William Lind argues that al Qaeda’s previous strengths–its fanaticism and decentralization–may prove its undoing in Iraq:
It is reasonably clear that, contrary to the White House’s claims, the “surge” had little or nothing to do with the improved situation in Anbar province in Iraq. That security there has improved is a fact; a Marine friend who just returned told me the whole province is now quiet. If we look past the Bush administration’s propaganda and ask ourselves what really happened, we may find something of great value, namely a “seam” in Islamic Fourth Generation forces that we can exploit.
As is widely known, the key to turning the situation in Anbar around was a decision by the local Sunni clans and tribes to turn against aI-Qaeda. We did not make that happen, although we did make it possible, not by what we did but what we stopped doing, i.e., brutalizing the local population. Once U.S. forces in Anbar adopted a policy of de-escalation, the sheiks had the option of putting al-Qaeda instead of us at the top of their enemies list. De-escalation was, to use a favorite military term, the enabler.
As is also widely recognized, al-Qaeda itself then provided the motivator by its treatment of local Sunnis. Its error was one common to revolutionary movements, trying to impose its program before it had won the war. Worse, it did so brutally, using assassinations, car bombings that caused mass casualties and other typical terror tactics. Some reports suggest the final straw for Anbar’s Sunnis was a demand by foreign al-Qaeda fighters for forced marriages with local women.
Again, in itself this is nothing new. Where we may begin to perceive something new, a potential seam in Islamic 4GW operations, is in al-Qaeda’s response to its own blunder. It has refused to change course.
When other revolutionary groups have alienated the population by unveiling their program too soon, before they consolidated power, their leadership has quickly ordered a reversal. Mao had to do so, and so did Lenin, in the famous NEP of the early 1920s. Competent leadership usually understands that a “broad front” strategy is a necessity until their power is so great it cannot be challenged.
Why doesn’t al-Qaeda’s leadership do the same? Here is where it starts to get interesting. Perhaps they have not done so because they cannot.
Unlike Bolsheviks and other revolutionary parties that acted within a state framework and modeled themselves on the governments of states, Fourth Generation entities based on religious or “cause” appeals cannot practice what the Marxist-Leninists called “democratic centralism.” They cannot simply issue orders from the top and have those orders obeyed. Their organizations are too loosely structured for that. The leadership can inspire and give general guidance, but it cannot do much more than that. It cannot get its fighters to do things they don’t want to do, or stop doing things they very much do want to do.
Here we may see a flip side of the de-centralization that makes 4GW entities so difficult for states to fight directly. One of state armed forces’ favorite tactics, going after the leadership, has been shown over and over again not to accomplish much because local 4GW fighters do not depend on that leadership. But just as they do not depend on it, they also do not have to obey it. Their autonomy cuts both ways.