The Editors at the American Mind have expressed grave concern about the Biden Administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. Having spent years professionally involved in counterinsurgency, I would like to point out something about this strategy: it is breathtakingly incompetent. Only a large bureaucracy could have written something as professionally incompetent as this; indeed, given the boilerplate language preferred by different departments and agencies, it is clearly an attempt to harness several bureaucracies’ work. The strategy ignores the hard-won counterinsurgency lessons of the Iraq War, and commits the Federal government to making the same core mistakes in its domestic conflict. The strategy aggregates instead of disaggregates its opposition, and commits to a policy similar to the disbanding of the Iraqi Army (now seen as one of the key errors of the Iraq War). I will explain.
By 2006, counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq bogged down to the point that it seemed like the war would be lost to the insurgents. The Marine Corps’ head intelligence officer for its operations in Iraq — Col. Pete Devlin, G-2 of I MEF — declared that the situation in Anbar was “beyond repair” and that “the United States has lost in Anbar.” By the close of 2007, violence in Iraq had declined by 90%, and by 2009 the war was effectively an American victory (one that President Biden himself said would be remembered as one of the new-born Obama Administration’s greatest achievements, though in fact they ended up wrecking the accomplishment with a precipitous withdrawal).
How was the chaos of 2006 transformed into the relative peace of 2009? It began with a change in the concept of operations. This involved a frank assessment of American errors in counterinsurgency strategy, as well as a similarly frank assessment of what did work where it was working. The key lesson of the new counterinsurgency strategy can be summed up in a single word: disaggregation. That is not a common word outside of military strategy, so I shall explain what it means. The strategy of the guerilla (as Chairman Mao noted) is to relate to the population like a fish in the sea. Some of the populace may approve of what the guerrillas are doing. They may not approve, but be afraid of the guerrillas. They may disapprove, but wish to keep their heads down and try to stay out of the killing. A successful guerrilla is able to leverage all of these different subsets of the population as a ‘sea in which to swim.’ The more groups it can get to cooperate, the bigger the sea and the more difficult the counterinsurgency operation. Thus, it is the guerrilla’s task to aggregate the different subsets of the population into the biggest ‘sea’ possible.
Disaggregation is the opposite of aggregation. Disaggregation involves finding the seams between the different subsets of the population, and pulling the parts out of the insurgency that are willing to be pulled out. This means encouraging support from the part of the population that disapproves but is afraid of being killed. It means providing protection to the part that may not approve, but is afraid of the guerrillas. Once you have pulled those parts out, you have only the actual guerrillas and those who positively support their agenda. That is a much smaller sea, making it easier to provide protection and encouragement to the other groups. As the guerrillas now seem to be losing the war, it becomes possible to begin to persuade the last subset — those who approve — that they have more to gain by joining the peace than by continuing to expose themselves to war.
A strategy based on disaggregation would make very short work of domestic terrorism because domestic terrorism enjoys almost no support. Rather quickly it would become obvious that the war was won before it was begun. Support for genuine racist organizations like the KKK is almost nonexistent even when they merely assemble to march peacefully; there is absolutely no public support for any of them to take up arms in a violent manner. Acts of actual terrorism would immediately be rejected by nearly the whole American people. It would be extremely easy, then, to use a disaggregation model to counter the very few real guerrillas and would-be guerrillas. There are probably not more than a few hundred of these across our entire nation at this time.
This is true not only of genuine terrorism, but even of minimally-violent street actors. While many Americans might be glad to see someone standing up to violent street mobs like ANTIFA, most right-leaning Americans had probably never even heard of the Proud Boys before Mr. Biden brought them up at the Presidential debate; and most right-leaning Americans have very little patience with drunken street brawling of the sort in which the Proud Boys often engage. If they had their druthers, right-leaning Americans would prefer to see uniformed police officers corralling ANTIFA and its ilk, not brawling mobs clashing in the public street.
Nevertheless, the Biden Administration’s Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism is committed to the proposition that its enemy be wide and deep. It is clear that some, even among counterinsurgency professionals, believe this course to be proper. Former Department of Homeland Security official Miles Taylor told MSNBC that he viewed the enemy as the whole Republican Party — his own party. “I’m a national security guy. I’ve worked in national security against ISIS, al Qaeda and Russia. And the No. 1 national security threat I’ve ever seen in my life to this country’s democracy is the party that I’m in: the Republican Party. It is the No. 1 national security threat to the United States of America.”
That approach is, as The American Mind’s editors point out, embedded in the Biden strategy. It is also completely unprofessional. ‘The Republican Party’ writ large consists of perhaps a hundred million people. Granting the few actual guerrillas a ‘sea’ that big is as bad practice as is possible for a counterinsurgent. The beginning of wisdom is to see that disaggregation, not aggregation, is the right road. The fight should be kept as small as possible. If only this is done, then the fight is already almost won.
Yet, as the Strategy commits to doing in its Pillar Two, there is clear bureaucratic insistence in making the enemy — and the mission — as large as possible.
[Countering domestic terrorism] means “developing a mechanism by which veterans can report recruitment attempts by violent extremist actors.” It means “Pre-employment background checks and re-investigations for government employees,” i.e., purging the government apparatus of dissenters. And it means “tackling racism in America…ensuring that Americans receive the type of civics education that promotes tolerance and respect for all…acknowledging when racism and bigotry have meant that the country fell short of living up to its founding principles.”
