Series: What America Needs to Do to Achieve Its Foreign Policy Goals ... Dealing with Terrorism (4)





Mr. Polk taught at Harvard from 1955 to 1961 when he was appointed a member of the Policy Planning Council of the US State Department. In 1965 he became professor of history at the University of Chicago and founded its Middle Eastern Studies Center. Subsequently, he also became president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. Among his books are The United States and the Arab World, The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century, Neighbors and Strangers: the Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and the just-published Understanding Iraq. Other of his writings can be accessed on www.williampolk.com.

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Click here to read the other articles in this series.

What is now being done about terrorism has proven ineffective. We begin with misunderstanding what “terrorism” is.1 It is not a thing, a place or a group. To speak of waging war on it is vacuous. It is simply a tactic which is used in desperation by those who do not have power comparable to those they regard as their enemies. It is the weapon of the weak.

There are several reasons for our failure to develop a strategy to counter it. The fundamental reason is that large numbers of people believe that it is their only means of action. Most believe themselves to be under alien occupation and are fighting desperately to liberate themselves. In Iraq the struggle is against our occupation. In what is left of Palestine it is against the Israeli occupiers (who most non-Americans see as American surrogates) . In Çeçnya it is against the Russians. This form of nationalist struggle is age old. Our ancestors used terrorism in the mainly guerrilla war we call the American Revolution; the Armenians used it against the Ottoman Empire in the first decade of the 20 th century; the Irish used it for centuries against the British; various underground resistance movements in Europe used it against the Germans during the Second World War. In recent times, it has been played out against the British ( Kenya and elsewhere), Belgians (The Congo), French ( Algeria) and Chinese ( Tibet and Sinkiang or “ Turkistan”). When we approved the cause of any one of these groups, we regarded them as “freedom fighters.” When we did not, we called them “terrorists.”

A second kind of motivation arises when groups of people regard their governments as corrupt, anti-national and/or unreligious. The predominant current example is the collection of different ethnic groups we lump together as al-Qa cida and believe to be controlled by Usama bin Ladin. These groups target us because they believe that we are the upholders of regimes they regard as tyrannical. Having despaired of secular nationalism, these people have espoused religious fundamentalism – they think of their movement as salafiya. The word means both to “return” and to “advance.” It is roughly the mindset of the European and American Puritan movement which similarly adopted the notion that they were delegated by God to cleanse the world. Its beliefs are strikingly similar, with the change of a few names and dates, to religious fundamentalism among Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Christians.

The nature of the groups that participate in this form of violent theology and/or violent politics is complex. In my study of all the major examples of guerrilla warfare since the Second World War, I concluded that in every episode, it was possible and useful to identify five major groups. The first, obviously, was made up of combatants or, as the French called them in occupied France and colonial Algeria, résistants. They are necessarily few in number. In the Algerian war, they never numbered over about 13,000 at any given time; in occupied France that was about the number before the German collapse; in Iraq, the number is about the same today. In the Palestine Mandate, they are far fewer. They are the people the great practitioner of guerrilla warfare, Mao Zedong, referred to as the “fish.”

Supporting them are people Mao called “the sea.” While they carry on their normal functions in society, they supply, hide and give information to the combatants. They also are the recruiting ground from which killed or captured combatants are replaced. This group numbers many times the actual fighting force. Its numbers vary with the intensity of the conflict but usually can be estimated to at least 20 times the number of combatants.

The third group is an opportunistic criminal element which is given scope by the breakdown of public order that is an inevitable consequence of guerrilla warfare. It is usually quite small but overlaps with and is tolerated or encouraged by the combatants both because it distracts their enemies and because it often is a source of funds. Occasionally, it merges into the ranks of the combatants. Armenian terrorists in Istanbul occasionally robbed banks; the IRA has done the same; and, in Iraq today, criminal gangs kidnap people from whom ransoms can be collected. In Afghanistan, Çeçnya and Colombia, drug dealing plays a similar role.

The fourth and largest group is made up of those who simply want to be left alone. They can be radicalized by the policies of the occupying power, by nationalism or by religion but, as a group, they are generally passive victims. The fifth group is made up of those who support the regime. In the American Revolution, these people were called “Loyalists” and in Algeria they formed the basis for the French–empowered harkis (auxiliary or light troops). In the defeat of the dominant regime, they are usually forced into exile as the Loyalists were to Canada and the harkis and others were to France.

It does not appear that the American government fully understands what motivates these separate groups or how they interact.

