Monday, October 20, 2014

Some basics on the realities of terrorism

Martha Crenshaw of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies has a brief article, "The Long View of Terrorism," in Current History Jan 2014, that summarizes some of the major characteristics of terrorism as we know it today. Its observations are a reminder of how things could have been different after the 9/11 attacks. And should have been, if the Cheney-Bush Administration had not been so determined to use the Global War on Terror (GWOT) as an excuse to invade Iraq and expand the already massive level of military force and interventions.

As she writes, "Cycles of retaliation and escalation are not inevitable." The United States had choices on how best to respond after the 9/11 attacks. And made some really, really bad ones. And is still making them, with Obama Non-War War in Iraq and Syria a continuation of it.

Here she provides some basics about terrorism that easily get lost in the squawking hysteria over the Islamic State in which our politicians and media are currently indulging themselves - when they aren't in squawking hysteria over Ebola. She defines terrorism specifically as "a form of violence that deliberately rather than inadvertently targets civilians." The definition of terrorism itself is contested, of course. Partisan warfare in support of a conventional war effort has included sabotage of bridges and other facilities, guerrilla attacks on enemy troops and assassination of hostile local officials. But the definition Crenshaw uses is probably close to how most Americans think of terrorism today.

Those basics that she brings forward include:

  • It was an act of terrorism in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that set off the First World War - in that case because "considerations of prestige and reputation augment territorial and resource rivalries among great powers" came into play around it. A nice way of describing the imperialist, bandit mentality of the great powers in Europea at the start of the First World War.
  • Terrorism in her sense was also practiced by radical groups, notably anarchists, in the 19th century. Here her definition perhaps slips a bit as she notes, "Assassination has been a favored tactic from the anarchist terrorism that arose in the 1880s ... to the present day." Heads of government or senior officials like Franz Ferdinand were civilians, but ones with major roles to play in war and the starting of war.
  • Counterterrorism is largely a matter of "effective law enforcement and intelligence cooperation rather than offensive military force."
  • She designates the 1983 attack on US Marine in Lebanon in 1983 as the starting point of suicide attacks. But she notes 19th century precedents, noting that "Russia's early revolutionaries also prided themselves on dying with their bombs or refusing leniency if apprehended." She specifically makes the argument in that connection that it's incorrect to think of suicide bombings as justified only by "radical Islamist beliefs that justify violence by emphasizing the rewards of martyrdom." Other ideologies and causes have served that role as well. Robert Pape in his 2005 study Dying to Win pointed to nationalism in defending one's homeland as the most common factor motivated suicide bombings. And she warns, "There is no reason to think that future terrorists, of whatever ideological persuasion, will abandon suicide missions."
  • The only known terrorist attacks with a "weapon of mass destruction" was the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo's sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways in 1995. That attack was deadly but failed to produce the mass casualties the cult had anticipated. It may be that an anti-government group in the civil war was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on civilian areas in Syria, though Crenshaw states as a fact that the Syrian government was responsible for it. From what's in the public record to date, it's still an unresolved question.
  • It remains important to combat the ideologies used to encourage and justify terrorist acts.

Crenshaw may place too much faith in drone warfare, writing, "Military force is always an option, from the British in Ireland to Russia in Chechnya to the United States in Afghanistan. Drones and special forces are likely to be the measures of choice in future counterterrorism operations, especially if there is worldwide proliferation of drone technology."

The other side is that drone warfare can also create chaos that provides the potential for escalation. And while propaganda against IS may emphasize its terrorist aspects, the Obama Administration has obviously decided that drones aren't enough to combat it. We also have to continue the Thirty Years War in Iraq and have expanded it to Syria.

Crenshaw also notes:

Before 9/11 hardly anyone in the scholarly or policy worlds thought that terrorism posed a serious threat to national or international security, yet its dramatic repercussions during the "global war on terror" included the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq, a profound reorganization of US security institutions, and the implementation of a strategy
of worldwide drone warfare.
Or, in other words, the United States reacted to the 9/11 attacks by adopting what is in practice a policy of permanent war.

The United States is powerful enough to keep up such actions for a while. But, as we should have learned long ago, American power has its limits. And there are costs and many complications associated with war. Every technological innovation that is supposed to make war quick and painless for Americans - drones are the current favorite, as we see in Crenshaw's article - fails to take the risk out of war.

The sooner we adopt a more restrained, realistic foreign policy and manage to significantly reduce our reliance on war as an instrument of foreign policy, the better off we will be.

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