The Strongest Tribe’s Will to Win

strongestRetired Lt. General Michael T. Flynn served in a variety of intelligence posts during an Army career spanning some 33 years, starting with the 82nd Airborne Division. Most of his time was spent with the paratroopers and special operations forces. Flynn was the director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command from July 2004 to June 2007, with service in Afghanistan and Iraq. He served as the director of intelligence for U.S. Central Command from June 2007 to July 2008, for the Joint Staff from July 2008 to June 2009, and for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from June 2009 to October 2010. He came to public notice when, as he writes, “In 2014, I was fired as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency after telling a congressional committee that we were not as safe as we had been a few years back.” Indeed, the theme of this slim but authoritative volume is that “right now, we are losing” the War on Terror.

There are three main points that Flynn makes in the concise and frank manner that reflects his self-description as a “maverick.” The first is the importance of interrogation in gaining information about terrorist cells fast enough to act on it. In the stale debate over technical versus human intelligence, the answer is obvious: use everything. Yet, human intelligence is more difficult and controversial, especially in regard to interrogation methods. Flynn does not discuss the details of “enhanced interrogation,” only praising his officers for “exquisite” and “exceptional” work in getting prisoners to talk. The attempt by the Left to paint such methods as “torture” has failed to gain traction with a public that has no sympathy for those who plot the mass murder of Americans. So for Flynn, the issue is moot. Instead, his focus is on quickly distributing intel to the troops on the front line. Raids lead to new raids as cells are rolled up.

Yet, as Sun Tzu noted 26 centuries ago, “Good tactics without good strategy is just so much noise before your final defeat.” Strategy starts with understanding the nature of the war. The “guerrilla” wars sweeping across the Islamic world are essentially civil wars aiming at territorial conquest through regime change. The ultimate arbitrators are the people whose main interest is survival; they want the wars to end which means one side or the other must win. And they will decide who wins. Flynn argues:

Their decision is not primarily a political, let alone a moral, preference; and the decision is a self fulfilling prophecy. That’s because they choose their side once they decide who the winners-to-be are. Once they throw their support in that direction, that side gains an unbeatable advantage because “support” means winners-to-be have the critical intelligence and the indispensable manpower they need to win.

This was the success of the Surge in Iraq, as Flynn saw it from a Marine base on the Syrian border, which was blocking the influx of al-Qaeda fighters.

We paid better than the Syrians, so business was a lot better with us. We were not Islamists, and therefore did not impose a rigid political or ideological doctrine on tribal areas. In addition, the Marines were vastly better fighters, and soon it became apparent to the locals that we were not going to be defeated.

Bing West in his excellent 2008 book The Strongest Tribe makes the same argument in more detail. However, with the total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, the message to the locals was that we had given up. Into the power vacuum came two more surges, by Islamic State and by Iran. The collapse of the Iraqi Army, which had been corrupted by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, made Islamic State look like the strongest tribe among the Sunnis, while the Shiites were forced to rely more and more on direct Iranian intervention to hold Baghdad.

Flynn pulls no punches in his dislike for the Muslim radicals from either denomination that split Islam in the 7th century and has again sent the Middle East into genocidal religious conflict. “I’m not a devotee of so-called political correctness” he writes, “I don’t believe all cultures are morally equivalent, and I think the West, and especially America, is far more civilized, far more ethical and moral, than the system our main enemies want to impose on us.” He holds that “Sharia is a violent law that is buried in barbaric convictions.”

Unfortunately, those who do hold liberal PC views have done much to undermine Flynn’s second theme, the need to have the will to win. In his concluding chapter, he laments that despite the horror shown in the media from terrorism and tyranny, “It does not seem that our leaders, and perhaps not even most of our people, are sufficiently moved to fight decisively against the barbarians . . . Political correctness forbids us to denounce radicalized Islamists, and our political, opinion and academic elites dismiss out of hand the very idea of waging war against them.”

This may be an overly pessimistic view of Americans, but it is true that on the Left there has been a revival of the “anti-imperialist” cult that embraced Communism during the Cold War and now Islamic jihad as justified opposition to a Western Civilization which is the Left’s real object of hatred. It is thus not surprising that President Barack Obama, who came into office making apologies to the world for American policy, should think that the presence of U.S. troops was the source of instability rather than a guarantee of stability, and pull them out in the name of peace.

Perhaps Flynn’s third point is the most important because it runs counter even to the views of many who are committed to defeating “terrorism.” He identifies Iran as a greater threat than ISIS because it is linked to a larger, global alignment of powers whose resources and ambitions are far greater than anything mere terrorists can muster. “The war is on” he declares, “We face a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.” This sounds more like a continuation of the Cold War than a new conflict. He argues, “Iran is the linchpin of the alliance, its centerpiece.” The Islamic Republic is a theocracy as militant as ISIS, one that has been on the offensive since it took power in 1979. It is the largest state-supporter of terrorism, with its Hezbollah proxy evolving into an army that has sought to dominate Lebanon and to keep the Assad regime in control of Syria. Iran has trained and armed Shia militia groups to make Baghdad as much of a Persian satrap as Damascus; and is backing the Houthi insurgents in Yemen.

What many readers will find fascinating is Flynn’s history of how Iran supported al-Qaeda, not only in its early days but through 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tehran’s motive was to bloody the U.S. in any way possible to discourage any intervention in the Middle East. There is another angle that Flynn does not mention, however. Al-Qaeda and ISIS are Sunni movements, and the U.S. alliance system is based on the Sunni governments, particularly Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Arab money has gone to radical Islamists, mainly to combat Shiite forces backed by Iran. How better to divide America from the Arabs than to portray all Sunnis as terrorists?

Iran and North Korea have long cooperated in nuclear and missile programs. Flynn doubts either rogue state will give up its pursuit of advanced weapons voluntarily through negotiations alone. Indeed, he argues, “For the Iranians to negotiate a modus vivendi with us would be tantamount to abandoning the messianic vision of Khomeini and his successors.” He also believes it has been a mistake to focus so much on Iran’s nuclear program when “the issue is the regime in Tehran,” which has a variety of other means to advance its influence and which now has direct Russian military intervention in Syria as a guarantee of its own survival against any outside attempt at regime change.

Flynn still hopes that the Iranian people will revolt against the oppressive theocrats and castigates President Obama for not supporting the 2009 uprising sparked by rigged elections. In accord with his own theory about how the public will support the strongest tribe whether they like it or not, the U.S. and its allies will have to do more than merely support dissident voices. It will have to prove that the Tehran regime is weak. It cannot do that by lifting sanctions and backing off from confrontations. As Flynn complains, “No American president has initiated a serious challenge to post-revolutionary Iran.” And, while both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have vowed to defeat ISIS, it is not clear either has a plan to drive back Iranian influence, or work to disrupt the larger alliance system that uses Tehran as the spearhead in a global campaign to bring down the United States as the preeminent force for progress in the world.

One can only hope that the voices of Flynn and others with real world experience will be able to inform a wider American audience as to what it will take to insure the United States is perceived globally as the strongest tribe.

William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.