The Rise of Terrorism

From Moisés Naím’s brilliant book The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be, on the decline on big powers in favor of small upstarts. This section deals with military capabilities in particular:

Smaller forces are proving successful with increasing regularity, at least in terms of advancing their political goals while surviving militarily. The Harvard scholar Ivan Arreguin-Toft analyzed 197 asymmetric wars that took place around the world in the period 1800-1998. They were asymmetric in the sense that a wide gap existed at the outset between the antagonists as measured in traditional terms—that is, by the size of their military and the size of their population. Arreguin-Toft found that the supposedly “weak” actor actually won the conflict in almost 30 percent of these cases. That fact was remarkable in itself, but even more striking was the trend over time. In the course of the last two centuries, there has been a steady increase in victories by the supposedly “weak” antagonist. The weak actor won only 11.8 percent of its conflicts between 1800 and 1849, as compared to 55 percent of its conflicts between 1950 and 1998. What this means is that a core axiom of war has been stood on its head. Once upon a time, superior firepower ultimately prevailed. Now that is no longer true.

The reason is due in part to the fact that, in today’s world, the resort to barbarism by the stronger party,—for example, indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian populations in World War II, the use of torture by the French in Algeria, or the target assassinations of the Vietcong under the Phoenix program in South Vietnam—are no longer politically acceptable. As Arreguin-Toft argues, some forms of barbarism—the controversial Phoenix program, for example—can be militarily effective in relatively short order against the indirect attacks of a guerrilla warfare strategy. But in the absence of a true existential threat to a stronger state, especially a democracy where military policy can come under intense public scrutiny, no such strategy is politically viable. As retired General Wesley Clark, a Vietnam veteran and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO, told me: “Today, a division commander can directly control attack helicopters 30 to 40 miles ahead of the battle, and enjoy what we call ‘full spectrum dominance’ [control of air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace]. But there are things we were doing in Vietnam that we cannot do today. We have more technology but narrower legal options.” The “successes” of an autocratic Russia’s savage tactics in Chechnya or of Sri Lanka’s brutal suppression of the Tamil Tigers are bloody examples of what it takes for superior firepower to win today over a tenacious, if militarily weaker, adversary.

The prominence of political factors in determining the outcome of asymmetric military conflicts helps explain the ongoing rise of the ultimate small actor—the terrorist. We have come a long way since terrorism’s roots in the state during the revolutionary French regime’s “Reign of Terror” from September 1793 to July 1794. Although the US State Department has designated around fifty groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, the number of active groups is easily double that, some with dozens of members, others with thousands. Moreover, the ability of a lone individual or small group to change the course of history with an act of violence was evident even before the Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo helped start World War I.

What sets apart modern terrorism—as epitomized by 9/11; other Al Qaeda actions in London, Madrid, and Bali; the Chechen attacks in Moscow; and Lashkar-e-Taiba’s attack on Mumbai—is the elevation of terrorism from a matter of domestic security (i.e., for each country to handle in its own way) to a global military concern. Terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden and his organization prompted governments from more than fifty countries to spend well over a trillion dollars safeguarding their populations from potential attack. A key French defense strategy paper of 1994 contained 20 references to terrorism; its 2008 update mentioned it 107 times, far more frequently than war itself—“to the point,” wrote scholars Marc Hecker and Thomas Rid, “that this form of conflict seems to eclipse the threat of war.”

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