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Battle Plan

Former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel Ralph Peters outlines nine strategies for understanding, fighting, and defeating the new enemy. Rule #1: Culture is king.

Ralph Peters is an expert on the covert, the classified, and the catastrophic.

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A former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, he spent the late 1980s skulking through the Soviet Union, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and South America as a foreign area officer assigned to gather sensitive information about hostile territories. For the past decade, he’s been busy tapping into terrorism chat rooms, attending international defense seminars, and imaging the unimaginable as the author of eight spine-tingling novels, including Traitor (Avon Books, 2000) and The Devil’s Garden (Avon Books, 1999). In short, Ralph Peters knows his villains — and his heroes.

He also knows that war today is a bewildering reality that pits ponderous, bureaucratic coalitions against small bands of fighters who don’t recognize traditional rules of warfare — the sort of fighters we came to know all too well on September 11. To confront these new foes, large military establishments must devise new strategies and new rules of engagement, Peters says in his 1999 nonfiction debut, Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? (Stackpole Books) — a chilling analysis of war and peace in an age of unknown enemies and uncertain outcomes.

“In a way, Islam is the ultimate bureaucracy, so laden with arcane rules and practices that it cannot adapt to survive,” says Peters, who retired from his Pentagon post in early 1998. “But on a tactical level, the Islamic terrorists have proved much more nimble because they are largely unconstrained by law, by national boundaries, and by bureaucratic rules. They certainly have organizational procedures and approval chains, but they can react more flexibly and swiftly than any government.”

In a recent conversation with Fast Company, Peters outlined key tactics for understanding, fighting, and defeating the new, nimble enemy. Though many of his military principles apply beyond the battlefield, Peters is the first to point out that “at the end of the day, the military is about killing people, and business is about profits. Those are pretty different objectives.” Here are Peters’s nine strategies for victory in his own words.

Know Your Enemy

Understanding the culture of the target — whether it’s a hostile enemy during wartime or an audience of consumers — is the best strategy for success. The terrorists who struck on September 11 were surprisingly ignorant about American culture. They intended to punish us, to shame us, and to triumph over us. They thought that they could terrorize us with impunity, and they thought that September 11 would intimidate us. They totally misread their target audience.

The terrorists certainly wounded us and hurt our pride, but Americans aren’t cowardly. When we’re aroused, we’re actually pretty mean and savage. I don’t think Osama bin Laden ever expected our response to include bombers over Afghanistan. He didn’t expect us to retaliate with the resolve we have already shown. Now the terrorists are playing into our hands by continuing to do vicious things that make Americans angrier and more dedicated to victory. Did the terrorists do something that gained them tremendous attention but that will ruin them in the long run? I think they did.

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Conversely, America must understand the terrorists’ culture in order to anticipate their actions and understand why they do what they do. Inside knowledge won’t help us come to any accommodation with bin Laden, but it will help us defeat him more easily.

Yet America continues to misread Islamic fundamentalists. For all the rhetoric of the past month, Americans still don’t realize how incoherently and deeply we are hated. these fundamentalists do hate us. And they don’t want to understand. They aren’t interested in being converted. They’re interested in having someone to blame. They want someone to be guilty for their failures, and America is the obvious target.

Crunch More Than Numbers

The American culture is innately self-critical. With self-criticism, you get self-knowledge and an understanding of why things work. Statistics are very important to our companies and our government, because they help us learn how to improve. But too often we satisfy our intelligence demands by memorizing facts.

You’ve got to reach beyond the facts to understand the mentality. And that is very, very hard. By and large, we content ourselves with learning the externals, but we rarely penetrate the internals of the enemy. If we focus only on the terrorists’ behaviors, we will miss their souls.

Invest in Leaders

The great paradox of the 21st century is that, in this age of powerful technology, the biggest problems we face internationally are problems of the human soul. Though the terrorists made pretty good use of technology — from jet aircraft to cell phones to computers — their basic strength was human. They were willing to die for their beliefs.

So our strength must be a resolve to know what must be done, and to develop the skills to do it. Military operations today have a police-work quality in the sense that our troops are trying to sort out the bad people from the good and to stop killing, rape, robbery, and ethnic cleansing. You can’t do that stuff from 20,000 feet, no matter how good your airplanes are. I’m all for technology, but so many problems today require very skilled, intelligent, well-trained, and determined soldiers who can make good, quick decisions.

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Ultimately, this war will come down to very well-trained American and British soldiers going into caves or into the back alleys of Kandahar to drag the terrorists out. Technology will do a great deal for you, but it won’t give you the courage and resolve to root terrorists out of their holes. Only good leaders can do that.

