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15 March 2006

Every imagined threat now real

What has become clear is that the world changed irrevocably on the morning of 11 September. What is less clear is what shape the new world will take. We have left the transition time of the post-Cold War inter-war years, a time like so many before it when Americans attempted to turn swords to ploughshares and seek peace in our time.

It was not to be.

What we are left with is the legacy of ten years of military cut-backs, the history of a ten-fold increase in expeditionary operations and military deployments in support of various flavors of interventions. What we have inherited is a cumbersome and peacetime bureaucratic structure that is increasingly shown as unsuited for the wars we are to wage now, even as the warriors who are at the sharp end of the spear fight on brilliantly despite seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Yet in the wake of this radical, soul-wrenching paradigm shift imposed upon us in the blaze of aviation fuel and fundamentalist fervor, we struggle to comprehend the nature of this new world. Despite endless chattering commentary from media talking heads, despite reams of paper generated seemingly overnight by countless policy pundits, and despite all of the dire predictions and even more strident hand wringing, we are further away from a real understanding than ever before.

Al Qaeda is now a household word. Madrassas are now longer cocktails, or foreign dresses on the runways of last year’s spring fashion show. And almost everyone has an opinion on the state of the US intelligence community, even if they have never even met a single person so employed. But none of this addresses what will happen the day after tomorrow. When the smoke clears, the threats will remain, merely wearing different faces.

In this, we can still see no more than twelve hours ahead, perhaps at best a day. These indicators are clear, and for the most part as unambiguous as predictive analysis ever gets. No crystal ball, electronic or otherwise, will allow us to peer further through the fog of war. The layers of complexity are too great, and we are overtaken by events at such a speed, that it is difficult even to predict the timing of the next lateral change - let alone the direction. Military tribunals. Civil rights objections are raised to federal law enforcement actions by city officials. The security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is questioned. Strategic arms limitation treaty objections are raised to block transfers of UAV’s to long-standing allies, and lawyers are standing behind shooters already committed to engagements.

From the present moment, the progression of events to this end is at the very least knowable, even if the full details remain obscured. To find one person that could have predicted the course of that progression even a year ago is an impossible task. A few one-eyed visionaries, howling alone in the wilderness, foresaw certain elements. In the distance, baying is still audible, although it is hard to distinguish from the cacophony.

Those nightmares are now the factors with which we grapple daily.

Superterror has emerged, long-anticipated though it was. Whether one argues that this was foretold in Aum Shrinkyo’s Tokyo attacks, or Oklahoma City, no terrorist actor has ever inflicted such damage in a single day. Weapons of mass destruction have been used by non-state actors against a civilian population – and not for the first time, though it’s hard to find many that are aware of this. And a superpower has gone to war against a non-state actor and its sponsors – also not for the first time. (Although the US was not even a great power when a tiny fleet mounted the first expeditionary operation against the Barbary pirates.)

For years, though, these nightmares have been projected, posited, and professional dissected. They have been written about, briefed, and even scripted (no matter that the film options are worth but a fraction of their former value in the current box office climate.) We have discussed, in committee and in closed session, the ramifications of child soldiers, fundamentalist propaganda, drug wars, death cults, and proliferation in all of its various forms. We have argued policy, debated sanctions, and disregarded analysis in favor of media fads and dot-com solutions. Argumentation has replaced academic rigor, and multiculturalism ended the ability to produce objective cultural intelligence.

It is not now enough to merely acknowledge that we no longer face imagined chimeras. We struggle to even adequately describe today’s threats, even despite the body of literature accumulated about them. And while we will prevail against today’s enemy, which has shown itself, there remain the unseen host that have not. A tactic is merely knowledge, and history has proven that tactics will be quickly adopted beyond those that spawned them. The feared Encyclopedia of the Jihad is no more sophisticated than any of a dozen clandestine manuals from the past three or four decades of worldwide insurgency and anarchism. We are but lucky that the current opposition force has fared no better at distinguishing the relevant from the inane, and internet hoaxes from weapons design notes. Tomorrow’s OPFOR will be better. We do not have the luxury of discovering this after the fact.