What is going on here is directly analogous to the decision by the Bush administration to dissolve Saddam’s Iraqi Army. Like the Biden administration, the Bush administration thought that it was up against an ideology — Ba’athism, in the earlier case — that had to be purged root and branch from all public employment and positions of authority. This proved a disastrous decision across the board.
First, it fell prey to the blunder already discussed, that of aggregating its opposition. Some soldiers in the Iraqi Army were committed Ba’athists, but many were there for other reasons. Some were conscripts; others were from poor tribes, and sought only employment. Still others had joined out of fear of Saddam and a desire to prove their loyalty in the eyes of a terrifying regime. By treating them all as the enemy, the Bush administration pushed them all into the arms of the enemy. People who would never have considered joining the insurgency otherwise decided they had nothing to lose if they were going to be treated as the enemy already.
Second, by removing their paychecks, the decision created a large pool of trained soldiers who were in need of a new method of feeding themselves and their families. Saddam’s partisans had access to caches of weapons, which could be used to fight but also sold for cash. They could pay, in other words, and they were willing to accept former soldiers as allies. The insurgency grew rapidly as a result, and it drew from a pool of trained fighters that the Bush administration unwittingly created. The parallel to a domestic purge of our military for political reasons should be obvious.
Third, the decision to disband the army removed all of the formal controls the Iraqi government had over the lives of the former soldiers. Whereas it could instead have appointed new officers and used military discipline as a counterinsurgency tool, instead it threw away its mechanisms of control over the lives of these men.
Ironically a large number of those Iraqis who came over to our side under the 2006 counterinsurgency strategy had been members of Saddam’s military. I knew one tribal leader who had been in the Special Republican Guard, joined Saddam’s insurgency, but then found he had no use for radical Qaeda terrorists once Saddam’s branch was defeated. He was at that time organizing Sons of Iraq resistance in the Mada’in, and was a genial and generous host to Americans who came to visit and work with him. His background might have suggested that he was going to be one of the last to disaggregate, but if you took the time to get to know him you found he was a professional soldier who wanted a secular state and a peaceful home. Perhaps he would have joined Saddam’s wing of the insurgency even if the military had not been disbanded, but just as possibly he might have been a committed force for disciplined order from the beginning.
The Biden Strategy gets this exactly wrong in Pillar Two. It becomes even worse in Pillar Four, which is frankly less a strategy at all than a wish-list of political desiderata: ‘tackling racism,’ ‘economic relief,’ ‘combatting misinformation,’ and the like. A reader of this strategy could be forgiven for believing that defeating domestic terrorism was exactly equivalent to enacting the preferred political policies of left-leaning Democrats across the board. The strategy does not aim at defeating terrorism alone, but at transforming the whole society along partisan lines. In that way, it invites not only the editors of The American Mind but anyone inclined to opposing any of those agenda items to see themselves as the enemies envisioned by the state. This too is aggregation on a grand scale.
One would think that ultimately losing two recent, major counterinsurgencies would prompt great care in trying to draft a strategy that aims at another similar war here at home. Such a thing is impossible, however, because of the ossification of our major bureaucracies.
US military and diplomatic failure to finalize victory in the Iraq War were not due to a lack of tactical competence, but to bureaucratic inertia that prevented the successful attainment of a status of forces agreement. US military and diplomatic failure in Afghanistan are not due to a lack of tactical victory – our forces have hardly lost an engagement in what is nearly two decades, and never higher than the platoon level – but to the inability of the bureaucracy to turn its ship in the face of a failing strategy. Two Presidents have come in with new ideas, and found a bureaucracy that was chiefly devoted to convincing them to ‘stay the course.’ Minor adjustments such as President Obama’s half-surge were all the ossified bureaucracy could recommend or accept.
It is this ossification that is allowing smaller, objectively worse organizations to out-compete us. This is why we are losing to the Taliban in Afghanistan in spite of all of their problems.
The Army and the Marine Corps in Iraq could change course because they were not ossified: it had only four levels of command between itself and the war on the ground (Division, Brigade, Battalion/Regiment, Company). The Department of Defense has many more. Homeland Security has multiple bureaucracies with layers of bureaucracy atop that. The Justice Department and the FBI are functional, but they have to be integrated into the whole-of-government plan.
This strategy is the bureaucracy cobbling together its boilerplate at the demand of the administration because that is all it can still do. This language intends to justify massive transfers of wealth to ‘private sector partners,’ especially in Big Tech but also to friendly-to-Democrats NGOs who provide comfy employment during Republican administrations. We see this language all the time in grants from the Bureau of Land Management or Health and Human Services (or the State Department). So to is the language that worries TAM about involving every level of government, ‘state, local, tribal,’ etc. This boilerplate is usual in Department of Homeland Security grants and Justice Department grants. The payoffs to these smaller government are an important feature of Federal policy, and they find ways of including them everywhere in order to keep the smaller government tied to themselves. Asked to do something about any problem, they do what they always do because it is all they can still do.
There is a political, rhetorical overlay that was put on top by the White House or the National Security Council. The strategy is almost certain to be used for money transfers to friends on a massive scale, and as a rhetorical club against political opponents. Hopefully they do not actually attempt to employ it as a ‘strategy for countering domestic terrorism,’ because it is as badly designed as it is possible for such a strategy to be. It would commit anew all the worst errors of the Iraq War, from which the great bureaucracies have finally learned nothing because they can no longer learn.