America's Most Dangerous Future Enemies

October 8, 2003

America's Most Dangerous Future Enemies

When they prepare to wage America's future wars, the military planners who are tasked with judging the level of enemy resistance should not just consider the morale, military proficiency or material resources of those they will confront.


When they prepare to wage America's future wars, the military planners who are tasked with judging the level of enemy resistance should not just consider the morale, military proficiency or material resources of those they will confront. They should instead also ask if their enemy has an overtly historical perspective upon the cause for which they fight, a perspective that is at odds with that of a society whose own outlook is shaped more by its technological sophistication

Any such distinction between ‘technological' and ‘historical' perspectives may at first sight appear unlikely. Many societies enjoy both the fruits of modern-day technology, while also viewing the world from the viewpoint of the past: contemporary Serbs drive cars and watch television in the same way as their American counterparts. But a preoccupation with material comfort more than the discovery or assertion of an historically defined identity also engenders very different timescales, since one lives in a culture of immediacy and instantaneity while the other sees his contemporary condition from a much longer-term perspective.



This clearly makes one such society much more resilient than the other. Whereas modern technology has raised very high expectations of immediate action and result and, by consequence, created short attention spans, an individual who sees his own experience from an overtly historical perspective is, for several reasons, likely to prove a resilient foe against an adversary geared up for quick success and harboring only limited patience. In a hypothetical scenario, politicians would in this situation come under public pressure to abort an ongoing military campaign, sacrificing credibility at the altar of public opinion.

The most obvious example in this regard was the Kosovo air war of March-May 1999. For while American leaders and the general public always expected the Serbs to quickly cave and accept the exacting demands laid down at the Rambouillet Conference, Serbian attitudes were instead shaped by a very different perspective upon events. Kosovo was deemed an integral part of Serbia as a result of long historical experiences that began in the seventh century and continued during the long era of Ottoman rule that Prince Lazar had failed to end in the great battle of 1389. For the majority of Serbs, the issue of who ruled Kosovo was addressed not just in a language of nationalism, by references to "fatherland" and "nation", but of historical nationalism. "Such views," wrote the U.S. ambassador to Belgrade, Warren Zimmerman, in 1989, "were prevalent throughout Serbian society, from shopkeepers to peasant farmers to journalists."

Most of all, such a perspective both reflected and fostered a sense of fighting for a righteous cause. Moreover, such a perspective engenders resilience by fostering an awareness that others before them have survived similar hardships and discomforts as those of the present moment, just as many Serbs drew constant parallel with the Nazi invasion of April 1941 and urged their fellow patriots to show the same defiance. Others also drew inspiration from the fact that earlier testing moments had enjoyed happy endings, ones that by implication they could now look forward to if they showed similar fortitude.

The unexpected resilience of the Serbs brought them within a whisker of success against the world's most technologically sophisticated power that could not have sustained its 78-day air war for much longer than it did.

Today's Battle and Tomorrow's Victory

Another reason why ‘technological' and ‘historical' perspectives come into conflict is the tendency of the former to erroneously conflate a battlefield victory with longer-term victory. For instead of buttressing battlefield victories with the much longer-term task of nation-building, a more technologically-orientated society is apt to divert its resources elsewhere, led by the limited attention spans of both its leaders and the general public, and leaving their initial victories dangerously vulnerable to regional enemies.

Some future enemies, by contrast, may have a much longer-term conception of ‘victory', one that may not just be a pragmatic reaction to overwhelming American superiority in the field but a reflection of a radically different sense of time on the part of an individual or society who downplays the importance of a particular moment, and instead sees it in the context of a much wider framework.

Consider, for example, the overtly historical perspective of Al-Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden has made repeated references to the "humiliation and disgrace" that Islam has suffered for "more than eighty years" to the "Crusaders" of the West, and to the one-time greatness of Al-Andalus (pre-Conquista Spain). American actions, he also claimed as he launched his 1998 fatwa against America and her ‘agents', were only "the latest and greatest of those (injuries)… incurred by Muslims since the death of the Prophet."

Viewed in this way, a particular moment is only a mere part of a much longer-term cycle. Bin Laden's accomplice, Dr. Al-Zawahiri looks to the future by arguing that "all movements go through a cycle of erosion and renewal, but it is the ultimate result that determines the fate of a movement: either extinction or growth." Correspondingly, the vocabulary of ‘perseverance' and ‘patience' permeates the language of Al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri repeatedly urges Muslims to target the West "no matter how much time and effort such operations take", while Bin Laden advises his followers "to be patient in the jihad" because "victory will be achieved with patience". Al-Zawahiri's aim of "targeting the hinges" of the Western economy is probably also a very-long term ambition to gradually undermine the confidence of the financial markets in U.S. investments.

But there could be no clearer contrast than the failure of the Bush Administration to support the fragile Karzai regime in Afghanistan, instead of targeting Iraq, and then to prematurely declare hostilities against Saddam Hussein over, just as casualties were beginning to mount.

The uncomfortable truth about modern technology is that, while it has brought Western countries unparalleled standards of comfort and convenience, it has also rendered us curiously vulnerable to the designs of our enemies.


Roger Howard is a British defense journalist.  His book on 'America's Next Middle East War' will be published by Zed Books (London and New York) in Spring 2004.