By Brigitte L. Nacos
Robert Gates, the present and future U.S. Secretary of Defense, writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs that “military force will continue to play a role” in the struggle against terrorists but that the “United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory.” The same holds true for Israel. Just as Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah did not weaken the Lebanese group, the current military conflict in Gaza will not weaken Hamas nor the organization’s will and ability to fight on.
States that are faced with domestic or transnational terrorism will not and should not altogether exclude military options in form of air-strikes or commando raids against terrorist hide-outs, weapon depots, training facilities, or for the purpose of freeing hostages. But even if successful, such limited measures accomplish only modest objectives (i.e., the decimation of a group’s leadership, the rescue of hostages)--they are not likely to end terrorism or destroy terrorist organizations.
Typically, terrorists and insurgents hide among civilians in cities, towns, or villages. In such situations, even limited military operations are likely to result in collateral damage. One tragic example of high risk offensive actions was an August 2008 ground operation by U.S. Special Operation Forces backed by air strikes in the Afghan village of Azizabad, When the dust settled, more than 90 civilians—most of them women and children—were dead along with three dozen or so insurgents. The damage to America’s reputation in this Afghan village, in all of Afghanistan, and in the international community was far greater than the benefit of eliminating a few terrorists or insurgents. Military actions, especially when they involve the death of innocent bystanders, tend to rally supporters and recruit new ones. The mentioned commando operation and surgical strikes against al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan were followed by a surge in violence by the Taliban and al-Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The scope and risk of missile strikes and commando operations in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan by the U.S. military pale in comparison to the Israel’s use of military force against Hezbollah in 2006 and now against Hamas in the Gaza Strip; the same is, tragically, also true with respect to the large number of innocent civilian victims. The outcry against Israel in generally hostile and friendly countries is fueled by the unspeakable “collateral damage” inflicted on the civilian population of Gaza. Ignored by the audiences of such conflicts is the fact that terrorists, by cowardly operating in the midst of civilians, put the lives of innocents at risk in the first place. But in the age of mass-mediated politics, perception trumps reality.
A recent study of all terrorist groups that were active around the world from 1968 through 2006 found that only 7% ended because of military force, 40% because of policing, 10% because they realized their typically very limited objectives. Most importantly, 43% of all these organizations terminated their violence because of political solutions or settlements.
The lesson for terrorist organizations is that the likelihood of achieving their ultimate objectives by continuing their violence is very slim, that there is a far better chance to negotiate a settlement and participate non-violently in the political process.
The lesson for the targets of terrorism is equally telling: Not hard power (whether in form of military action or economic sanctions/blockades) but rather soft power (political solutions) is most likely to ultimately prevail against terrorist organizations.
To be sure, Hamas can inflict pain on Israelis by hurling rockets or sending suicide bombers. And Israel can inflict pain on Hamas by killing its leaders and operatives. But neither Hamas nor Israel will realize the ultimate objectives by terrorist attacks and all out military force.
Thus, both sides should agree to a cease fire now followed-up by swift international measures that prevent Hamas from launching missiles against Israeli targets and from smuggling military hardware and money into Gaza.
Israel, in turn, must end its blockade of Gaza and allow the free flow of food and other supply shipments into the Gaza Strip.
Finally, the incoming Obama administration must immediately launch and lead a new peace process with the goal of a two-state solution and enlist support in the international community. It will not be easy for President Back Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and, hopefully, a new special envoy to the region.
In his recent article, “Change They Can Believe In: To Make Israel Safe, Give Palestinians Their Due,” Walter Russell Mead provides food for thought on this.