Adapting to New Enemies: Wishing the Best and Preparing for the Worst

Adapting to New Enemies: Wishing the Best and Preparing for the Worst

By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20160518

Despite roars of triumphant victory, the war on terror, viewed soberly, has failed to prevent attacks since 9/11. As Leah Farrall pointed out, al Qaeda has increased its membership, geographic reach, ideological sophistication and influence over the last ten years (Farrall 2011). She argued that most accounts of al Qaeda’s decline focuses on degraded capacity and depleted senior leadership, but ignores the successful expansion and influence of the organization’s subsidiaries. She spotlighted how the takfiri ideology and manhaj has increased mergers and acquisitions that prove that assessments of a degraded organizational capacity derive from “wishful thinking” (Farrall 2011).

Chimerical, fantastically visionary, and unreal attempts to convince the global civil society that the war on terror has been successful can hinder, more than strengthen, genuine and legitimate preparations against the next attack. Nader Elhefnawy cautioned how the big picture theories (Hegelian ‘end to history’, clash of civilizations, realpolitik, collective security, neoliberal globalization, neo-mercantilist geo-economics, Malthusian catastrophe, and postindustrial liberation) oversimplified reality (2011, 6). These theories offered explanatory power in terms of a broad view of the international situation and, therefore, aided in the formulation of coherent policies (Elhefnawy 2011). Nevertheless, these theories were ultimately unrestrained by one’s imagination.

The international community’s hope for improved world government after the Cold War strongly demonstrated a wishful imagination. As Elhefnawy declared, “That cooperation was to be based on the enlightened recognition of shared interests, a respect for international law, and an enlarged appreciation of national security beyond the traditional physical threats to states” (2011, 12). However, the United States, Russia, and China continued to clash at the United Nations, humanitarian interventions and nation-building projects did not receive wide support, the United Nations failed to act, peacekeeping efforts failed, CBTB efforts were aborted, the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty goals were not attained, and the Kyoto Protocol, Millennium Declaration, and Rio Summit remain void of vitality (Elhefnawy 2011). Elhefnawy concluded that such wishes ignored historically consistent behavioral norms (2011). Current cooperation has remained wishful in the face of mounting threats and misguided attempts to adapt to new enemies.

As political, economic and social conditions throughout the international community continue to agitate radicalism, policymakers, analysts, and academics must work to restrain their imaginations. That is, the center-left modernization theorists postulate well how poverty and ignorance provide a breeding ground for radicalism (Taspinar 2009). However, they must not embellish socioeconomic development as a solution to terrorism to the point they fail to recognize the expediency of coercive action. Likewise, the ‘security first’ analysts do well to recognize that most terrorists are neither poor nor uneducated (Taspinar 2009). Nevertheless, they must not drown themselves in the illusion that swift airstrikes at senior leadership will end the war on terrorism. Ignoring one solution while pursuing the other will only allow an inherently volatile and vulnerable security environment to spiral uninterrupted.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban present a new class of enemies who do not play by the traditional rules of warfare. These non-state and quasi-state actors provide a security dilemma where one side really desires conflict. Although the tactics used by these groups are asymmetrical by design, the type of ‘irregular warfare’ embarked upon, does not entirely stray from the Clausewitzian definition: “an act of force to compel to do our will” (Vacca and Davidson 2011, 19). Similar to the counterrevolution in the Vendee, the Franco-Prussian War, and the second Boer War, these tactics are adopted to achieve political objectives and should not be viewed as irregular after all (Vacca Davidson 2011).

Furthermore, R.D. Hooker, Jr. argued well that a state can be “a political entity which controls territory and population” and maintains internal control when challenged (2011, 6).  Al Qaeda and the Taliban have arguably managed to do both. Clausewitz also spoke of the limits to state power and Hooker pointed out how Western democracies remain vulnerable to “an inability to sustain major military ventures over time” (2011).

Instead of attempting to imagine a world without war or theorizing about different types of wars that do not require a military response, we must strike a somewhat unimaginative, but not necessarily run-of-the-mill, balance. Misguided philoshophcial thoughts lead to falsely imaginative conclusions and, therefore, should be restrained. Enemy tactics, however assymetrical or strategic they may be, demands our attention and willingness to kill effectively. By effectively, I mean, in the words of Ralph Peters, “…killing the enemy swiftly and relentlessly until that enemy surrenders unconditionally” (2004, 26). A sustained will to do so coupled with a commitment to address the underlying causes of terrorism will offer the prospect of a more secure future.


Davidson, W. Alexander Vacca and Mark. “The Regularity and Irregularity of Warfare.” Parameters, 2011: 18-28.

Elhefnawy, Nader. “Twenty Years After.” Parameters, 2011: 6-17.

Farrall, Leah. How al Qaeda Works. April 2011. (accessed May 17, 2016).

Peters, Ralph. “In Praise of Attrition.” Parameters, 2004: 24-32.

R.D. Hooker, Jr. “Beyond Vom Kriege: The Character and Condcut of Modern War.” Parameters, 2005: 5-17.

Taspinar, Omer. “Fighting Radicalism, not ‘Terrorism’: Root Causes of an International Actor Redefined.” Brookings Institute, 2009.


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