In the wake of the attacks in Paris on November 13, we have already seen a wide variety of responses on what this all means and what do we do now. French President Hollande has called the barbarity an act of war and vowed a crushing reply to the Islamic State. We shall see what concrete measures will be implemented (increased air strikes? ground troops? more arrests and deportations?) in the coming weeks. In light of the carnage, this language is certainly understandable and will appeal to many who see more armed conflict as both an appropriate and a justifiable move.
But they would be wrong.
Don’t misunderstand me, if we can identify key IS figures we should do everything in our power to neutralise them (I leave that term vague deliberately). Their absence may have a huge effect on the group’s ability to recruit and expand. So by all means, do so, albeit carefully.
Bringing the conflict to a new military level will not solve the overarching issue of radicalisation and terrorism however, and we know this because it hasn’t in the past.
As I have noted, I spent the last two weeks in France, touring the battlefields of both WWI and WWII. The tremendous loss of life weighed heavily on my daughter and me as we went from cemetery to cemetery, standing silently in front of thousands of headstones.
WWI was called both the “Great War” and “the war to end all wars”. Noble epithets indeed, and made with the best of intentions in the aftermath of the armistice. With the gift of hindsight we know both to be wrong. Scarcely more than a generation Europe later was at war again, this time with greater loss of life and destruction.
As with war in general, so with the “war on terror”. We have committed armies and navies and air forces to fight terrorists in a number of conflicts: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya – the list goes on and on. And while we have had success at the tactical level – the deaths of Bin Laden, Aulaqi, Al Zarqawi, etc. – we have had little to none on the strategic level. For the ideology remains and will metastasise into some other group or movement. For this phenomenon can NOT be defeated solely through the use of force. This is an intellectual and emotional enemy we face and it feeds off death – those it causes and those we cause through armed response.
There is a role for our militaries but it must be limited and precise. Wars have a tendency to spiral out of control leading to unwanted consequences and reverberations. Remember when supporting Al Qaeda against the Soviets seemed like a good idea? We invaded Iraq for no really good reason and look what that gave us – IS.
Let us act with judiciousness and wisdom, using all the tools we have, not just those that kill. We have had a lot of opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t in the ill-named “war” on terrorism. If we really want to get past this we need to be smart about it.