Dividing our enemies (Joint Special Operations University and the Strategic Studies Department)

01 Nov 2005


Dr. Thomas H. Henriksen provides us with historical insights of the benefits and difficulties of implementing strategic concepts for Dividing Our Enemies. He suggests that understanding and leveraging the human fault lines to counter terrorism can sometimes be an important complement to, or even substitute for, Special Operations Forces’ direct action tactics and larger battles of annihilation. Overwhelming fire is likely to be much less effective by itself in today’s global fight against violent extremism than other approaches that can take advantage of the political divisions among insurgents and terrorists.

Henriksen’s review of some past and recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that Special Operations Forces are probably exploiting the right strategic vision for our Global War on Terrorism. The use of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to counter the Taliban forces was unique to that historical setting. Yet it is “certainly a historically viable stratagem,” Henriksen suggests, with likely application in places like the Philippines, Africa, and Central Asia. The vital role played by SOF in engaging the Kurdish opponents to Hussein’s government during the Persian Gulf War and the SOF actions during Operation Provide Comfort presaged the Kurdish revolt in the mid-1990s and Kurdish help again in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom as US forces moved unopposed into Kirkuk. 

The downside of attempting to use factions against one another is seen in our strategic blunder in Fallujah in the spring of 2004, when successfully advancing US Marines were ordered to withdraw from that city and the Baathist-run Fallujah Brigade was put in charge to police the town. This resulted in angered Kurdish and Shiite leaders, a sanctuary for terrorist extremist Abu Musab Zarqawi, and an operational and moral back-slide for US forces. Henriksen points out that exacerbating Sunni–Shia division would contravene our vision for a viable democratic government in Iraq, but that in line with our global campaign against terrorist extremists, exploiting the rivalries or animosities among the insurgent bands clearly meets our goals.

Henriksen’s paper invites the SOF reader to revisit established doctrine for Foreign Internal Defense and Internal Defense and Development along with the complex issues about how to divide and conquer. It is likely that the intelligence needed for exploiting the differences among our enemies will result from these on-the-ground operations. And while lacking the glamour of direct action missions, the effects of special operations teams on the ground conducting unconventional warfare, psychological operations, and civil military operations are absolutely central to achieving an end-state of realizing democratic and viable governments. These are the special operations ways and means that can lead to successfully “leveraging inherent human fault lines to counter terrorism … ,” as Henriksen writes. SOF warriors will agree that having our enemies eliminate each other offers advantages over slug-it-out methodologies.

Lt Col Michael C. McMahon, USAF Director, Strategic Studies Department October 2005

Read more: https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/2005/0511_jsou-report-05-5.pdf