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Posted on Oct 3, 2011 in War College

Ralph Peters: ‘Stupidity Isn’t a Strategy’ – Five War on Terror Lies

By Ralph Peters

September 5, 2011: Lance Cpl. Devin Ream of 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, fires his rifle during an exercise at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province. U.S. Marine Corps photo.

At the end of September, our special-operations forces and the CIA scored another big strategic win for the USA: They targeted and killed New-Mexico-born murder-mullah Anwar al-Aulaqi, al Qaeda’s most-effective English-language cheerleader and chieftain, along with his understudy, North-Carolina-spawned Samir Kahn, editor of the how-to terror webzine “Inspire.”

Immediately, the voices of appeasement rose in wails and lamentations. Setting aside the ludicrous claim that the United States Government has no right to target a known and active terrorist if he’s an American citizen, the remaining silliness won’t stop.


Whether the accusations and madcap slogans come from misguided men and women of conscience, or from the peculiar minority of Americans who loathe their own country, the fundamental problem is that this bumper-sticker approach to security challenges refuses to acknowledge historical facts—or today’s reality.

Consider these “big five” terror-age lies we hear repeated endlessly:

1. If we kill terrorist leaders, terrorists will take revenge. Well, they might like to, but capabilities have something to do with it. And killing al Qaeda’s “best and brightest” diminishes those capabilities. This is cause-and-effect at its cleanest and simplest. Yet, the loonier commentaries in the wake of the drone strike on Aulaqi and Company warned of dire consequences from terror attacks in response.

A TigerShark unmanned aerial vehicle descends to land at an undisclosed location in the U.S. Central Command area of operations following a mission June 4, 2011. A UAV was used to take out al Qaeda chieftain Anwar al-Aulaqi at the end of September. U.S. Navy photo.Wait a minute: What, exactly, do such “experts” think the terrorists have been trying to do all along? It’s not as though we poked a rattler peaceably sunning itself on a rock. Aulaqi, Kahn and their comrades have been doing all they could for years to incite and facilitate terror attacks against us. These murderers were the effective masterminds of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It defies all logic to suggest that eliminating Team Terror’s top players will make AQAP a more-dangerous opponent. While we may, indeed, see a few lone-wolf terrorists attempt to exact vengeance, killing top terrorists reduces the overall danger to our country, period.

We’ve heard the same nonsense many times before. When our forces in Iraq finally cornered and killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi—perhaps the cruelest terrorist of the decade—we were warned that the only result would be to make him a martyr and spark retaliation. Didn’t happen. When Osama bin Laden was finally killed last spring, the same voices warned that he’d become a martyr around whom the forces of terror would rally lethally. Hasn’t happened. There are no “Remember Zarqawi!” or “Osama Lives!” movements parading out of Friday mosques anywhere in the Islamic world. Al Qaeda continues to be a great slayer of its fellow Muslims, but the threat to the USA has collapsed down to schemes to fly model airplanes into the Pentagon—a long way downhill from 9/11’s complex aerial ballet of jetliners loaded with passengers and fuel.

On the other hand, review what happened when our generals heeded the voices of caution: In the spring and summer of 2004, our troops were being killed at the command of Shiite thug Moqtada al Sadr, who ran an Islamist mafia largely confined to the slums of eastern Baghdad and a few other cities in southern Iraq. We had the legal justification and the means to take out al Sadr. Timid leaders decided not to do it, since his death might have caused riots. Well, yes. There would have been several days of riots. Bloody ones, too. And then it would have been over. Instead, Moqtada al Sadr has gone on to build out his organization to become a crucial, ferociously anti-American power-broker in Iraq—and Iran’s most-important ally in the country (he still runs his mafia from his safe haven in Qom in Iran). Had we killed him when we had just cause to do it, Iraq would be a far different—and more hopeful—state today.

The bottom line? When you have the chance to kill a terrorist leader, do it.