Conventional wisdom agrees that 11 September represented an unprecedented catalyst for change. Certainly, it will forever be a reminder of the dangers of complacency. But then again, so is Pearl Harbor. So the outstanding question that remains – where is this transformation? When will the cycle of incremental evolution be broken? When will the old, oft-mentioned futures be shattered in favor of a long look into the void of the unknown?

It is not assured how much longer we can afford to wait. We have been welcomed, as the line from the movie goes, to the desert of the real – an information sphere inundated with countless grains of worthless dross, devoid of knowledge. We are dying for meaning, for relevance, for foresight. Unfortunately, this transformation will not come through reorganizations, or through the creation of new task forces and the commissioning of new panels. It is not going to be achieved in a budget meeting, or a congressional hearing.

Transformation awaits in the unconventional, the untested, and the unanticipated. The keys are hidden in the minds of the next-generation, those who have been born into a world never having known life without a computer, or the Internet. It lives in the implicit understanding of those that have navigated the complex web of affinity groups and trust networks since they learned how to type, have made friends they have never met and have become accustomed to a world of disposable identities and nested layers of duality. Change will be driven by those that have never known a static world, let alone a static threat environment, to whom access to the five thousand channel universe is not marketing hype but is as essential as breathing. They are the generation that expects no federal assistance upon retirement, and cannot even conceive of lifetime employment.

Transformation lurks in those that haven’t ever stopped moving, that are too busy doing to manage, teach, or even take the time to record their lessons learned. These are the people who call themselves Americans but haven’t set foot on US soil for years if not decades, who speak a half-dozen languages but are ignored because none are the language of today’s crisis. They are the ones that have first hand foreign experience, have traveled and met those whom others have only read about. They are the ones that have been given no incentive to be a part of the intelligence community, and have never received even embassy support when they needed it. They have crossed borders in places where paperwork is as unnecessary and foreign as indoor plumbing, found business opportunities in the bars of hotels no government worker could ever afford to stay – and all the while learning countless things that would be of great benefit to their homeland’s intelligence and national security apparatus. The transformation they offer is not the fuzzy academic “multiculturalism”, but it is the hard-learned lessons of those who have had to adapt or die in a foreign place.

Transformation is also hidden in those that today have become marginalized, the ones that didn’t buckle under a decade of political correctness. These are the ones whose careers didn’t advance because they weren’t looking to get into management, because they were obsessed with their work. They are the ones whose most important contributions have always been in the footnotes, or scrawled on Post-It notes stuck to the walls of the corner cubicle. Transformation lies in the answers to all of their frustrations at the short-sighted, budget and vision limited failures of the past decade. And they do have answers, despite many assertions that they are but pessimists. It is that worldview that has allowed them to survive, driving them onward because negative morale is the only kind they could find. They have endured forced confinement in a box, which they never even learned to recognize as part of their thinking, only through proving quietly time and again that they were right when everyone doubted, even if after the fact no one remembered. They are the few that have never sought a rice bowl of their own, let alone demanded protection for an iron one.

This is not merely a change in counter-terrorism strategy, or in homeland security organization. It cannot be a re-allocation of warfighting resources, or a tactical shift to a new weapons system or force protection policy. It must start with intelligence, because it is intelligence that will lead it and drive it forward. But it cannot just stop there. It must translate into policy, and more importantly, the perspective to guide our defense, national security, and foreign engagement decisions in the future.

This transformation is not something that will occur overnight. It’s not something that will happen by itself. It must be sought out, encouraged, even purchased at a great human and institutional cost. But these costs must be weighed against the inevitable consequences should transformation fail, consequences no amount of planning or management will be sufficient to mitigate.

The paradigm shift has not yet happened. Its potential has only been imagined.

God speed the day.