Keeping an Eye on America's Real Enemies

Lt. Gen Michael Flynn has valuable insights on keeping threats in the proper perspective.

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Department of Defense's Defense Intelligence Agency Director, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 11, 2013, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats.

Defense One has recently run two fascinating pieces about the views of Army Lt. General Michael Flynn, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The first article, which ran back at the end of October, was an interview between the Flynn and James Kitfield.

Flynn called al-Qaeda a "growth market" and added that the inability of some societies to take care of social issues and rapid urbanization will probably compound the problem. He notes that:

As recently as 1900 there were only 16 cities in the world with a population of over 1 million people, all of them roughly in the northern hemisphere. By 2010 there were 442 cities worldwide with a population over 1 million, and that number is projected to grow to 700 megacities by 2050, with the vast majority in the southern hemisphere in places with weak governance and high unemployment. Some of these regions are stagnating from a sheer lack of talent to even stand up a government. That rapid urbanization will put an emphasis on military operations driven by intelligence and precision.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

He also notes that the conflict in Syria is exacerbating this problem and that:

Some of the foreign fighters in Syria will go back to their own countries at some point, and they will not only have a voice, but they will have credibility with many young people. We're already seeing that in the Middle East, in South Asia and in Africa. So we have to acknowledge that the operational environment is fundamentally changing. The threat is not just al Qaeda.

These threats will need to be handled with all elements of national power. But he worries about budgetary infighting in Washington. He stated:

I don't worry about people in the field or forward-deployed military organizations forgetting those lessons. What I do worry about is Washington D.C., because bureaucracies in this town act in funny ways. There's this tendency to view Washington as at 'the center' of things, with everything else happening out there on 'the edge.' But the edge is where really important things are happening, which means we need to change the mindset in Washington. Those people and organizations in the field should be seen as the center of gravity. We need to make them the centerpiece of everything we do.

The second article, by Stephanie Gaskell, highlights comments Flynn made at a conference at the Brookings Institution this week. He reiterated his nervousness about elements of the U.S. government working together stating that, "If there's something that keeps me up at night, it would be our inability to work together, as a group of national security, intelligence, law enforcement, that nations that we partner with, together. If there's a crack out there, it could be in one of those places where somebody decides we can do this alone. And if there's one thing that we know, we cannot do any of this alone."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

The proliferation of technology and the use of services like Twitter and Facebook create a lot of message traffic ("noise") to sift through. But he also cautioned about propping up the threat of al-Qaeda. He noted that:

I learned at the beginning of my time in the military: Never make an enemy 10 feet tall. Because I think as good as we are, we're not. And so they're not 10-feet tall. They are defeatable as an organization. What we have to understand is what's the true nature of it? What are the underlying conditions that allow them to thrive in these environments where we see them thrive?

These are important insights. While al-Qaeda and extremists are not the only threats to U.S. national security, they are important threats and still maintain capabilities that could create large problems for U.S. citizens and interests both at home and abroad. The radical extremists only have to get lucky, while elements of the U.S. government are expected to be perfect. Let's hope that competing interests of the diminishing slices of the budgetary pie won't cause various elements of the government to keep their eyes on the real enemies.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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