2. We can’t kill our way out of this. We’ve even heard historically illiterate generals spout this nonsense in the interest of political correctness (and promotion). Yet, the recorded history of two thousand years of insurgencies led by religious fanatics shows that the only way out of them is to kill the hardcore believers in large numbers. Two millennia, no exceptions.

Fortunately, as our senior generals realized that their academic-thesis-driven counterinsurgency doctrine just doesn’t work, they turned to what does: Over the past four years we have increasingly focused on killing terrorists. By doing so, we have dramatically reduced the strategic threat of catastrophic attacks on our country. Employing a war-seasoned combination of intelligence assets, special-operations forces, CIA paramilitary elements and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), we decisively turned the tide against al Qaeda—an organization that, while still tactically deadly, lies in strategic ruins, decapitated, bankrupt and shorn of credibility even among Muslims. Killing terrorists works. All else is a waste of time, resources and lives.

That doesn’t mean that we’ll see an end to terror (see point five below). But we can reduce it to a statistical nuisance, rather than a cataclysmic danger. And whatever our political views, we should acknowledge President Obama’s willingness to unleash our special capabilities in our current campaign to kill terrorists leaders. He’s gotten this part right and deserves credit for it.

Marines of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, investigate a possible improvised explosive device while on a patrol in Afghansitan in 2010. U.S. Marine Corps Photo.3. War doesn’t change anything. If you need any further proof of our society’s historical illiteracy, it’s this slogan—which just won’t go away. In fact, war has been humanity’s primary means of changing on-the-ground reality since the days of myth. Certainly, war hasn’t always changed things for the better, but it is willful stupidity to claim that it doesn’t change anything. To keep the argument close to home, didn’t the American Revolution change anything? How about our Civil War? World War II? Even the Mexican-American War, wrongly regarded as a minor affair, profoundly altered the strategic reality of an entire hemisphere. One can only suppose that the befuddled citizens with bumper stickers claiming that “War doesn’t change anything” regard the establishment of democracy, the abolition of slavery, the destruction of Hitler’s regime and the like as matters too trivial to acknowledge.

4. Only a negotiated peace has any chance of success. On the contrary, negotiations with Islamist terrorists or their surrogates have no chance of success. Religious-fanatic terrorists—who believe they’re on a mission from their god—will agree to negotiate under two sets of conditions: When their backs are against the wall and they need to buy time, or when they believe they can gain their intermediate objectives through agreements they’ll break as soon as it’s convenient. And, of course, the hardest of the hardcore—the al Qaeda types—simply won’t negotiate at all. In their view, their divine mission simply isn’t subject to the least compromise. Religious fanatics, with their eyes on a pampered afterlife, have no incentive to negotiate, unless it’s for the purpose of a temporary deceit. We’re dealing with enemies who regard death as a promotion and their god’s will as implacable. And we want to placate them with power-sharing agreements and monitored elections. Negotiations are the opium of the intellectuals.

August 12, 2004. Marines of 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit man a position in Najaf, Iraq during a raid of the Muqtada Militia strong points in the area. U.S. Marine Corps photo.5. It’s all our fault. This line of argument essentially blames the George W. Bush administration for seven centuries of Arab failure (beginning with their subjugation by their Seljuk and Ottoman fellow Muslims). Slightly more-sophisticated voices hold up our Cold War–era support for dictatorships in the Muslim world as the cause of every ill. While it’s undeniable that our policies have not always been far-sighted, “all politics are local.” The Arab world, especially, wallows in a crippling culture of blame, unable to accept responsibility for its own catastrophic deficiencies. The civilization, such as it is, of the Arab Middle East, and reaching beyond it through Pakistan, lies in self-wrought collapse, unable to compete in any significant sphere of human endeavor (despite the influx of trillions of dollars in oil wealth). And blaming Western colonialism for the Arab world’s plight fails to ask why it was so easy for middling European powers to roll over the Arabs, while ignoring that the only things that really work in today’s Middle East were designed—and usually built—by Westerners. This is a motley collection of backward cultures that, in the 21st century, not only cannot build a competitive automobile but can’t build a competitive bicycle.

