January 27, 2009

Hunting Mosquitoes with a Cannon: The Uses and Abuses of Military Force in Combating Terrorism

Ever since the era of inter-state wars was quite naively pronounced dead after the end of the Cold War, members of the Western military have been cast and recast in new roles.

Ever since the era of inter-state wars was quite naively pronounced dead after the end of the Cold War, members of the Western military have been cast and recast in new roles.

Tomas Jermalaviāius

Hunting Mosquitoes with a Canon: The Uses and Abuses of Military Force in Combating Terrorism

Ever since the era of inter-state wars was quite naively pronounced dead after the end of the Cold War, members of the Western military have been cast and recast in new roles. From humanitarian interventions and stabilisation missions to peace support operations, men and women in uniform were asked to do more and more, often with far fewer financial, technical and human resources. “Versatility” of armed forces was the order of the day, even though they still spent much of their time preparing for conventional force-on-force combat as their core competence. This era of military versatility, or “a little bit of everything” when it comes to missions and tasks of armed forces, is still in full swing. But 9/11 shifted the emphasis heavily, even disproportionately, towards the “war against terrorism”.
Leaving merits and flaws of this term aside, it was quite amusing to see how quickly Western politicians, the general public and their loyal military changed their tune. Whatever the mission – be it regime change in and occupation of Iraq or counterinsurgency in Afghanistan – “the fight against terrorists” is the oft-repeated mantra on the lips of presidents, pundits and soldiers alike. Sometimes it is quite saddening to listen to young sergeants or privates in front of cameras who regurgitate this mantra as a well-learned point of political direction. (Not least because such indoctrination bears an uncanny resemblance to the Soviet practice of brainwashing its military as a “force for fighting Western imperialism and for defending the cause of communism” – I had such a feeling of déjí  vu many times when I watched, for instance, U.S. soldiers explaining their mission in Iraq back in 2003 or in 2004.)
Admittedly, I might be slightly over-dramatising the situation because many politicians and soldiers support far more sophisticated approaches and are much more critical of this emphasis on combating terrorism in military affairs than they show in public. But it does underline the problem at hand: is this a job for the military? Tons of volumes of books have been written about the definition of terrorism, about the means and strategies for dealing with this threat and for transforming the military in order to make it more relevant in combating terrorism. I will not go into these extensive debates in any great detail. What I want to focus on is whether this new heroic role of protecting us from militants, who use deadly force to spread fear and to disrupt our lives, really suits our soldiers.
A short answer to this question is – it depends. The major determinants are the experiences a state has had with combating terrorism as well as its political system and legal framework, its way of managing security, the attitudes of the general public and military culture. The exact character of threats, the types of terrorist groups, their causes or goals, their preferred modes of action are equally important. Soldiers from some countries have become quite accustomed to the duties related to combating terrorism, be it gathering intelligence, policing on the streets or helping the emergency services in post-attack recovery work. During the decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, British armed forces proved to be good learners who were able to capture the subtle nuances of effectively handling various manifestations of militancy (centuries of experience in policing the British empire certainly helped too). For decades, terrorism has been a fact of life for the Israeli military as well. But even these armed forces and their political masters commit blunders.
Indeed, in times of great anxiety caused by a terrorist threat or during a national emergency, such as a massive terrorist attack, the military is often the first recourse of statesmen who seek to reassure the population, to restore order, to beef up security or to provide logistical support to overstretched rescue services. During the recent attacks in Mumbai, only the Indian navy’s special forces were ready to respond in an adequate manner. In order to demonstrate resolve or to deliver a punitive blow against terrorist organisations based abroad, it might be also necessary to send out a few Tomahawk cruise missiles, as President Clinton did after the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and in Tanzania in 1998. Military assets, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are sometimes effectively used to execute the policy of targeted assassinations, aimed to decapitate the leadership of a terrorist group, especially in hard-to-reach or extremely hostile geographical areas. But it does not necessarily justify the redefinition of the key purpose of the military and the transformation of armed forces, so that they mostly deal with terrorism, be it domestic or transnational. Once again, there are many reasons for that. However, let us concentrate on the military, which is a tool so keenly employed by governments to do their bidding.
And a blunt tool it may be when it comes to combating terrorism. Many characteristics of the terrorist threat make it undesirable that the military is too heavily relied on. Terrorism is a political problem with socio-economic connotations that does not yield itself to purely military solutions. In addition, terrorists use civilians for cover, thereby rendering a core military competence – the application of firepower and manoeuvre – quite irrelevant and even dangerous. (We should not get carried away by all the talk about precision munitions and “surgical” strikes – collateral damage and civilian casualties are still almost unavoidable in urban terrain.) It is equally important to point out that the watching audience may see the use of the military as an overreaction (which it could well be) by the government, whereas this is something which terrorists actually seek to provoke. Bringing soldiers into the streets can be as frightening as it can be assuring. It may serve the purpose of underlining the desperation of a government that is unable to manage the situation with ordinary means of law enforcement.
