TSG IntelBrief: Power and Force
October 4, 2013

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As of early October 2013, our geopolitical universe continues to mirror the physical universe. At the sub-atomic level, the galaxies, along with the individual stars and planets that comprise them, are composed of little more than energy and information. Similarly, if we were to search for the fundamental building blocks of our geopolitical universe, we would also find these same two forces at play. In a world shaped not by the laws of physics but rather by the influence of politics, economics, diplomacy, and military capabilities, we are awash in both energy (which can manifest itself in such recognizable forms as alliances, monetary policies, and arms) and information (which may appear as national security strategies, narratives, and social media).

Energy and information can be employed in a variety of creative ways to achieve geopolitical objectives. History suggests, however, that these approaches generally fall into two primary categories: forcing and fostering. Through economic sanctions or military action, we try to force our adversary to bend to our desires. And when they do, it is almost always because they were left with no other reasonable alternative. By offering economic support or protection under our military umbrella, we hope to foster cooperation in achieving shared goals. And when they offer that cooperation, they do so because it is a more attractive option that others available to them. Therein lies the fundamental difference between force and power.

Traditional Eastern philosophy has long endorsed the idea of fostering as the ultimate form of power, while dismissing the employment of force as a viable means for securing an objective. The master strategist Sun Tzu, for example, once wrote, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Consistent with that theme, Lao Tzu, the legendary sage who is thought to have penned the timeless Tao Te Ching, offers a similar thought: “Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

In our review of this week’s IntelBriefs, lets explore how the building blocks of our geopolitical world—energy and information—are being used to generate either force or power. What we find is sure to speak volumes about how each scenario is likely to develop.

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In Monday’s IntelBriefAl-Qaeda 3.0: Reinvention, Resilience, and Counter Narratives, we presented a detailed examination of al Qaeda’s evolution since orchestrating the horrific 9/11 attacks. Although it retains its iconic status—the name alone has become nearly synonymous with terrorism—its capabilities and, more importantly, its influence have substantially waned. The reputation al Qaeda 1.0 created for staging spectacular, meticulously planned, and carefully coordinated attacks, along with its vigorous propagation of a global narrative that painted Islam as being under attack from the West, earned it a steady supply of supporters, resources, and financing. Although it had begun with a narrow-minded emphasis on force alone, through the energy of its attacks and the information of its narrative, al Qaeda achieved a level of power that was unprecedented among terrorist groups.

But this status also placed al Qaeda at the center of the global counterterrorism radar. Force applied by the West was generated through a combination of energy  (drone strikes) and information (intelligence collection). To a substantial degree, this forcing strategy proved successful in diminishing al Qaeda’s ability to operate. Rather than attempt a return to its prior operational status, however, al Qaeda 2.0 learned to effectively balance its primary objectives with the competing interests of a rapidly growing network of affiliates.

It can be argued that al Qaeda has shifted from operating with an emphasis on force, to one that seeks to secure a level of power that may now be beyond its reach. Where it once was considered the archetype of the effective modern extremist group—one capable of projecting force with a global reach—it now hopes to shape events through a fostering strategy built upon its role as a guide and source of inspiration. But the contrast between al Qaeda 1.0 and its 3.0 version is so striking—with the latter appearing much less powerful than the former in both the operational and informational domains—that its weakened efforts to foster unified action in support of its once dominant narrative makes it appear as if it is incapable of either projecting force or generating power.

In Tuesday’s IntelBriefRouhani, US-Iran Relations, and the Nuclear Issue, we described the manner in which Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, is seeking to skillfully maneuver along the narrow chasm that separates force and power. From a purely practical level, Iran’s ability to project force regionally or globally pales in comparison to the collective capabilities of the Western nations currently aligned against it. This is not to say that Iran is either weak or vulnerable; rather, it is simply to highlight the fact that a country that opts to employ force as a means of achieving its national interests must have the ability (suspected or proven) to do so now, not through an uncertain future capability (such as its long-desired nuclear weapons capability). While Iran continues its struggle to create that capability, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and (almost certainly) Israel already possess the substantial force presented by a tested nuclear arsenal. What Iran requires—and what Rouhani is seeking to obtain through his recent visit to the United Nations—is power. In this regard, Iran finds itself on more familiar territory.