The Islamist terrorism we see is born of the frustrations and humiliations of pervasive failure, of the Arabs’ (and other Islamic states’) inability to govern themselves decently or even deal with sewage in capital cities. Outraged at their own grotesque inadequacy, a minority of Middle-Eastern Muslims turned to violent fanaticism. This is about inchoate rage, not reason.

That’s why this year’s “Arab Awakening” is so important: The various revolutions we’ve seen are a last chance for the Humpty-Dumpty Arab world to begin to put itself back together. The process will be frustrating, disappointing, sometimes infuriating, and miserably slow. Turmoil will continue for years, perhaps decades. Islamists will enter some governments—and will have their chance to show what they can, or cannot, do for their people. Tribal rivalries and political differences will lead to civil strife. In some states, new strong men or authoritarian regimes may re-emerge. But for all that, the region has to undergo this painful process—or continue to stagnate, with enormous human wastage and increasing radicalization. For all the attendant dangers, we need to remember that a man who believes he has a voice in his own destiny is far less likely to become a fanatical terrorist.

It’s not about us. It’s about them. We’re collateral damage.

Meanwhile, our policy toward Islamist terror is finally on track: We’re killing terrorists wherever we find them, and killing them in large numbers.

Killing works. It’s almost worth a bumper sticker.

Ralph Peters is a longtime member of the Armchair General team, a former enlisted man and retired Army officer, Fox News Strategic Analyst, and the author of the new book LINES OF FIRE: A RENEGADE WRITES ON STRATEGY, INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY. His novel, CAIN AT GETTYSBURG, a historically accurate recounting of the battle, will be published on February 28, 2012.


  1. I recommend you refrain from the cheap, anti-intellectual rhetoric. You have a good point and any person with some knowledge of history and a critical yet open mind will see that. Some well-educated people have used their education to deceive themselves into pleasant-sounding but dangerous delusions along the lines of “war is never a solution”. However, this is a result of unsufficient willingness to study and learn and insufficient willingness to admit that you do not already know -lack of intellectual humility. It is certainly not a failure of intellectualism itself or a failure of the rational and intellectual approach.


    • If not a failure of intellectualism and a rational approach, pray do tell us why it is not a failure?

  2. And… “It’s not what we ‘do…’ but what they are being TAUGHT to do.”

  3. “Setting aside the ludicrous claim that the United States Government has no right to target a known and active terrorist if he’s an American citizen”

    Before you set this aside, I’d like to hear your explanation for why it’s a ludicrous claim. In my circles, this is the primary objection; the assassination of an American citizen without due process, not your laundry list of mock-the-hippies hand-waving.

    • “In my circles, this is the primary objection; the assassination of an American citizen without due process, not your laundry list of mock-the-hippies hand-waving.”

      Due-process relates to the criminal justice system, in which punishments are applied to those convicted of crimes. It does not apply to the battlefield.

      For needless historical example, consider that battles such as Yorktown were in fact battles, and not attempts at mass arrests. Given the impracticality of arresting an opposing force, the Continental Army sought to resolve the situation by other means of satisfaction, such as ball and bayonet.

      When Awlaki decided of his own volition to join al-Qaida, he joined an organization that was engaged in a defacto war against the United States. He acted as an enemy combatant in that war and he was killed in order to stop his activities, not as punishment.

      That he was an American by citizenship grants him no more protection than it would an American citizen who wore the uniform of an enemy army, picked up a weapon, and entered battle against U.S. forces. It’s the quickest way to meet your ancestors, which is mighty handy genealogically, but no defense to receiving the vigorous application of deadly force.

      Awlaki choose to join a terrorist group that kills Americans. Awlaki is now a smoking hole. Wait a moment…


      …Yep. I’m over it.

