Why Military Responses to Terror Attacks Are Always Doomed to Fail
This piece originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
It's a sore temptation to hunt down Osama bin Laden -- one of the most consistent campaign promises made by President Obama -- and yet there are strong arguments against it. U.S. forces would have to penetrate deep into provincial Pakistan and perhaps even conduct house-to-house searches. Such incursions would destabilize Pakistan's already shaky regime and inflame the extremist element. More troops would have to be committed to the Afghanistan war zone, with no positive outcome in sight. And making a martyr of bin Laden would probably incite a crop of new terrorists as deadly as he and his cohorts.
But the most compelling reason is that any solely military solution to terrorism is doomed to fail. Right now, U.S. intelligence knows that the jihadist movement is endemic in the extremist sects of Islam. It exists from neighborhood to neighborhood, dinner table to dinner table, across a vast swath of the globe. Although terrorism is a tactic, what lies behind it is an idea, and once an idea seeps into people's brains, bombs and mortar attacks won't defeat it. That's why Israel's overwhelming military superiority to Hezbollah and Hamas hasn't defeated those movements and never will -- this is an enemy for whom death is a victory of the spirit.
Our only hope against Islamic terrorism is to police it in the short run, and offer a more enticing idea in the long run. Peace and social reform are both enticing ideas. Changing our strategic relationship with corrupt regimes that receive significant foreign assistance from the United States is a second important step. The United States must shift its anti-terrorism policy in those directions. Because the United States kept pursuing a military solution, the 2004 presidential election was a poisoned chalice. Whoever won it would be plunged into the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq. The 2008 election was better. Both candidates pledged to leave Iraq, Republican Sen. John McCain under the face-saving banner of "victory;" Democratic Sen. Obama under the more realistic banner of ending an unjust war that should never have been started.
There is a military difference between "deploying" more soldiers to Afghanistan and "employing" them within the country -- in an effective way. If President Obama insists on troop buildups in Afghanistan and a promise to hunt down bin Laden, we must all recognize that a country should not pursue two contradictory ideas at the same time: one, that terrorism is stateless, and two, that military forays into foreign states are productive. The chief reason to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, once we entered and found chaos, is humanitarian, as it has been for at least five years. Both are failed states; both are rife with violent extremists. Age-old hatreds won't die easily in either region, and yet the United States can't stand by and let those hatreds turn into genocide and endless combat.
The United Nations and NATO must rally to carry out the humanitarian goals that need to be pursued. But that's not the same as deluding ourselves into believing that we are defeating terrorism. Bush's war on terror was a horrendous mistake, an ideological delusion and a failed tactic. It alienated most of the world and created as many extremists as it defeated. Obama knows all this. Now it's time for him to lead us out of a self-created quagmire. The United States can't have it both ways, talking peace but maintaining a hostile military presence in the region, neither Pakistan, nor Afghanistan has a government seen as legitimate by its population. Neither has the ability, or the national will to police its borders, or seriously confront extremism, or foreign fighters. History has already taught us how these endeavors end, and they do not end well. No matter how just our cause, we are seen as aggressors, and may just as likely suffer the death of a thousand cuts, just like Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the British Empire and the Soviet Union. Without establishing a foundation of legitimacy, and hope, or any semblance of the rule of law, a purely military strategy will likely be defeated in the end.