Monday, 16 November 2015

Combating terrorism: we know what works and what doesn't. So why do we keep choosing what doesn't?

There’s no simpler solution to complex politics than war.

That’s because all war requires is the willingness to spend a lot of money, sacrifice a number of lives of your own people and, if things go to plan, a lot more lives of another people. Mostly nations of the prosperous West have little difficulty working up the necessary will. So, for instance, the Fench reaction to the Paris attacks, to mount bombing raids on ISIS in Syria, is a simple, not to say simplistic, response.

French air strikes.
Simple. Powerful. Effective? Who knows.
Almost as simple is rounding up people. It’s more difficult if you take the trouble to arrest real suspects, against whom you can mount a case. If you just go after people who might be supporters, without pedantic concern for, say, evidence, that’s as easy as bombing raids. You might, like France, just round up the perpetrators’ families.

Not that I’m particularly criticising France. Other nations behave as badly. Consider reactions to the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001, carried out by a team which was predominantly Saudi. The leader of the organisation behind the attack, Al Qaida, was also Saudi. Much of the funding was Saudi.

It still made some sense to attack Afghanistan, if only because the Al Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden, was living there. But it made no sense to attack Iraq next. Iraq? There was no suggestion of Iraqi involvement in 9/11. So the justification for the Iraq invasion became weapons of mass destruction. Absence of evidence, the hawks would tell us, isn’t evidence of absence. However, once we were able to establish facts on the ground, it became clear there was plenty of evidence of the absence of those weapons. And hence absence of any justification for the war.

To try to give it some kind of retrospective appeal, the invading forces decided to rebuild the country along new, improved lines. Unfortunately, they used the army to do the job. Armies are designed to destroy, not to build. So the effects were as disastrous as might – ought – to have been expected.

After years of downright oppression, the Shia majority of Iraq took power. Like most people previously downtrodden, they leaped at the opportunity to do some treading down themselves. The West, which had casually disbanded the Iraqi army with its Sunni leadership, took no steps to protect Sunnis from the rule of their enemies. New Sunni resistance movements emerged, fell under the control of religious fundamentalists, and from that toxic fusion, produced ISIS.

Doesn’t the French reaction, so far, to the Paris attacks remind you of the US/UK response to 9/11? Force first, and repression, rather than thought, self-analysis and careful consideration of the consequences of action.

Self-analysis is badly needed. It’s emerging that both Iraq and Turkey warned France of the impending attacks. That they weren’t forestalled is a major intelligence failure. Analysing that shortcoming is far harder than despatching aircraft or arresting suspects. Besides, many people – some of them individuals I’d previously regarded as sensible – are clamouring for heavy handed action. “Close the borders!” they call, “lock up the imams! Kick out the refugees!”

That last call is particularly curious. Many refugees are fleeing the onslaught of ISIS, the very foe we face in the West, and which the West created. More Syrians are killed every day than in the Paris attacks that so stunned Europe. Close the borders to them? That’s like eating a starving man’s meal and then refusing to let emergency supplies through.

What’s worst about the demand for repression is that we saw what happened when we took that approach towards Iraq. It heightened tensions. It attracted recruits to the insurgent cause. It led to the unleashing of the forces we now have to combat.

Curiously, we also know a different way of behaving and know it works. When the troubles broke out in Northern Ireland, Britain’s initial response was also repressive. The consequences were Bloody Sunday, the Guildford 4, the Birmingham 6, a whole litany of other miscarriages of justice, murders, bombings and misery.

Eventually saner spirits prevailed. They understood that an insurgency only survives with the support of a disaffected population. So steps were taken to stop the disaffection. Housing, job opportunities and education were improved for the previously oppressed nationalist communities. Military action was maintained but at a lower level, while the accent moved more firmly on effective intelligence work, until the IRA was so penetrated that its decisions were being communicated to British security services in near real time.

Out of all this came the Good Friday peace agreement. There have been setbacks, but by and large it’s held. The result, for anyone who remembers Belfast before, is spectacular. It used to be a city under siege; today it’s vibrant and exciting. 

That approach works, and we know it works. Against ISIS, we may have to use more extensive brute force, to defeat it militarily. But we’ll also need far better intelligence work than France has produced so far. And we’ll need to support the communities that produce the terrorists.

The last step’s counter-intuitive. It means investing in the very people from whom the insurgency emerges. It means making them prosperous and tolerating their cultures and faiths. For those in France who are sickened by the Muslim veil or beard, and are saying so loudly since the attacks, that will be a hard pill to swallow.

Trust me, guys. It really works. Far better than repression, which is what ISIS wants – repression generates the oppressed, disaffected Sunnis who made it strong in the first place. ISIS hates the idea of well-off Muslim communities in the West, peacefully coexisting Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. 

Because they’ll snuff ISIS out.

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