Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is War the Answer?

Caliphate? Democracy? National Security

Iraq, Afghanistan, & Somalia all suggest that war solves nothing.

War seems to be steadily rising in popularity among decision makers as the conflict resolution method of choice. The long, dark decades of Cold War fear are receding into our subconscious, while our frustration with the current global contest between radical Islamic nationalists and hardline neocolonial elites grows. To many—with the exception of the “details be damned, full speed ahead” decision makers on each side in this mad, global, “all options on the table” contest--using military means to resolve ideological, social, economic, and moral dilemmas appears intuitively to be not only pointless but counterproductive. Yet those who counsel caution and consideration for others are on both sides pilloried as “traitors” or sneered at as “naïve.” At the same time, leaders repeatedly make—with impunity—outrageously inflammatory threats about the options they will put “on the table,” the international equivalent of falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

There is no doubt that this contest matters. The choice of caliphate run according to the most restrictive interpretations of sharia law, a world of democratic choice and local differentiation, or the mindless regimentation of the totalitarian national security state has real consequences for “us.” But victory of the middle choice—the flexible, creative but uncertain system that rests on the cautious and considerate participation of everyone—is by no means preordained.

If the contest is important and extremists on both sides are becoming increasingly successful in selling war as the conflict resolution means of choice, we need to be as certain as possible what outcome war will produce. We now have several cases of Western war against Moslem countries from which to draw conclusions.

Iraq. Iraq is the obvious case study for the argument that “war is the answer.” A quick 1991 invasion, a dozen years of sanctions and air war, followed in 2003 by a second invasion and four more years of anti-insurgency war have effectively destroyed Iraq. The country simply no longer exists by any reasonable definition of the term. Of course, an American colonial regime controls the geographic region that was Iraq – “controls” in the sense that U.S. troops can go wherever they want if they go in force. But no Iraqi government operating on a normal nationwide basis exists. More seriously, Iraqi society has been destroyed…and replaced by ethnic cantons administered by local militias. The various Sunni and Shi’ite militias seem to be evolving into, respectively, a Sunni and Shi’ite army amid indications that each is looking forward to the time when it will have the power to challenge the other in an all-out civil war. Such full-scale civil war featuring large-scale military forces on each side would raise at least three major dangers:
  • It would threaten to engulf the Kurdish region of Iraq, currently the only peaceful area, or to encourage Kurdish nationalism that could only be expected to spill over into Kurdish regions of Turkey, if not Iran and Syria;
  • It would open the door to renewed interference in Iraq by al Qua’ida-style jihadis;
  • It would threaten to bring Saudi Arabia into the conflict on the Sunni side and Iran on the Shi’ite side, generating a Saudi-Iranian proxy war, if not a direct conflict.

One could conceivably argue that these dangers are Iraqi domestic problems that would have no impact on the huge U.S. military bases, but that seems a weak argument. U.S. bases sitting like islands in a sea of chaos does little for the reputation of the U.S. in the world. Moreover, to the degree that radicals arise internally or once again gain access to Iraq as a result of internal chaos, military threat to U.S. supply lines and even to the bases themselves is conceivable. The potential danger to oil production from open civil war is too obvious to need explanation. Therefore, even from the narrow perspective of U.S. power projection, chaos in Iraq is a bad outcome.

To eliminate a dictator, war works, albeit at the high risk of setting up a situation conducive to the rise of another dictator. But a rapidly modernizing Iraqi society has been destroyed, some 3-to-4,000,000 Iraqis have turned into refugees putting huge strains on the Syrian and Jordanian states, a couple million more Iraqis have become internally displaced people, and the U.S. invasion provoked a campaign of terrorism that still has no end in sight inside Iraq and may well have serious international consequences.

If the goal was to remove a dictator or destroy Iraq as a Mideast power or take control of its oil or acquire a military base, then war worked. If the goal was for Iraq to become a stable U.S. ally, war failed. If the goal was to acquire reliable access to a flood of Iraqi oil, war has so far also demonstrably failed. If the goal was to create a peaceful, democratic society that would demonstrate that al Qua’ida’s vision of the future is wrong, then war was precisely the wrong method for achieving the goal. And in case anyone still thinks the war was about al Qua’ida, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the fulfillment of al Qua’ida’s dreams. Perhaps fortunately for the world, the viciousness of al Qua’ida’s Iraqi operatives was so shockingly evident that it squandered what might have been a huge opportunity to win support. But Iraq was a learning process, and next time Islamic extremists may well avoid the excesses that damaged their prospects in Iraq.