Release Your Dead Weight

Bureaucracies never embrace efficiency of their own accord. On the eve of World War II, as the Nazi blitzkrieg stormed across Poland, the proudest unit in the United States Army was the 1st Cavalry Division — upper-crust officers who rode horses and were reluctant to get motor oil on their riding britches.

General Marshall, a clear-eyed man, began to force what change he could, but it took Pearl Harbor to blast the last reactionaries out of their mental concrete bunkers. At the beginning of World War II, Marshall had to fire hundreds of generals and colonels because they didn’t get it. Some were too old and physically unfit. Others just couldn’t adapt to the future’s requirements. To win the war on terrorism today, we’re going to have to fire a bunch of the top brass because they’re not fighters — they’re bureaucrats.

Establish Clear, Flexible Objectives

You cannot play by textbook rules when your opponent either hasn’t read the book or has thrown it away. But you must enter conflict with clear objectives. Before a single soldier deploys, you must clearly and responsibly articulate the problem at hand and the steps required to bring about a solution.

Craft a plan, but be realistic and accept that the best plan in the world changes as soon as you begin to act on it. Your objectives must be flexible enough to change. If the Taliban falls but the Northern Alliance starts massacring people, our initiatives would change drastically. It’s a matter of balance and moderation.

Harness Fear, Use It

Where you cannot be loved, you must be feared.

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September 11 was a monstrous act for which we must take revenge. Politically, President Bush can’t say that we’re going to take revenge on these guys, but that’s what we’re going to do. And we need to because it’s psychologically important. Revenge is necessary sometimes when the acts committed against you are so hideous.

America fights for abstract values. Increasingly, our enemies fight for God and revenge. If we want to tamp down terrorism to the smallest level, we have to make a brutal example of Al Qaeda, everybody in it, and every network related to it. We have to be ready to tear down one or more governments that support terrorism. If we aren’t willing to make a severe example of the guilty, we will only encourage them.

It’s a harsh doctrine, and I know it sounds cold, but if you aren’t willing to put the fear of the United States into all the would-be supporters of terrorism — if you’re not willing to make them afraid of you — this problem is going to go on forever.

Defeat the Warlords, Beware the People

I wish that we could buy Osama bin Laden a Coke and have a good conversation, but that just won’t work. The United States has to eradicate these hard-core fanatics and killers. If Al Qaeda could push a button and instantly kill every man, woman, and child in America, they would push that button without hesitation and call it a good day’s work. Americans are starting to come to terms with that reality, but it’s tough for us. We’re dealing with an enemy that regards us as infidels whom God wants destroyed. When some fanatic imagines God is whispering in his ear, the voice of reason isn’t going to have much effect.

We have to wipe out the warlords and simultaneously try to win over the populace, which will be more difficult. It’s quite possible that if we do things right in Afghanistan, once the Taliban falls, there will be initial goodwill toward the United States. But goodwill is extremely perishable. Clans and tribes are all vying for power in that region. As soon as we turn our back, one will turn against us. It’s very shaky.

Exploit Their Weakness

The basic social, intellectual, and spiritual problem in the Islamic world is an absolute terror of female sexuality. Why else would you dress a woman from head to foot? Why would you hide her away and regard her as property? The oppression of women by Islamic countries is an appalling human-rights violation.

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Meanwhile, the advances women made in the 20th century have changed the entire course of history. The role of women has changed profoundly. Western society has done a pretty good job of coming to terms with that, but it upsets the entire worldview of the Islamic male. My personal view is that the Islamic world is a civilization where all the boys are terrified of the girls.

That’s one of the reasons I am so proud of the female soldiers and officers working on American ships stationed in the Middle East, getting those warplanes into the air over Afghanistan. The idea that our female sailors are helping to destroy the Taliban appeals to me wonderfully. We should be rubbing in it the Taliban’s face.

Make Them Choose

Bureaucracies work because humans cling to the familiar — to that with which they are comfortable. How do you say to some villager in Kandahar or Kabul, “Everything you’ve always believed in doesn’t work socially. You’re going to have to liberate your wife, to work much harder, to learn to tell fact from fiction, and to stop all this comforting nonsense about the supremacy of your religion. If you do all that, maybe in three or four generations, your country and your family will reach some level of prosperity.” That’s not a very attractive scenario. The terrorists tell the same people, “It’s not your fault; it’s the fault of the great Satan, America. And we’re going to get them.” Which one would you sign up for? It’s a no-brainer.

Much of the Islamic world has tried to have it both ways for a long time. Now they have to choose. Do they wallow in a very psychologically comfortable, medieval view of the world that is noncompetitive for the 21st century? Or do they make the more difficult decision to create a tolerant, open society with a rule of law? It’s tough, and not many are going to make the right decision.

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor.

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