Action and Reaction

The two possible responses to the threat of terror reflect the two types of explanation for it. If you believe that terrorism is driven by cultural differences that are irreconcilable, and that people of opposing cultures can never co-exist peacefully, then the only logical course is to attempt to destroy the opposing culture, or at least make it subservient to your own.

In the current war on terror, there are immense differences in wealth and military might between the two sides. This means that terrorist attacks on symbolic targets in rich countries are met with massive force and often poorly targeted acts of retaliation. When western powers try to extinguish the threat, they wield a very blunt instrument which usually kills more innocents than it does terrorists. Since 2001, more than 30,000 people have died in Pakistan as a result of terrorist and counter-terrorist violence. Many of these were victims of US drone attacks — bombs delivered by unmanned aircraft that, according to one estimate by the Pakistani authorities, cause fifty civilian deaths for every terrorist killed. Although drones avoid the need to put US service personnel in jeopardy, they ultimately put every westerner at risk by reinforcing resentment and increasing the chances of retaliation.

Unsurprisingly, there has been little press coverage of the civilian casualties of such strikes, let alone the dubious nature of the extra-judicial killing of terrorist suspects on the odd occasion the drones do find their intended targets. And, in case you think these attacks are a legacy of the gung-ho approach to non-American lives that characterized the bellicose administration of George W. Bush, President Obama has more than doubled the use of these evil weapons since coming to office. Western leaders appear to have confused legality with morality; and often the legality of their decisions is highly dubious.

“Western leaders appear to have confused legality with morality; and often the legality of their decisions is highly dubious.”

Taking the fight to the terrorist breeding grounds still has an enormous cost in terms of casualties among western military personnel. Nearly 4,000 have died in Iraq, more than 2,500 in Afghanistan. These statistics might be tolerable if there were clear signs of progress, or if we could point to definitive evidence that the threat to western populations is diminishing as a result of the efforts of our troops overseas, but what evidence there is suggests the opposite is true. The sacrifices made by the brave men and women who fight on foreign soil are in vain, and will continue to be so. The absence of moral ambition on the part of politicians to find a permanent solution to the terrorist problem makes them deeply culpable for the losses suffered by their own military.

As well as the appalling loss of life on both sides in the war on terror, the current strategy serves only to increase the numbers whose sense of alienation and injustice drives them to become involved in terrorism.

Lord Ahmed, the first British Muslim life peer, is unequivocal: “the drone attacks have not only failed, but they have helped in the radicalization of youth in the North West Frontier and in some parts of Punjab and Pakistan. Every time you kill ten so-called terrorists, you create 500 more because they see the drone attacks as an attack on the sovereign state of Pakistan.”

While economic exclusion drives many to involvement in terrorism, there comes a point when the underlying economic causes are subordinated to a simple lust for revenge. The hatred felt by many non-westerners for people in rich nations, and the reciprocal distrust of other cultures by ordinary citizens in Europe and America who see themselves as targets of irrational acts by fanatics, will take years, possibly generations, to overcome. It will not begin to be defeated unless the underlying economic drivers are addressed. For western leaders to argue that there is no alternative to their current antiterrorism strategy (where have we heard that argument before?) is not good enough. Are politicians too stupid to grasp reality, too weak to tackle a problem which only they have the power to address? Or are there other reasons for their reluctance to act?

Excerpt from Four Horsemen: The Survival Manual by Mark Braund and Ross Ashcroft.

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