      • If we take your analogy seriously (which really, we probably shouldn’t), I think someone ought to point out that we aren’t the Continental Army, but rather, the Redcoats; we are the force from the far side of the ocean that denies local sovereignty. My question for you, though, is whether you see a limit to the battlefield in the Islamist insurgency. As you put it, we weren’t trying to arrest anyone at Yorktown. However, I don’t think the Continental Congress asked General Washington to hang publishers of Loyalist newspapers, which is frankly much more analogous to the assassination of Mr. al-Awliki than some unfortunate lobsterback absorbing a musket round in a trench raid outside of Yorktown.

    • If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, what is it-a weasel? If these people wore the uniforms of a foreign power at war with the US would they be legitimate targets? If these same people were caught behind American having put on civilian clothing would they still be shoot for violating the Geneva Covention. All these people violate the laws of civilization. Unless one can point to reckless use of force against someone who has zero history of afvoring, aiding or abetting terrorists, I would certainly like you explain it to me.

  4. Because, really, in that one sentence, you dismiss the actual issue and spend three pages on imaginary fluff to distract us from that fact.

  5. Great article!

    Only thing I would add is that we would do well to let go of this do-gooder, nation-in-a-box fascination with counterinsurgency and propping up kleptocracies (such as the one in Kabul).

    Note: If you don’t know what the Army means by the term counterinsurgency, then you won’t understand what I’m complaining about. This is a subject of debate large enough for its own book(s), so I won’t go into it here – just know that I’m all for our forces hunting terrorists, but not so keen on some peripheral stuff that I think is a waste of lives, money, and time.

    If a particular nation-building effort has some sort of discernible benefit to the United States, fine. For example, the argument for influencing affairs in the Persian Gulf and the Levant via establishment of a relatively well-functioning government in Iraq made sense. But Afghanistan? Where a European-drawn border (Durand Line) draws an arbitrary partition between a factionalized north and its farcial southern neighbor (Pakistan – a recently invented country)? No thanks.

    As one critic of the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan pointed out, what do we get if we win? If Afghanistan becomes Boringville, Kansas tomorrow morning, will mean that Islamist terror groups will just disappear? Will al-Qaida be suddenly gone from the world? Of course not!

    So what’s the point?

    I’m all for reasonable, feasible, effective efforts in the war against al-Qaida and its affiliates, but nation-building not so much. (Not particularly crazy about TSA insanity or the Patriot Act, either)

    • Mr. Mark, whether you’re correct or not concerning the justification of nation building in Afghanistan is beyond the point. To me even more troubling is the delusion that we can turn Afghanistan around in a matter of a decade and a few years change. Killing terrorists? Yes, we can and have done that and have been quite effective at it. Shifting the cultural foundations of a fractured society we call a “nation” within a matter of years? Delusional.

  6. This is arguably the most irritating piece of sloppily written agitprop I have encountered in quite some time. From the very first paragraph, the author repeatedly resorts to begging the question and straw man arguments. The casual racism that forms the spine of his fifth “lie” is particularly odious. There is an argument to be made that a military strategy in response to a guerilla movement operating upon a globalist imperative makes sense, and that argument can be made without insulting the intelligence of a reader even faintly acquainted with the elementary principles of logic. However, Mr. Peters is apparently not the man to make such a case.

    • “From the very first paragraph, the author repeatedly resorts to begging the question and straw man arguments.”

      Such as?

      “The casual racism that forms the spine of his fifth “lie” is particularly odious.”


      • Begging the question: the point of the article is to argue for a particular strategy for dealing with al-Qa’eda and other Islamist groups, basically that we and our allies should keep killing until everyone from Morocco to the Phillippines accepts their role in an American-dominated geopolitical system. Then, in the very first sentence, Mr. Peters describes it as a big strategic win for special ops and the CIA that they have killed a couple of loathsome propagandists. In other words, Mr. Peters is assuming that which is to be proven.

