The rise of radicals: When long-term foreign military operations backfire

Published January 18th, 2016 - 05:32 GMT

The flurry of attacks around the Middle East and other parts of the world in recent months by militants from Daesh (ISIS) has sharpened the urgency of figuring out how to defeat the organization and rid the world of this terror. The continued expansion of Al-Qaeda in parallel with Daesh’s robustness heightens the urgency of implementing a strategy that could minimize the immediate threats from such militant groups. It would also allow the dozens of countries – mostly in Asia and Africa – that are a breeding ground for such fanatical groups to look forward to more normal and peaceful national development.

The recent news from leading Western states is not encouraging in this respect. The United States, France, the United Kingdom and some of their allies among the world’s industrialized democracies continue to focus heavily on a military response to the Daesh threat. A major global meeting of these countries is taking place in Paris this week, while a few weeks ago the New York Times revealed that the United States was considering a Pentagon proposal to build up a string of military bases in Africa, southwest Asia and the Middle East that could be used “for collecting intelligence and carrying out strikes” against Daesh’s many affiliates across those regions. The bases would serve as hubs for Special Operations forces and intelligence operatives who would conduct counterterrorism missions, creating what Pentagon officials described as an “enduring” American military presence in these volatile regions.

Say what? An enduring American military presence across the Middle East? And that is supposed to promote stability, peace and security? Think again guys, and get some Middle Eastern scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and, especially, historians in the room with you to give you a more accurate analysis of what happens when foreign militaries park themselves long term in local societies across the global South.

Military force should be used on occasions when it is the most appropriate response to an immediate threat or aggression, such as liberating Kuwait from Iraq’s occupation in 1991. But in this situation of seeking a policy to reduce and ultimately eliminate the threats from Daesh and similar groups, long-term military action anchored in a permanent foreign presence is probably the most nonsensical and counterproductive approach that could be adopted. This is especially true if it does not include a serious mechanism to reform the autocratic, corrupt, unjust, and mostly inefficient security-based governance systems in our region.

We have almost half a century of experience of foreign powers using military means across the Arab-Asian region to ensure their and their local allies’ well-being. Any rational analysis of the actual consequences of such a militarily heavy approach to the legitimate triple goals of defeating Daesh, protecting allies and enhancing one’s own national interests suggests that this policy does not work, as the Al-Qaeda and Daesh experiences show.

The main problem is that foreign military actions tend to achieve exactly the opposite of their intended goals. Military assaults against terror groups, resistance movements and civilian or non-violent demonstrators – whether carried out by local governments or foreign powers, or both – tend to harden and expand the resolve of those challenging the states in question. Militarism as the main response to popular grievances only heightens the sense of humiliation and degradation that sparked citizen protests in the first place. It also tends to widen the circle of aggrieved citizens who join the ranks of those who oppose their militaristic states. Egypt and Bahrain today are ongoing examples of this.

A more familiar example for Americans is the FBI’s and Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s failed policies decades ago against African-Americans who struggled for their full civil rights as American citizens. When something similar happens which also includes foreign militarism to thwart popular aspirations and rights – such as Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah’s actions in Syria today – the reaction of aggrieved citizens is even more acute.

The ensuing heightened challenges by citizens to the state backed by foreign militarism tend to reduce the legitimacy of the state government or regime, which only increases the regime’s reliance on foreign support to remain in power. This sets in motion a destructive cycle of deteriorating national integrity and stability, as the Syrian, Bahraini and Yemeni situations today reveal (for an American lesson, remember Vietnam and Afghanistan).

These trends ultimately lead citizens across our region to hold very negative views of both the militarily happy foreign powers and local governments. This often contributes to triggering terror attacks by individuals or small groups in Paris, London, New York, California, Madrid and other far away lands. But in fact they are not so far away, when seen from the perspective of villagers who just saw their families killed and their homes destroyed in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and a dozen other places where the local government and foreign military forces bomb at will.

By Rami G. Khouri


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