The armed forces often find it difficult to culturally adapt themselves to quite different imperatives of combating terrorism, compared to fighting conventional wars. Firstly, the military like to think in terms of clear objectives and end-states, which are observable and measurable. This is not something one may always expect in a complex and muddled psychological game of suasion and counter-suasion, or shaping of perceptions of relevant audiences, that terrorists and governments play. Secondly, the military usually are predisposed to delivering quick, decisive and tough solutions. This kind of mentality is often at odds with drawn-out anti-terrorist campaigns lasting for years or even decades, during which exercising self-restraint and careful calibration of the use of force are dominant requirements for the behaviour of governments and their agencies. So, it is no wonder that poorly thought through and hasty use of military tools in combating terrorism may come to resemble the use of a cannon to hunt mosquitoes – it makes a lot of noise and causes destruction, but has little impact on tormentors. In her article “Great Expectations: The Use of Armed Force to Combat Terrorism” (Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 19, No. 3, 2008), Isabelle Duyvesteyn from Utrecht University went as far as to say that “there are both strong indications and arguments that the use of the military actually works counter-productively and encourages terrorism.”
Another major difficulty with using the military to combat terrorism is interagency cooperation and subordination issues. Terrorism calls for a multifaceted and comprehensive response from governments with the military being only a component in an overall strategy. But the military, trained and educated in their own system and having a set of distinct mental models for handling complex dynamic situations, find it quite challenging to understand and to work with intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic agencies. The military also instinctively yearn for an effective, often directional overall leadership in crisis situations. Therefore they get easily frustrated by a laborious consultative interagency process (often run without a clear single leader in charge), seeing it as chaotic and wasteful, especially timewise. These are not insurmountable problems because interagency training and education are becoming more popular in most Western countries and better coordination concepts (such as the much-touted Comprehensive Approach) are emerging. Yet it will still take time to achieve the desired effect by enhancing interoperability between national security institutions and by integrating them into a seamless anti-terrorist system.
The armed forces, however, could become exposed to some significant threats in connection with the above developments. Historical experience shows that in some countries struggling with intensive terrorist threats boundaries between national security organisations tend to become blurred. They become involved in each other’s roles or even take over each other’s tasks; they exchange intelligence continuously and plan and act together. Although this approach may be effective, it will erode over time the ethos of the military as a war-fighting institution, which eventually may be more detrimental to national security than keeping the armed forces away from counter-terrorism. Furthermore, if a terrorist threat is home-grown and not of foreign origin, the military find themselves in an awkward position of being used against the members of their own society rather than against an external threat. And nothing corrodes the ethos of the military more than using the armed forces against their own people.
It is therefore not surprising that many countries and international organisations tend to be very careful when defining the role of the armed forces and the capabilities of the military in combating terrorism. Usually, the emphasis is on gathering and sharing intelligence (especially human sources intelligence or HUMINT), on defensive measures, such as protection of maritime routes, critical infrastructure and air space, as well as on assisting the civil authorities in mitigating the consequences of actions. Defensive measures are usually very demanding in terms of manpower and equipment because governments have so much to protect against terrorist attacks, especially in the absence of specific intelligence. It is often the case that only the armed forces are capable of providing these capabilities, which also may serve as tools for deterring terrorists and for disrupting their plans.
Offensive measures are not excluded either. In this respect, the prime capability is supplied by special forces supported by various intelligence, air power or logistical assets. Normally, however, special forces are very small and expensive compared to other armed services, so that their heavy use does not carry the risk of “militarising” counter-terrorism campaigns. Moreover, special forces develop a specific sub-culture of their own, which is much more suitable for dealing with terrorist organisations than the sub-cultures of other armed services, such as the army. Stealth, precision, patience, self-sufficiency, high regard for human sources intelligence and for cultural awareness, thorough understanding of the psychological effects of the use of force and other similar traits are necessary to carry out special operations successfully. As Colin S. Gray, a prominent strategy theorist, puts it in his book Another Bloody Century (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), these traits turn special forces’ soldiers into “our guerrillas in uniform, or, in a more pejorative vein, our terrorists in uniform”, who are able to understand and to counter the mindset and modus operandi of non-state militants.
However, the armed forces have not carved out a unique niche for themselves because paramilitary units of secret services or police anti-terrorist teams are often equally – or even more – suited and well-equipped for offensive action against terrorist cells (not to mention the fact that using the military domestically for such purposes is often explicitly prohibited in many Western democracies). With this in mind, decision-makers usually are better advised to direct special forces to do their part in counter-insurgency campaigns, particularly abroad, rather than just duplicating the work of police commandos in law enforcement operations. For example, the skills and capabilities of special forces are in high demand in Afghanistan during the NATO-led operation, which is a classic counter-insurgency campaign. Such resources would not be used efficiently if they were tied up in supporting internal security or foreign intelligence operations.
In conclusion, let me offer a piece of advice to policymakers and to the general public, having high expectations with regard to their armed forces in combating terrorism: use them sparingly, use them selectively and use them with restraint. And always remember that the main job of our soldiers is to prepare for fighting wars, while everything else is an addition to that. In Western democracies, loyal servicemen and women will always do what their people tell them to, but getting them too involved in counter-terrorism may do more harm than good, particularly when it comes to military culture or ethos.
Although taken slightly out of context, the words of the late Samuel P. Huntington that were written in his seminal book The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (1957) are particularly apt in this respect and should guide our judgement: “Upon the soldiers, the defenders of order, rests a heavy responsibility. The greatest service they can render is to remain true to themselves, to serve with silence and courage in the military way. If they abjure the military spirit, they destroy themselves first and their nation ultimately.” The use of armed forces in combating terrorism is fraught with danger of losing that military spirit, which is why it should be done with great care and consideration.