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 al-Qaida. 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida'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 Zedong had to do so, and so did Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, in the famous New Economic Policy 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-Qaida'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 flipside of the decentralization 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.
I am assuming that the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq and bin Laden himself are wise enough to want to reverse course in Anbar province, de-emphasize their extremist program and return to a broad front strategy. That assumption may be in error. They may be as detached from reality as their fanatical fighters, moved by the same fanaticism to enact their program prematurely. If so, our job of defeating them in Iraq will be all the easier -- which does not necessarily move us closer to seeing a state re-emerge in Iraq.
But if my assumption is valid and al-Qaida's leadership wants to change course but cannot, we may have found a seam in 4GW entities we can exploit. It will not exist in all 4GW organizations; gangs, for example, often have tight top-down discipline. Where they are de-centralized, however, this dynamic of imposing their program prematurely may prevail widely. If that proves to be the case, then these entities will carry within them the seed of their own destruction. Our strategy, in turn, must allow this dynamic to play itself out, which means we must de-escalate and take the pressure off.
As is true of most Fourth Generation theory, it is too soon to know if this insight is valid. But if we are to learn how to defeat Fourth Generation enemies, this is the sort of question we must continually ask about Fourth Generation war. We must constantly seek seams in our opponents that allow us to fold them back on themselves, or permit them to fold back on themselves with us careful not to get in their way as they do so.
It is greatly to the credit of the Marines in Anbar province that they have learned that inaction is a form of action. Making that realization part of our doctrine for 4GW could in turn represent a real step forward.
(William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.)