Can IS be stopped?
When Osama bin Laden was killed by American special forces, many celebrated the “victory.” But it was not a victory. Bin Laden’s death spawned a thousand more terrorists—more vicious, more resolved—triggering rapid growth in the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida.
Stopping IS would not be easy because the organization has morphed from a geographical entity into a psychological one, from a ragtag regional occupational force into a global omnipresent symbol of a seemingly just cause. IS is now a “global culture,” a mindset. Even if IS is destroyed today on the ground with a massive troop invasion of Syria and Northern Iraq, that symbol will live in the minds of many people worldwide, and it cannot be erased that easily. Not only does terrorism seem to have been elevated into an irreversible cause, it is growing in intensity every day. In time, a new entity will rise with a different name and different charismatic leaders.
The gut reaction of France, Britain, Germany and the United States after the Paris carnage last November was to go into massive saturation bombings of IS targets. We all know wars are not won from the air. Wars are won on the ground, and until a formidable ground force faces IS, bombings may take their toll on the terror group, but the terrorist group will still be around. The aerial sorties will simply result in a protracted war. And as the bombings increase, more innocent civilians will be killed, triggering more massive refugee migration. As of last month, the number of Syrian refugees has reached two million and counting. In the resolve to defeat IS, the safety and fate of civilians are shelved and forgotten, driving many of them in frustration and anger to the side of the enemy. Eradicating an evil force results in a new type of evil and counterterrorism usually provokes more terrorism.
Aerial bombings only inspire suicide bombings in a vicious circle of escalating violence. There will be more suicide attacks that will be initiated even by “civilian terrorists,” who could be migrants or homegrown.
For developed countries, war is no longer something that is waged by sending warplanes, warships and troops to some faraway land. War is now a reality right within its own borders. IS has succeeded in exporting its own brand of war to the very heart of the West—to the latter’s quiet suburbs and villages. And there terrorists could strike in the most unexpected time and place. Sadly, they hold the initiative, never mind that they could get caught after the attack.
After the Paris and California massacres by terrorists, life will never be the same. Security will be heightened even in small suburban areas. Just the fear of possible terror attacks in the future is for IS and its followers enough “punishment” on civilized society.
The United States has realized that invasion and occupation work only in the short term; and that in the long term, they drain the nation’s coffers even as they continually increase the number of casualties and antiwar activists; and that, as the war progresses, a pullout becomes a difficult, agonizing, even humiliating process—a lesson learned from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. And this explains why the US Congress is hesitant to send troops to Syria.
Invasions also mutilate societies and this invaders realize only later. When the United States conducted its “successful” invasion of Iraq, many crowed over the power of the superpower. They did not realize that with the fall of Saddam Hussein (who really had to go), a power vacuum would trigger a protracted civil war that the occupation force could not handle and that resulted in massacres.
There are two short-term ways to deal with IS. First is to stop the ongoing massive global recruitment drive that is the infrastructure to homegrown terrorism. The best cyber experts are now working on this. But some are pessimistic. A solution may entail curtailing universal freedom which is the essence of the Internet.
Second is to deploy ground troops. After the Paris carnage, the United States is now mulling over sending a significant number of combat troops. If they finally do, and if IS finally falls, its remnants will move elsewhere and organize new IS-type groups or operations. The best this move of the Americans can do is arrest or delay IS’ growth. It will be a good time to search the soul for a longer-term strategy against terrorism.
The gut reflex to fight terrorism with force is natural, as a diplomatic initiative with terrorists seems ridiculous. But force must be balanced with something else that is less vengeful and leans more toward promoting goodwill. For example, after the Paris tragedy, many articles came out in the social media about the viciousness of French colonization in Africa. Writers related the Paris terror attacks to something ongoing for decades. It seemed farfetched at first, but France soon announced more aid for its former African colonies. This is an example of the goodwill factor in the antiterrorism drive.
Bernie V. Lopez ([email protected]) has been writing political commentary for the last 20 years. He is also a radio-TV broadcaster, a documentary producer-director, and a former professor at Ateneo de Manila University.
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