Thursday, April 5, 2007

A Byzantine Model for a Byzantine Conflict?

With the distractions of the ongoing war in Iraq, the related political war in Washington, and the recent but now faded worry over a potential war between Iran and the UK and/or the United States, perhaps a quick reminder of that other war is in order. I am referring to the war on terror, the war that began on 11 September 2001 with the horrendous images from New York City and Washington.

This is the war that was brought to us not by any country or government but by a group of radical Islamic fundamentalists. This is the war that we pursued when we entered Afghanistan and brought down the Taliban regime that had given shelter, aid, comfort, and support to that movement. And it was the war that we neglected when the decision was made to enter Iraq and bring down the regime of Sadam Hussein.

Although we may have neglected this conflict, at least in terms of it demanding any of the public’s attention, it has not gone away. It is not a war that is fought or will be fought with major force deployments, unlike the conflict in Iraq. It may at times be raised to the levels seen in Afghanistan at the time of the destruction of the Taliban regime, but normally this will be the war of the shadows first referred to in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It is likely that this conflict will only emerge into public view when Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates or allies makes a successful attack. It is almost as likely that our own successes will not so emerge and will remain unheralded. That raises, in fact, the likelihood that this war will remain out of the headlines until another successful attack occurs.

In the shadows where this war is fought, our immediate need is information, the essentials of who, what, where, when, how, and why. One presumes that we are using every technical/technological means at our disposal to gather the desired information, while also confronting the difficult challenge of improving our human intelligence effort against this most difficult of targets. However, the shortage of people who speak the various forms of Arabic and other languages spoken by Al Qaeda operatives and their allies does limit our ability to make the fullest possible use of the information that we might be gathering.

Our striking power consists primarily of the special operations units of the Armed Forces but also whatever other forces that can be called upon by the U.S. and by its Allies. At the pointy-end (an old-fashioned phrase dating from the era of the bayonet), that striking power might look like one of the night-vision goggle wearing warriors in armored vests and full kit that we are accustomed to seeing on the television news or on those cable channels that specialize in programs on military affairs and technology. It might also look like a missile or other smart weapon homing in on a target from out of the heavens – if that blow is even seen before it lands.

There can be no doubt that Al Qaeda, its allies, friends, and even rivals have been hurt by our efforts since 9/11. They have suffered losses in trained personnel and they have lost the base and training facilities they once enjoyed in Afghanistan. Communications within Al Qaeda and within the terrorist world in general are more difficult due to the loss of those facilities and bases but also because they are trying to keep us from reading their mail or even knowing who is communicating with whom. They also want to deny us the ability to read any communications that might come into our hands – other than those taped messages that are intended both for us and for their sympathizers, supporters, and allies. However, this is a patient, determined, and inventive opponent. They are willing to launch operations at whatever targets they can reach, meaning so far those beyond the continental United States, while still working at again reaching out and touching the number one enemy again in a dramatic and probably unexpected fashion, and they are willing to wait for their opportunities and are determined to stay in this struggle for the long haul.

To the best of my recollection, the best historical example of such a prolonged conflict and possibly one of the best, i.e. most effective, practioners of such a war in the shadows were the Byzantines – the Eastern Roman Empire with its capitol in what is today Istanbul. Their abilities for conducting this type of war and the way in which they did it are reportedly reflected today in our usage of the very word ‘Byzantine’ to refer to any intricate exercise in scheming and intrigue. Frankly, I do not know as much about their efforts in this regard as I would like to so I am off to find out more about it. Any suggestions for reading material on the subject would be welcomed and I will be happy to share any recommendations with the permission of the suggestor.

"Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action." Johann von Goethe

1 comment:

rei ulysses said...

Col. Mary Sheldon Rose of the Virginia Military Institute specializes in ancient intelligence. You might be interested in her research.