There's been a flurry of commentary and scholarship examining the idea that the 2001 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) enabled a new kind of fluid, boundary-skipping form of warfare. Some observe that the conflict against al-Qaeda and associated movements (AQAM) involves multiple political and spatial contexts. We balance between the interiority of the homeland, the exteriority of the battlefield, and a set of other spaces distinguished by the degree they permit access and power projection. All of these spaces are linked together by communication technologies, logistics networks, and financial flows.
From the late 1990s onwards, the disaggregated nature of emerging threats stimulated US government interest in interagency cooperation and networked military and security organizations. The refrain is familiar: an allegedly new threat requires novel methods that cross interagency lines and crack bureaucratic rice bowls. Of course the threat, while novel in character, is not entirely new. Similarly, the spate of analyses warning of unprecedented counterterrorist warfare reflect the same wrongheaded assumption: AQAM is the only opponent political communities have fought whose uneven geography poses political, legal, and strategic challenges. Hence America's war against al-Qaeda sets a dangerous new trend.
The historical record does not support this narrative. War beyond borders is actually more common than it might seem in today's very state-centric world. Transnational threats have never fit comfortably in neat political or legal categories, and states have often embraced unorthodox operating methods and organizations to enhance their security. Let’s start with a deep dive: in the premodern world, pirates, nomads, and secret societies were both geographically fluid and highly mobile. The anarchist writer Hakim Bey idolized the Assassins because they defied established borders and laws to create their own secret realm:
Across the luster of the desert & into the polychrome hills, hairless & ochre violet dun & umber, at the top of a desiccate blue valley travelers find an artificial oasis, a fortified castle in saracenic style enclosing a hidden garden. ...As guests of the Old Man of the Mountain Hasan-i Sabbah they climb rock-cut steps to the castle. Here the Day of Resurrection has already come & gone--those within live outside profane Time, which they hold at bay with daggers & poisons.
Bey argued that the Assassins and pirate communities were disaggregated communities of free spirits living in fortified sanctuaries; separated by oceans of sand and sea. In turn, nomadic powers moved as diffuse clouds throughout large landmasses and lived parasitically off of settled peoples. The Tartar peoples, Clausewitz observed, also constituted a collective warmaking entity that did not observe the neat separation between political, economic, and military divisions of labor common to states and empires.
How did states and other political communities respond? You might be surprised how little really has changed. Pirates and bandits were regarded as "enemies of humanity" and were treated harshly. Sovereign boundaries were transgressed to capture non-state enemies that took refuge within settled political communities. Established legal and political concepts stress that only states have the “rightful authority” to wage war. Great powers also established counterterrorism networks and shared intelligence since the late 19th century. Upset about privatized war or the Human Terrain System? Contractor support, native intelligence networks, and targeted killings were also old hat to Army officers involved with the Indian Wars and Pancho Villa expedition.
States may not want to admit that non-state networks can wage war against them, but transnational enemies won’t go away. States themselves use similar methods to mobilize power across borders, as Robert Kaplan observed of Iran's "virtual empire" of proxies and intelligence operators. The Soviet Union had a far-reaching global network of spies, client states, and proxies and the West feared the Comintern’s capacity for ideological subversion long before it feared the Soviet military.
It’s hard not to conclude that World War II also stands as a giant rebuke to the idea that the global war on terror poses a unique challenge to questions of borders, neutrality, legality, and politics. As my blogmate Dan noted, Axis naval, air, and mechanized power projection capabilities necessitated operating in neutral territory and sometimes invading and controlling entire states. Iran, Iceland, and Norway are just a few of the places that came under Allied power. World War II is also a case of "complex" war against a coalition held together by transnational ideologies. The Germans ruled a group of fascist states and non-state networks, and the Japanese and their local allies fought to establish a pan-Asian system radiating out from Tokyo.
The West countered the complex threat by generating a astounding variety of interagency collaboration and hybrid organizations. Stanley McChrystal would be more at home during WWII than the Iraqi surge. Collaborative interagency research, analysis, and operations groups were assembled to plan economic warfare, crack codes, analyze adversary strategic culture, and assess asymmetric threats like the German U-Boat offensive. Indeed, WWII was also the heyday of groups ranging from covert operations organizations like the Office of Strategic Services and Special Operations Executive to oddball groups of mercenaries like the Flying Tigers.
Just because the threat is old does not necessarily mean that we have a universal template that will erase the complicated political and strategic problems inherent in this kind of warfare. The AUMF is broad and wide-ranging because politicians and the public perceive that the threats are similarly unbounded. But that perception alone should not be a justification for hurrying down every rabbit hole and wasting resources and lives in the process. Policy and strategy can help clarify objectives and make them sustainable over time. Trying to develop a better understanding of the relationships between local and global threats is also necessary to avoid needless conflict, as are rigorous analysis of the effects of various political-military methods.
What is not useful is an ahistorical narrative of unprecedented and spatially unbounded warfare that ignores the long record of states going beyond borders to fight threats to national security. One cannot expect politicians and security officials castigated for a failure to "connect the dots" and counter transnational threats before 9/11 to react sympathetically to such rhetoric. Pakistan exports terror abroad and is unwilling and unable to curb such negative externalities. Hence Pakistan's hue and cry over its sovereignty has fallen on deaf ears.
The real risks lie in strategy and policy, not necessarily geography. What is the US theory of victory? How do we know who the enemy is? How do we know we are winning or losing? Are the costs of our effort sustainable? Are our targets enemies or bystanders we attack out of ignorance? The answers to these questions are still elusive. But the US public deserves to know, whether the enemy has a flag and capitol or hides in the shadows.