Afghanistan. Afghanistan, invaded by the Soviets to quell a perceived threat of Islamic radicalism that could spill over the border into Moslem Soviet Central Asia, and then invaded again by the U.S. to destroy al Qua’ida and send a message to any other government that might be considering offering that organization sanctuary, represents another social disaster.[1] Opium production is booming, and the Taliban insurgency is spreading.

As with Iraq, if the goal was regime change, war worked over the short term but once again set up the conditions for the deposed system to be reinstalled. The Taliban constitute a social movement, so although war did remove them from power, it looks increasingly ineffective as a method of keeping them out of power, in great measure because many Afghanis join the Taliban because of social and economic injustices that they have personally suffered and continue to suffer. That is, the Taliban filled a social need that invasion failed to address.

If the goal was to destroy al Qua’ida, the war is likely to be judged by history as a failure, as well. Both as a functioning organization and as a vision with the power to motivate people, al Qua’ida seems very much alive five years later. As a means of creating a moderate, functioning society that can participate positively in the global political system or at least take care of itself without presenting a threat to that system, war in Afghanistan has clearly been counterproductive.

Somalia. The third obvious case is Somalia. In 2006 the Islamic Courts Union was well on its way to unifying and pacifying Somalia, bringing effective central government back to the country for the first time in more than a decade.[2] By July 2006, Ethiopian troops were in Somalia, and in December 2006 a full-scale Ethiopian military campaign was launched to back the disintegrating official Somali government and remove the ICU from power. Whether the Ethiopian attack was seen in Washington as an opportunity or was a U.S. war using Ethiopia as its proxy, the U.S. gave diplomatic and military support to Ethiopia.

  • According to Salim Lone in the International Herald Tribune, Ethiopia went into Somalia “with full U.S. backing and military training.”[3]
  • The U.S. was quick to provide public backing for the Ethiopians.[4]
  • The Pentagon has admitted sharing intelligence with Ethiopia, as well as providing arms and training to “intercept terrorists.”[5]

In the year since that Ethiopian campaign began, some 750,000 new refugees have been created in Somalia, and the ICU is now leading a self-proclaimed “jihad” against the Ethiopian forces. The ICU is leading a nationalist effort to free Somalia from foreign intervention and unite that Moslem country under a Moslem movement that will replace the ravages of warlords with the rule of sharia law. The degree to which the ICU sympathizes with al Qua’ida’s campaign against the West is unclear, but the experience of being attacked by the U.S. and its Ethiopian proxy will not easily be dismissed by Somali activists. War destroyed Somalia’s first chance in a generation for peace and effective national government. The threat of a takeover of the ICU by international jihadis wishing to put Somalia on the frontline in a war against the West seems plausibly to have existed. Whether the Ethiopian ground attack backed by U.S. bombing[6] eliminated a great danger or exacerbated conditions to the point of making that danger far worse is not yet clear. What is clear is that Somali society has been further damaged.[7]

Did war work? It is too soon to tell. If the goal was to take control of another oil-producing region,[8] war appeared for a few months to be effective, though this result has recently seemed less clear. If the goal was to reestablish effective government over a peaceful and productive society, it has been a disastrous failure; indeed, even the Ethiopians are now calling for international help to enable them to extricate themselves from the quagmire they created. Perhaps the recent public emphasis on African peacekeeping troops can lead to a process of genuine reconciliation, involvement of significant numbers of Islamic activists in some sort of broad governing coalition, and the reconstruction of Somali society, but the effort required in the aftermath of the year of war appears far greater than would have been needed a year ago.

Pakistan. Pakistan is an emerging case, though here it is not a matter of superpower invasion or proxy war by a neighbor but use of the country’s military against internal opponents. Will military attack with modern aircraft on villagers in Baluchistan, Waziristan, and Swat prove to be a solution to popular grievances and local insurgency or the spark that burns the house down? Pakistan does not fit the Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia pattern; rather, it may fit with Algeria, where another military dictatorship fought against a popular Islamic reform movement that was hijacked by Islamic extremists. As with Algeria, the moderate middle working for democracy is under attack in Pakistan by both the military dictatorship aided by the West and Islamic fundamentalists.