        Straw Man: in the second paragraph, Mr. Peters accuses people who disagree with the assassination of Mr. al-Awliki and Mr. Khan of being “appeasers” and of “silliness”. In the same argument, he claims that he is not going to address the concern about the targeting of an American citizen who is a known terrorist, other than a brief statement that it is a ludicrous concern. But this completely misses the point of the overwhelming majority of objections to the actions. I have yet to hear of anyone making the argument that the US government lacks the power or the moral justification for going after a terrorist with a claim to American citizenship. The complaint is that there was no Due Process afforded to Messrs. al-Awliki and Khan; they were killed merely because the executive branch claimed that they were bad men. Mr. Peters never even approached this argument, he just chose the claim that no one was making that he preferred to debunk. This is a classic Straw Man argument and inherently intellectually dishonest.

        As to the casual racism, it drips from essentially every sentence mr. Peters typed in his fifth “lie”. “The Arab world wallows in a crippling culture of blame.”, “The civilization, such as it is, of the Arab Middle East and reaching beyond it through to Pakistan, lies in self-wrought collapse, unable tocompete in any human endeavor…”, “This is a motley collection of backward cultures…”. Is the racism inherent in these quoted statements really completely opaque to you?

    • JW please relieve us of this terrible agitprop and based on your own long career in the military and knowledge of COIN operations please tell what the good author has wrong? Then tell us your solution based on the nuanced facets of counter insurrgency and terrorist that you have encountered during your military career.

      Its unfortunate that we have to listen to the agigprop of veterans of high school faculty lounges and it is a treat to hear an expert such as yourself straighten out the author.

      When can we expect a response and details? By the way mention the units you served with, the dates, and COs. Just to make all those chicken hawks flee in panic.

  7. “If we take your analogy seriously (which really, we probably shouldn’t), I think someone ought to point out that we aren’t the Continental Army, but rather, the Redcoats; we are the force from the far side of the ocean that denies local sovereignty.”

    No, we’re defending our country against unprovoked attacks made by al-Qaida.

    Regardless, it is not an analogy anyway – it is historical precedent.

    “My question for you, though, is whether you see a limit to the battlefield in the Islamist insurgency.”

    No. So long as al-Qaida or its affiliates make war against the U.S., hunt them wherever they hide. Respect no sanctuary other than their surrender. However, each action must be considered in light of its specific circumstances. Sometimes, striking the enemy from the air will be the best available course of action. Sometimes there will be another course of action that is better. It will depend on the specific situation.

    • I would argue that for something to have precedential value, it must serve as an analogy, but whatever. I wonder whether you grasp what the word “unprovoked” means, or whether you are just busily ignoring our history of wholeheartedly supporting some of the worst regimes in the world as our staunch allies in the dar al-Islam.

      Anyway, if al-Qa’eda and its affiliates are making war on the US, how do they surrender? What are our victory conditions?

      • More fluff, fluff. Wars end when one side is so badly hurt has been so decimated, that peace is the only option open to them. Thus it has been, will be, and will always be.

        Your lack of substance, nor specifics rather than fling the feeces approach is both childish and symptomatic of those who employ strawman tactics and expect not to be pointed out. So if you have a problem specifiy it. If you have an alternative state it.

        Otherwise its clear that you were one of those in the French hoyse of deputies that stood and appauled when the fall of Dien Bien Phu was announced. Or put it another way, we don’t need no Canadians here.

  8. Reading the article, it’s clear that the author is full to the brim with common sense. Critical thinking will make anyone arrive at the same conclusions as the author, despite the fact that he’s being accused of racism, self inflicted ignorance, and common insults.

    The fact of the matter is that he’s absolutely right in every aspect of this article. Should Anwar al-Aulaqi and Samir Kahn have been killed? Absolutely. They ‘had’ rights as United States citizens. They knew the consequences of giving those rights up, and they willfully gave them up in exchange for their goals, which ultimately failed. The moment they gave those rights up by affiliating themselves with terrorist organizations which are foreign enemies of the United States, they were no longer citizens, but instead became enemies.

