Waging endless war

Waging endless war

Over time and locale, terrorism's prevalence and intensity have ebbed and flowed, but it has never gone away completely

The war is over. The fight in the quest to end political violence continues. 

The recent signing of the peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban led many to ask reasonably, “is the war in Afghanistan really over?” Others, understanding that the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan jumped dramatically after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, wondered if the end of the war in Afghanistan meant the end of the war on terror.  

Tragically, organized and sustained violence seems to be an enduring aspect of the human condition.  As such, while the war to bring a liberal and democratic government to the people of Afghanistan is largely over, the fight against those who choose to prosecute their grievances or pursue their political and economic futures with the use of terror—organized violence directed at civilians and combatants to create fear and dissent—will continue, likely without end.  

The key distinction between the war and the fight comes down to the differences between intentions and methods. The way the United States military conducts its counter terrorism missions looks very much like counter insurgency warfare. Combined arms operations are common. Lethal force is the norm versus the exception. The individuals in the fight receive the same legal protections as combatants in interstate wars. Perhaps most relevant is that the individuals or organizations are to great extent the same people using the same weapons. 

In the United States’ case, the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, as well as the CIA and other covert organizations, are the institutions the government uses to wage war. They are also the ones who prosecute the overseas fight against terrorism. They wear the same uniforms in this fight as they do when they are engaged in a war against another state. The key distinction is the difference of intentions. The aim in waging war is to defeat another state’s military so the victor can either impose its will on the adversarial state or reach a preferred bargain outcome with the opposing state. The aim for the counter terrorist is to eliminate the terror threat by eliminating or incarcerating the terrorist.

Terrorism is a military tactic as old as modern society. Rather than solely and directly targeting opposing military formations, the terrorist typically targets civilians, non-combatant forces, or other types of ‘soft’ targets. Over time and locale, its prevalence and intensity have ebbed and flowed, but it has never gone away completely.  During times when terrorism is relatively less common or deadly, governments’ efforts to combat those who employ terror tactics may seem indistinguishable from ordinary policing. During periods like the one we have been living through since the end of the Cold War, counter terrorism operations are often indistinguishable from interstate war. 

For roughly the past twenty years, the escalating scale and intensity of terrorist attacks, combined with the increasing numbers of groups using these tactics, have led governments across the globe to employ conventional military forces as well as to develop specialized irregular warfare units to combat terrorists. For many in the United States’ military today, counter terrorism is their primary mission. It has not always been this way. During my brief time in the U.S. Army Special Forces in the early 1980’s, counter terrorism was a secondary mission for units engaged or training for operations unrelated to terrorism—in my case, for nuclear weapons targeting in the western Soviet Union as part of the NATO’s Follow-On Forces Attack strategy. 

The rise and expansion of radical Islamic organizations that employ terror tactics to pursue their political aims caught many governments, including the United States government, by surprise. Whether they should have been surprised has been a matter of vigorous debate, as is typically the case following any large scale and successful surprise attack. Putting aside the issue of whether the United States government could have prevented the September 11th attacks, their scale and the fact they took place on the United States’ homeland precipitated a sharp inflection point in the escalation of counter terrorism efforts by the United States and others. 

Afghanistan was the first country to be the central target of the United States military’s newfound focus on counter-terror operations. Following the initial rout of Al-Qaeda, the fight there morphed from a battle to destroy Al-Qaeda and its associated supporters in the Taliban to a war to remake the government and society of the country. It is this war that has come to a bitter and largely unsuccessful end. The seemingly endless fight against those who employ terror tactics will continue.

For the time being, the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan has largely, though not entirely, moved on to different locations against similar but different opponents. In Africa, the fight against proponents of radical Islam using terror tactics in Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, Chad, Mali, and elsewhere has escalated, not abated. While the Islamic State’s dream of a middle eastern caliphate has stalled following its conventional military defeat in Iraq and Syria, the group continues to fight on elsewhere, again resorting largely, if not solely, to terror tactics.

But why, if every war eventually ends, is the fight against those employing terror tactics seemingly eternal? Because there are groups who see no alternative to violence in the pursuit of their political and social goals. Some people believe violence to be to their absolute or comparative advantage. For others, it may be the only thing they know how to do; whether as a means to try to get what they want or more simply as the vocation that takes best advantage of their personal skills and ambitions. 

But why terror? Why attack civilians or other undefended targets? Why employ women and children as suicide bombers? Simply put, terrorism as a tactic works. Suicide terrorism solves numerous operational dilemmas for poor and otherwise weak organizations. Civilians as targets are far easier to attack successfully than are military or police units. The young men and woman in Gaza use kites, balloons, and Molotov cocktails targeting housing developments and schools because that is all they have and all they can strike successfully. 

A few years ago, following the second intifada in Israel, I attended a discussion about terrorism between a group of students and an Israeli Defense Forces helicopter pilot. The focus of the discussion was on the Palestinian response to Israeli military incursions into Gaza. A student asked the Israeli pilot if he had ever spoken to a Palestinian counterpart. The pilot answered, “No.” Before he could explain further, another student interjected with a loud and intense, “Why? Why won’t you even talk to the Palestinian pilots?” The Israeli pilot paused, then explained politely, “I’ve never spoken to a Palestinian army helicopter pilot because they don’t have any. We don’t allow them to have helicopters.”

Terrorists would likely not exist if they had access to greater numbers of more lethal and sophisticated weapons. Suicide bombing, the most extreme tool terrorists employ, is a low-tech solution to an age-old command and control problem. How do you get your explosive package to hit a specific target at a designated time and place? The United States tends to solve the problem with high technology: precision guided munitions are delivered by drone aircraft guided by satellite reconnaissance systems staffed by highly trained personnel backed with billions of dollars of military infrastructure. The terror organization employs suicide bombers to achieve the same goal but faces far greater constraints in material resources and capabilities.

In some places, at some times, there have been people who cannot be deterred, who cannot be coerced. If they have goals that cannot be achieved thorough non-violent conventional political processes, then, historically, they have used violence and so must be captured or eliminated. Among revolutionary political tactics, terrorism has unfortunately turned out to be quite effective, particularly at driving would-be occupiers from terrorists’ homelands. And so, they use terror tactics. Defenders of the status quo in turn have always engaged in counter terrorism operations, which in their extreme appear indistinguishable from war. 

Today the scale of terrorist organizations, the distribution of the low tech but sophisticated operational plans, and the technology needed to execute terror attacks is readily available on the internet. The tools and tactics needed to deploy a terror campaign are now common knowledge. This has not always been the case. The information and knowledge needed to develop a cell-based organization are also readily available, which also has not commonly been the case. All the necessary tools and knowledge needed to manage a terror campaign are available today to any aggrieved individual or group. It should come as no surprise, then, that the incidence of lone wolf attack as well as organized terror campaigns continue to rise. 

Will terrorism and associated fighting to counter it always exist? As they say about stocks and bonds, ‘past performance is no indicator of future returns.’ It is possible that counter-terrorists in the United States and elsewhere will develop the information and tools needed to prevent terror attacks in the future. China, for example, is making large investments and significant strides in predictive modeling of human behavior. In the same ways that Amazon, Google, and Facebook make use of large data to predict individual’s consumption patterns, it is conceivable that governments may in the future be able to predict and locate every individual inclined to commit terrorist acts for political ends. Doing so might allow preventive action short of violence. In the meantime, terror and states trying to stop it will continue their macabre dance.

And so, as a war ends, the fight continues.