I suppose that in many ways none of this should be unexpected. Its obviousness does not make it right, however. There are lots of things that we do not question that are nevertheless the wrong way of looking at things.
I am referring here to the belief that we are at ‘war with terrorism’. The phrase we have been using since 9/11 has morphed from the ‘Global War on Terror’ to the ‘Long War’ to the ‘Forever War’ – this last change alone should give all of us pause – and as a consequence we have come to expect, and not doubt, that military deployments are a crucial and necessary part of our collective fight against terrorism. After all, if the only tool you have is a hammer all your problems begin to look like nails.
The truth is that the use of the military to engage terrorists and terrorist groups around the world is both a necessary strategy and yet at the same time one that makes our terrorist problem worse. Allow me to explain.
First, just to reiterate that the decision to send soldiers and air forces against terrorists is an ongoing occurrence, here are but a few recent examples.
- the US is considering sending more troops to the Sahel to allow West African nations deal with their terrorist menace, despite having just lost four soldiers a few weeks ago in Niger
- Russia has been using its forces not just in Syria to back its ally Bashar al Assad but in its war with Islamist extremists in the Caucasus
- Ethiopia has sent soldiers over its border with Somalia to fight Al Shabaab
- the Philippine army is declaring victory over the so-called Maute terrorists in the southern town of Marawi.
And so on. The use of massive force and state of the art equipment represents a clear advantage over what the terrorists can muster, putting them in a disadvantaged position and one in which they will get killed. Furthermore, no terrorist group, not even Islamic State at its height (was that really only 2-3 years ago?), has fighter aircraft at its disposal and the control of the skies is a classic military goal. So yes, using a well-trained and powerful army/air force does give a party the upper hand.
On the flip side, the deployment of military forces exacerbates the situation almost always to the benefit of the terrorists. The terrorists gain not only when the use of force goes awry – say with an airstrike allegedly aimed at terrorist groups kills civilians instead (as happened recently in Kunduz and Yemen) – but through the mere fact that armies are present in the first place. One of the strengths of the terrorist narrative (let’s face it, no matter how we denounce what they are saying they are clearly winning the ‘battle’ for hearts and minds among a certain percentage of the population) is the notion that they (the terrorists) are fighting to protect locals from invasion by foreign armies. Every major jihad over the past 40 years has used this argument: Afghanistan (1979), Chechnya (1990s), Iraq (2003), Somalia (2006), Kashmir (2000s), Yemen (2015)… And every jihad has benefitted from ill-placed airstrikes as well as local opposition to having outsiders meddle in their affairs. Complicating this is the foreign fighter phenomenon whereby those inspired by jihadi messaging have elected to travel to lands to help expel the invaders.
The decision to send troops to deal with terrorists functions, then, as a recruiting tool for the groups as well. This is the paradox: the use of our militaries has been assumed to be necessary (and has contributed to the weakening or demise of terrorist groups as we have seen with IS) but also ensures that more people will join terrorist groups. We are thus responsible for rebuilding the very enemy we are trying to eliminate. Some, of course, realise this: former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once asked in regard to the US decision to invade Iraq “are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?” The answer was clearly yes as Iraq, which had no indigenous terrorist group in 2003, saw the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq which morphed into IS. And we all know how that played out.
There is no question that without the presence of foreign forces in countries like Iraq and Somalia the terrorist threat will grow worse. The governments of these countries simply do not have the resources to deal with their terrorist problem and therefore need the help of outsiders. But even aside from the recruitment potential there are other negative consequences as Rebecca Zimmerman of RAND argues: a culture of dependency, increased corruption and a growing imbalance between the powerful military and weak civilian governments.
So we are left with a terrible choice. If we elect not to help countries faced with serious terrorist threats by sending in our forces, the local threat is bound to get worse. But if we elect to offer military assistance we feed the terrorists’ narratives. If this is not a classic case of ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t’ then I don’t know what is.