    Racism has nothing to do with his 5th lie. There is absolutely no way around centuries of political and theological history. The Arab nation has been at war with each other and everyone else since biblical times. And that honestly isn’t likely to change either, simply because the Arab society is almost entirely built around the concept of Islamic politics. And while Islam itself isn’t inherently violent, it’s instead inherently flawed. This leads to massive conflicts in theological intrust, which itself leads to massive conflicts of violence. And multiple religion based states all grouped around each other will continue this strife until there’s nothing left of themselves. (Why do you think separation of religion and state was so important to Thomas Jefferson?)

    Every one of these lies, as the author reviews, points to a policy of reaction. And in these times, a policy of reaction is a policy of a victim. And as a United States citizen, I pay taxes to pay for a military that will prevent my country from becoming a victim so that I can be proud and patriotic of the place I call home. Anyone who thinks that the alternative is a better solution is disillusioned and needs less time to think.

    • Yes, I would expect someone who argues that people should think less would be prone to agree with the author.

    • Incorrect. They were US citizens with the rights of US citizens.

      Sen. Lieberman just today introduced a bill to allow the government to strip the citizenship of Americans “providing material support or resources to a Foreign Terrorist Organization, as designated by the secretary of state, or actively engaging in hostilities against the United States or its allies.”

      Read more:

      • US law provides that anyone serving in a foreign military may have their citizenship revoked. How far is the leap to declare someone who joins terrorists in any capacity as “serving in a foreign military?”

  9. First of all americans who DISAGREE with your pov dont hate the country but the criminals running it. Its not the spirit, the essance but the criminals running it.

    Second – This guy was supposedly killed 5 times already it was announced. You want people to JUST lap it up?? AGAIN?? This guy who dined at the pentagon???

    Third your leaving out the 9-11 was an inside job just like the gulf of tonkin incident. Please dont flatter the american peoples naivete by encourgaing more self sacrificing for the MIC.

    Fourth – as soon as the govt stops running guns and drugs into and out of mexica the sooner people will stop believing their a bunch of crooks!

    Fifth – honor, duty country was not supposed to be about protecting the interests of the CROOKS in govt. were in what 7 wars now?? flush out your head gear troop! Blind obediance is what made germany a pile of rubble! And it wasnt because the troops were idiots. It was becasue they were MANIPULATED by FALSE FLAG operations.

  10. I actually agree with Ron Paul and would state that some of the Government action on The War On Terror is eroding Amercian Citizens rights through Incrementalism. I think Aliwiki being taken out without Due Process sets a bad precedent and we might as well send a Predator drone to Hanoi Jane Fonda’s place and the same with Joan Baez. Later we will just send SEAL Team 6 to snuff out anybody who disagrees with the Government. I think the Patriot Act is not very patriotic and I really do not feel better with the TSA, BATF, DEA on the loose. I think Al-Qaeda and the Taliba are winning The War On Terror by slowly turning the USA into a police state.

  11. Those who would trade essential liberties for a temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or the safety.-Benjamin Franklin.

  12. Never fight with a pig; you get dirty and the pig has fun. WSC.

    As the debate here shows, leftists are as rational as the KKK. Showing them to be wrong will only result in jibes, insults and new lies. Having studied history, the parallel to how pro-nazi Americans argued during wwii is obvious to me.

  13. Erm ..
    1. Say there is violent social strife in my country
    2. Say there are citizens of my country living in the US whose rhetoric against one side fuels that violent strife rending my country apart.
    3. So my country’s military or any other citizen of my country who fancies himself a patriot gets to take out said citizens living in the US ?
    4. And those here who cheer the Alwaki take-out willl also give the thumbs up to that ? Or will be cry be “WAR” ?
    5. Or the same rules don’t apply to others because of U.S. “exceptionalism” ?

    • So in other words a froreigner raising money for terrorists, training terrorists, recruiting them, and launding funds for them isn’t a terrorist? Cry me a river. And clearly you have no idea what exceptionalism means.

      Res ipsa loquitur


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