The telephone call between President Obama and President Rouhani was a major event. While the international community expected President Obama to agree to such a high-level connection, President Rouhani leveraged the mystery that surrounds Tehran’s geopolitical affairs to win substantial points for his willingness to bridge that longstanding divide. In addition to reducing the simmering tensions between his country and the US, Rouhani also took the unprecedented step of reaching out to the world’s Jewish population (to include comments that both recognized and deplored the Holocaust).

Contrast is a powerful factor in shaping perceptions, and perceptions are a critical element of any   strategy designed to build power. In this regard, Rouhani is masterfully using the glaring contrast between himself and his predecessor, the anachronistic, bombastic, and seemingly xenophobic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Where Ahmadinejad tried unsuccessfully to achieve his ends through the use (or threat) of force, Rouhani appears to understand the more nuanced, yet ultimately more influential, use of power.

In Wednesday’s IntelBriefCommunal Conflict and India’s 2014 National Elections, we described an all-too-common example of force being employed in the pursuit of power. The recent eruption of violence between the Hindu and Muslim populations in an area just north of the nation’s capital left 48 people dead and thousands displaced. The violence was reportedly set in motion by a teenaged Muslim boy’s verbal harassment of a Hindu girl. The result was a sadly predictable chain of events that led to a lethal cycle of familial revenge. The force of violence in this instance was rapidly transformed into a bid for power as the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought to leverage the religious conflict into political energy through the influence of information.

As we noted in our report, Indian politicians have been “opportunistically manipulating communal divisions” since the founding of the nation (and, we should note, this is not a dynamic peculiar to India). In this instance, a BJP legislator ensured that a staged video—one purportedly showing a  street lynching of two Hindu men—made the rounds so as to incite additional anger within the Hindu community. In this case, the information surrounding the use of force (real in the case of the verbal harassment or imagined in the case of the staged lynchings) can be used to generate political energy that, in the great truism of politics everywhere, can lead to a desperate grab for power.

Thursday’s IntelBriefAl Shabab’s Split and the Qaeda Influence at Westgate Mall, provided yet another classic case study relating to the use of force in the pursuit of power. Ascribing the motivation for al-Shabab’s attack on the Nairobi shopping mall to the organization’s desire for revenge against Kenya—specifically for the role played by that country’s troops in undermining al-Shabab’s capabilities and territorial control inside Somalia—is supported by both history and trend lines. But in geopolitics, there are both reasons and real reasons, with the struggles for power always seeming to lingering on the margins of the real reasons.

In early 2012, al-Shabab’s leadership (a title that suggests more power and precision than it actually carries within the fractured organization) announced a formal merger between al-Shabab and al-Qaeda. This announcement, however, was not well-received by the entire membership, with some taking exception to the influence that would be ceded to “foreigners.” In the domain of information—especially in regard to strategic narratives—al-Qaeda’s key interests were not viewed as dovetailing very well with those within al-Shabab whose primary interest was in defeating the government in Mogadishu.

As we noted in our report, “The  Nairobi mall attack was likely perpetrated by the foreign extremists that have been participating in Somalia’s war.” The attack could therefore be described as the use of force in the attempt to project power beyond Somalia while doing little to enhance the organization’s power within its home country. And the disconnect between al-Shabab’s longstanding strategic interests and those it allegedly embraces in the aftermath of its “merger” with al Qaeda is already leading to a struggle for power within the organization, one that will almost certainly be settled with force.

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The quote from the Tao Te Ching cited above can be found in a chapter that addresses a somewhat ironic—and certainly counterintuitive—element of human nature: “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

Using the terminology and the philosophical construct this passage sets forth, the challenge—whether it comes in the form of countering extremist narratives, orchestrating the rapprochement between two contentious nations, resolving religious-based violence, or settling intraorganizational discord—the pursuit of power too often involves the use of force over others rather than addressing our own shortfalls. This, in turn, arises from an obsession with knowing everything possible about our potential adversaries while become effectively blind to what we have become.

Against this background it thus becomes relatively easy to understand that in any calculus involving energy and information, if either factor is negative, the product will be substantially diminished.

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The Soufan Group’s world-class network of intelligence analysts produces specialized geopolitical and risk assessment products tailored to the unique needs of our clients in the public and private sectors. We welcome the opportunity to discuss your requirements and explore how our intelligence services can assist you in achieving your strategic objectives. For more information, please contact us at: info@soufangroup.com

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