Monday, February 05, 2007

Terrorism - 21st Century Scourge

Terrorism is going to be the scourge of the 21st century. Almost everyone recognizes that World War II marked the end of the superpower wars - modern weapons make armed conflict between superpowers Mutually Assurred Destruction, even with reduced stocks of nuclear warheads. Even major "brushfire wars" like Korea are now pretty much out of the question for the same reason. Consequently, conflict in the 21st century will likely be limited to 1) ultra- low-probability suicidal wars initiated by rogue states like North Korea or Iran or 2) terrorist strikes by non-state religious or political groups who believe such strikes will win accomodations or exact retribution for some perceived insult.

While states like North Korea or Iran could certainly wreak havoc in a war, they would pay the ultimate price for going head-to-head with any major power. At a minimum, the ruling faction of these countries would be obliterated in short order, and their military might would be decimated. As a result, neither of these countries or others like Pakistan would seem to have much interest in an all-out war. If such a war did occur, there's a high likelihood that other potential rogue states would be dealt with pre-emptively under the "once-burned" rule (unless they pre-emptively disposed of major offensive weapons).

Terrorists face far fewer obstacles than states to initiating attacks on major countries. Although terrrorist organizations may be covertly supported by states, they are neither geographic entities nor highly centralized political entities. In order to succeed on the battlefield, they must lure an adversary into a disorganized war on territory that provides them plenty of cover (e.g., the U.S. in Iraq).

But terrorists fare best when they employ small well-disciplined forces to strike high-value targets in countries they wish to intimidate. Their tactics are the moral equivalent of carpet bombing civilian populations - their purpose is not to defeat military power directly, but to defeat a targeted society by eliminating its will to resist. Suicide bombings of highly concentrated populations are a low-tech tactic, while much more sophisticated attacks against energy infrastructure, water supplies, or transportation bottlenecks might be the preferred tactics of top terrorist groups. All these potential attacks are very dangerous, as much for their psychological impact as their "military" impact. Terrorists deal in the currency of fear.

What makes terrorist organizations so difficult to eradicate? Primarily because they hide inside non-combatant populations, populations that either tolerate or support their activities. (The toleration may be active, indifferent or coerced.) Timothy McVey was successful because he lived within an American subculture that shared his radical views and sheltered him until he emerged to bomb the Oklahoma City federal building. Radical Muslims are likely hiding inside Muslim enclaves within the major Western countries or lurking in border states where sympathetic groups exist. Fortunately, terrorist organizations have great difficulty planning and executing strikes when they lack good cover and their freedom of movement is limited.

What does this mean for the Western countries who are potential targets of terrorists? First, it means that they must do everything in their power to limit the number of places where terrorists might find cover. For example, Western countries need to support Muslims who are not aligned with terrorists - support them with foreign aid, with accurate propaganda, and with clear information about the implications for them if terrorists related to them are successful. Our campaign must be based on the idea that everyone will act in their own best interest, based on information they believe. But waving a sharp stick without also offering a nice big carrot would be counterproductive. We need to make real friends out of potential adversaries.

So we must not only avoid egregious actions that generate hostility among the rank and file, but we must also identify and pursue positive actions which are both in our national interest and their personal interest. Providing humanitarian services is a good example. This is critically important, since the terrorist front organizations are working equally hard to keep these people as allies. We need to be perceived as both powerful and friendly, always attempting to show that we are part of a future that is better for them than the one offered by terrorists.

Second, it means that we must search out and destroy terrorists wherever we find them. We need to tell our enemies, up front, that this is a war and "collateral damage" is not a major concern. That is, if you are "around them", you may be killed even if you are not a formal combatant. In other words, "knowing proximity" is enough. This is necessary not only to dispose of the bad guys, but to discourage those who might be more passive supporters. We should never make apologies for collateral damage that occurred around a legitimate target.

In summary, terrorism will be the dominant form of warfare in the 21st century simply because it is the only form of warfare that aggrieved people can pursue. Terrorism is the moral equivalent of carpet bombing civilian populations - its purpose is not to defeat military power directly, but to defeat a targeted society by eliminating its will to resist. To combat terrorism, our first goal should be to minimize the number of people who might embrace or tolerate it - by showing them both a better alternative and a potentially terrible consequence. Our second goal must be to locate and mercilessly destroy active terrorists wherever they are found. When people (terrorists) reach the conclusion that they must kill innocents without remorse, there is no room for negotiation. In the end, we must hope that a combination of effective surveillance and effective communication will end the scourge of terrorism that we face in the coming century.


Dave said...

Applying this analysis to Iraq, regardless of why we are there, doesn't it require us to stay and expand the military, social and economic effort?

ThomasLB said...

Iraq is already facing "terrible consequences" and the violence just gets worse and worse. Palestine has faced "terrible consequences" for generations; all it has done is entrench the hatred. The Nazis used "terrible consequences" against the French resistance, but they never crumbled.

We have huge numbers of people with little to gain and nothing to lose, and I think making their lives even more awful and violent is just going to make things worse. They aren't afraid to suffer and die- they're doing that anyway.

There was virtually no terrorism against the West until after Gulf War I, when we flooded the Arab world with troops and never left. I have no doubt that if we brought home the soldiers and let everybody alone that the problem would diminish dramatically.

(I wonder what Halliburton and ExxonMobile thinks of that idea?)

Woozie said...

I disagree with the part about not worrying about collateral damage. If the U.S. were to announce they don't care about collateral damage so long as terrorists are killed, then the terrorists will begin intentionally hiding in crowds of people. Then, the U.S. is faced with a lose-lose situation.

If you don't kill the terrorist in the crowd, then you appear to have no backbone; you're all talk and no walk, which will only further empower terrorism.

If you do kill the terrorist and a bunch of innocents are killed, then the U.S. becomes the terrorist organization and people will look to the 'real' terrorists for peace because they don't bomb people anymore.