Lebanon. Following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezballah arose in the midst of a combined civil war/Israeli invasion as a nationalist uprising against Israel plus Islamic political movement. Lebanon today stands in the background of the Islamic world as a warning about the long-term consequences of more recent events. A generation after those Lebanese events, Hezballah is the most effective political party in Lebanon, is credited with having forced Israel to retreat after a 19-year occupation, faced a new Israeli onslaught in 2006 and emerged with a stalemate that amounted to a victory, and is in the midst of a peaceful campaign to enhance its political power within the Lebanese government. Hezballah is also an organization with the clear military capacity for violence and the clear political potential for a degree of radicalism many might find discomforting.

Lebanon presents a powerful model for the result of invading a Moslem society a generation later. The destruction, frustration, and anger produced by an invasion generates sociopolitical radicalism. What else could be expected? What is more radical than invasion? Radicalism from one side provokes radicalism by the other.

How closely will the Hezballah model be applied to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia over the next generation? In each country today, Islamic radicalism and nationalism are being mixed in a potent brew:

  • The popularity in Iraq of Moqtada al-Sadr’s activist, nationalist approach with a strong focus on providing civil services and Sunni-Shi’ite violence both resemble Lebanon in the 1980s.
  • The reemergence of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan also intertwines radicalism with nationalism and responds to popular frustrations with economic deprivation.
  • In Somalia, a decade of abuse by warlords led to the emergence of individual local Islamic courts to bring some degree of local justice to a society ruled by force; that, in turn, led to the organization of the Islamic Courts Union political party, once again looking very much like the Lebanese model.


Research Challenge

Do a counterfactual analysis of the Mideast based on the assumption that international peacekeeping forces in Lebanon in 1983 had forced Sharon to end his attack and withdraw from Lebanon. Point: to illustrate the dynamics generated by invasion of a Moslem society and learn lessons from Lebanon of value to today's Mideast/South Asia.


Removal of Israeli forces from Lebanon in 1983 when the international peacekeepers arrived, protection of Lebanon’s sovereignty, the integration of the poor into the political process, and the organization of effective local government that could have provided social services for the poor would have fundamentally changed the course of Lebanese history. Just as violence failed to resolve the problem in Lebanon, it has failed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia; Pakistan remains undecided.

War may be an effective short-term solution to a precisely defined problem (killing a dictator, acquiring resources), but the military campaign tends to be the cheap part if a long-term solution is to be found. Even if the goal is just to avoid having a dangerous dictator, war to remove him is likely to set up conditions conducive to the rise of another dictator. If the goal is to acquire resources, war is likely to create conditions that will hinder the exploitation of those resources (Iraqi oil remains well below pre-invasion production levels; Afghanistan remains too violent for the long-anticipated oil pipeline from Central Asia; Somali oil exploration rights have been held unused by Western corporations for nearly a generation).

If an organization exists that wants to create a war of civilizations between Islam and the West, then it will thrive in Moslem societies that have been wrecked and perceive the West to be responsible. A vacuum exists in such societies – a solution vacuum, a social services vacuum, a security vacuum. If these vacuums are not filled by responsible, caring government, they will be filled by extremists. War just makes the vacuums larger and more vulnerable to extremist pressure.

In the modern, highly connected, and highly ideological world, war between the West and Moslem societies aggravates the problems Western proponents of violence claim to be resolving. War breeds extremism.

[1] .
[2] .
[3] .
[4] .
[5] .
[6] .
[7] ; see also .
[8] For a persuasive argument that oil, not terrorism, was the real reason, see . Also see for a discussion of oil concessions cover two-thirds of Somalia that were awarded by Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre before his 1991 overthrow.

1 comment:

Muslims Against Sharia said...

Many people talk about the need to reform Islam. Now you can stop talking and start helping.

With the help of our readers we went through the Koran and removed every verse that we believe did not come from Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate. However, it is possible that we missed something, and we could use your help. If you find verses in the reformed version of the Koran that promote violence, divisiveness, religious or gender superiority, bigotry, or discrimination, please let us know the number of the verse and the reason why it should be removed. Please email your suggestions to

When we finish editing process, we would like to publish Reform Koran in as many languages as possible. If you could help with translation or distribution of the Reform Koran, please email us at If you could provide financial support, please visit our support page.

In Memoriam of Aqsa Parvez.