazeera's coverage has considerably changed," he added. "We need to do more of that."
In answering the question Gregson said, "The main thrust of my remarks was that we know we're stuck with the name, it's going to be the global war on terrorism. . . . But even though we've got that name out there, we've got to at least in the security community and then further on through the greater world . . . explain what we're about here and get it into something that is properly categorized and puts us on the side of the angels in various areas."
Reaching out to populations in need before they become insurgents is very important, he argued.
"We don't have enough ammunition to kill all the terrorists that the enemy can run at us," Gregson said. "We have to start working on the population from which the terrorist foot soldiers are recruited."
Repeated studies show there is a consistent pattern behind the molding of suicidal terrorists, he said. Enemy recruiters use psychological conditioning, he said, targeting the second or third son who has no chance of inheriting the family fortune. A bomber recruit is typically broke, unsuccessful with the opposite sex, unemployed and living in abject poverty and misery in a place where political authorities are not properly caring for the community, Gregson said.
"Other people move in there," he said. "For a price they provide the schooling. They provide what is taught. They provide jobs. They provide a sense of community and they condition the youngsters that it's better to die as a martyr then to live without hope. He starts going to all five [prayer] services starting at [4 a.m.]. Especially the morning service, that's where he runs into the recruiters who convince him that if he dies fighting the infidels his name will live forever and his family will be well taken care of. And it in fact happens."
There are more Sunni Muslims in South and Southeast Asia then there are in the rest of the world combined, Gregson said. Islam, especially in Southeast Asia, is still generally moderate, he said.
"We have a chance to start winning this war here and walk it back into the Middle East, but we can't just continue to admire the problem," Gregson said. "We have to start doing something and we have to start walking the propaganda back in the other direction and get ourselves on the right side of this issue."
Providing doctors, engineers, dentists, veterinarians and other aid to enhance the lives of people living in very troubled parts of the world is "often far more important than projecting some type of force," Gregson said.
Michael Vlahos of Johns Hopkins University, who spoke at the same conference a day earlier, also criticized the notion of a war on terrorism.
"The problem with fuzzy and ultimately self-serving rubrics that we come up with is we go blind into something and I think we've ended up playing into the narrative of the enemy," Vlahos said.
"What we're doing is saying we're fighting a war on terrorism but quietly everyone says to themselves we're fighting Islamofascism, which essentially to Muslims means we're fighting them, all of them," Vlahos said. "That's what they believe. All Muslims believe we're out to deconstruct the Muslim world. All of them believe that at this point. That's how good a job we've done in letting them know what our strategy is."
This plays into the hands of apocalyptic fighters like al Qaeda and other groups, he said.
"They come from an apocalyptic tradition and rather then finding a way to just deal with them, we're also in a sense now the enemies of a far more reasonable and historically grounded Muslim tradition of resistance which I call civil militia," Vlahos said. "So we've found ourselves fighting all sorts of people recently in Iraq, you know, who aren't part of that."
If the United States can support revolution in the Muslim world "that is rooted in this civil militia paradigm of resistance and overthrow of tyranny we'll be fine," he said. "But we can't figure out how to do that. We don't even recognize that these two traditions exist." By conflating most Muslims with this apocalyptic strain, which is an outsider tradition, very much at the margins of the Muslim world, the United States has helped fulfill the narrative of people who otherwise never had a chance in history of aspiring to leadership, Vlahos said.
While Vice President Dick Cheney recently told CNN that the insurgency in Iraq is in the "last throes," Vlahos painted a much darker picture.
"We don't know the difference between power on the one hand and authority and legitimacy on the other," Vlahos said. "Authority always trumps power. It's a strange thing to see in history, but it's true. And we have to understand that if we lose authority, that's as bad as losing thousands of men."
Vlahos continued, "We're in the process now of having an erosion of authority which I think is much more significant in many ways than actual military performance. And our approach is so fixated on material instrumentality as the basis for power, not understanding that power itself is subordinate to authority. And as a result I think we miss much of what's going on."
Vlahos also criticized the way U.S. officials characterize enemy fighters. "Look at this term of irregular warfare," he said. "All the ways we define the way the enemy fights . . . it's always a 'not' word. It's irregular, it's asymmetrical, it's unconventional -- like they're not doing it right!" The conference attendees, many of whom were active or retired military members or students at the college, filled the auditorium with laughter, signaling they understood the point.
"We're the ones who are clinging to a war that nobody wants to fight anymore," Vlahos said in a reference to traditional warfighting methods. -- Christopher J. Castelli