By Abhijnan Rej*
While James Mattis — Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defence position — was pushing the new counter-insurgency doctrine into action in Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump’s NSA-designate Michael Flynn was serving as the intelligence head of the United States Joint Special Operations Command (Jsoc). Jsoc integrates special operators from the army, navy, and the air force, and is tasked with command over all covert and other sub-conventional activity that the United States military undertakes in war. It also enjoys close working relationships with the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division.
The intelligence arm of Jsoc that Flynn led was responsible for intelligence-gathering to support on-ground operations, for interrogation of captured terrorists, and for interfacing intelligence analysts with combat teams in real time. Flynn’s experience with Jsoc in Iraq, as Deputy Chief of Staff, Intelligence, for the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan and, finally, as the Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency – Pentagon’s behemoth spy agency – shaped and moulded his world-view and led him to fall out with Obama – and to eventually endorse Trump.
This world view posits radical Islam as an existential threat to the United States, at par with Soviet communism at the height of the Cold War. The fight against radical Islam is a generational struggle that is nowhere near to being over, adherents to this world-view would hold. While this was also the implicit belief of the Bush-era neoconservatives, what makes Flynn stand out is his assertion that the enemy is not simply a motley crew of insurgents prowling the badlands of international politics – however threatening it may be. Rather it is “a political ideology based on a religion,” as Flynn told journalist Mehdi Hasan in January this year.
It is this very expansiveness of conception that worries Flynn’s (and Trump’s) detractors – and assures many around the world who have maintained that Obama, in hurry to end wars he didn’t start, has relinquished American initiative in the fight against global jihad. While Obama’s drone strikes has had limited utility in diminishing the threat emanating from the Af-Pak region, Islamist radicals have created a proto-state across Iraq and Syria. And as the ongoing difficulties in recapturing Mosul illustrate, the news of impending death of IS is vastly exaggerated.
A brilliant Politico profile of Flynn – published before Trump’s election, in October – termed him as “America’s angriest general.” Unlike most of Bush’s neoconservative mouthpieces, Flynn’s way of looking at the world was not shaped by debate in think-tanks and universities. Rather, as the Politico profile describes it, it was by his face-to-face encounters with the adversary – in form of captured high-ranking members of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – that shaped Flynn’s conviction “that ‘core Al Qaeda’ wasn’t actually compromised of human beings, but rather it was an ideology with a particular version of Islam at its center.” This is politically-incorrect stuff. But is it accurate?
Flynn’s detainees were working for Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who led AQI which would, in time, morph into IS as we know the group today. Zarqawi’s career as a jihadist was shaped by his time in Osama bin Laden’s pre-2001 Afghanistan where he formed a close relationship with jihadi theorist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri. Al-Suri literally wrote the most authoritative manual on the strategy of global jihad. (This Firstpost article summarizes some recent research on al-Suri’s contributions.) His description of al-Qaeda – which was repeated by other suspects captured by the United States prior to 9/11 – is notable:
Al-Qaeda is not an organization, it is not a group, nor do we want it to be […] It is a call, a reference, a methodology.
Nizam la tanzim; system, not organization – that was al-Qaeda 2.0, the precursor to IS. But a system of what? Of a restoration of the Islamic caliphate, following the calls of ideologues of political Islam like Sayyid Qutb.
Michael Flynn’s subjects had provided him with a fundamental insight: this is not an amorphous “war against terror” (whatever that means). It is a war against a particular ideology. Obama, Trump’s supporters would contend, either failed to see it as such or (much worse) ignored it as politically-inexpedient. And from this insight, other policy prescriptions that Flynn has advocated – and would now put in place as Trump’s NSA – would follow.
But a war on an ideology is more than as-and-when kinetic action in far-flung areas of the world. By its very definition, it requires the deployment of all resources the United States has, much like the policy of containment against the Soviet Union American diplomat George Kennan had advocated at the start of the Cold War. How the Trump administration defines, and fights, this war will shape much of the future in the Middle East and North Africa in the years to come.
This article originally appeared in Firstpost.