In Iraq, the major American thrust has been against the combatants. This tactic has never worked. As individuals are put out of action, jailed or killed, others replace them. Consequently, terrorism or guerrilla warfare can last for centuries (as it did in Ireland and has in Çeçnya). America and other powers have been operating at the wrong end of the challenge. Even if the repression is absolutely brutal, as practiced by the British in Kenya, the French in Algeria, the Russians in Çeçnya ( Chechnya) and the Israelis in Palestine, the more hatred is generated and the more people move from the group that is passive to the group that is supportive of the combatants.

History shows that the only way to stop the fighting is to dry up the “sea.” That is, when enough of the society believes that it has achieved a satisfactory result of the struggle, it ceases to support the combatants. That is not the result of such gimmicks as “civic action” or even of genuine aid projects but only when the irritant, the outside power, leaves. The sequence is: sovereignty comes before security, not, as we are attempting in Iraq, to achieve security before according sovereignty. That is what happened in Ireland in 1921, in what became Israel in 1948, in Algeria in 1962. Northern Ireland, in Çeçnya, Occupied Palestine and Iraq illustrate what happens when the dominant power attempts to reverse the order: the war continues.

In short, it is evident that terrorism or guerrilla warfare arises from political motivations and therefore must be addressed in those terms. Unless the dominant power is willing to engage in genocide, as the Romans did against the Britons, (occasioning Tacitus’s famous remark that the Romans “create a desolation and call it peace”) it cannot be defeated by military means. Indeed, the more powerful and pervasive the military suppression, the more members of the “sea” become “fish.” We see this in Iraq. There, virtually the entire non-Kurdish population is made up of people who have lost relatives, friends, neighbors and their property in the counter-guerrilla/terrorist war. The numbers illustrate the point. In 2003, American intelligence estimated the active combatants at a few hundred; in early 2004, the estimates had risen to a few thousand; today they stand at 15-20 thousand.

The longer the clash lasts, the more profound its aftereffects. A prolonged clash inevitably distorts, wounds and dehumanizes both the dominant power and its opponents. The chaos it creates breeds warlords, gangsters and thugs as we see so clearly today in Afghanistan and Çeçnya. Algeria still has not recovered from the brutal war it fought against colonial France from 1830 to 1962. Worse, in fighting the inevitably dirty war, the dominant power engages in tactics that corrupt its own values. The very civilization of France was nearly ruined by the Algerian war; the early Zionists would be horrified by what is happening to the Israelis in their occupation of the Palestinians; and I shudder to think of the effect of American tactics (and individual fear) on the young Americans engaged in Iraq. Humiliating actions, torture, even murder become habitual.

The American government, forgetting our own “freedom fighters,” proclaims terrorism irredeemably evil. But, understandably, it does not always and everywhere oppose terrorism. We and the British supported attempts at terrorism against the occupying Nazi forces in various parts of Europe during the Second World War. We were intimately involved with terrorist groups in Central America during the Reagan Administration. More recently, it appears the US government is giving covert arms assistance to a Colombian anti-FARQ paramilitary group which it has labeled terrorist.2 This is dangerously short-sighted as was our condonance of the Nicaraguan Contra rebels and Guatemalan death squads.

What America needs to do is to align its policies in accord with President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation on self-determination of peoples. We live in a world of states but there are many nations that have not achieved statehood. That is, they are communities which are linked by culture, ethnicity and neighborhood but live in states where they are regarded and regard themselves as alien. Most of the tumult so evident in our times is a result of this anomaly: the politically deprived groups struggle to achieve self-determination. The histories of the Kurds, Palestinians, Çeçens are only the more familiar of the experiences of dozens of unfulfilled nations. Once, America was a beacon of hope for them. We should aspire to become that again. But, above all, we must avoid actions that others will see as an attack on their sense of nationhood. That is where we must begin the “war on terrorism.”

1 Although partly for reasons different from mine, this is the point made by the former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke in Against All Enemies ( New York: Free Press, 2004).

2 Frank Smyth, “US Arms for Terrorists?” (The Nation, June 13, 2005.)


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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

As important as trying to reach an answer to the question :"what was the "intent" of those who bombed children ?" is to ask who were the beneficiaries from the bombing and , as such , the prime suspects ?

I contend that many, practically all, nonIraqi groups operating presently in Iraq , each for its own special agenda and reasons, stand to benefit more from this heinous act than any Iraqi or Iraqi resistance supporting group.
Rarely is the question asked "who did this or that ?" of the daily "terrorist" acts we all read about .

The underlying assumed answer being that it was adherents of the Iraqi insurgency .

Some of these acts can be easily and plausibly attributed to the insurgency ; others deserve a harder look at the possible "motives "and the propable beneficiaries in the highly complex , multi regional and international players , that compose the scene that is post conquest Iraq!


omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

As good a description as any that may come out of the looter who clings to the loot, of the usurper who refuses to give up what he usurped , of the criminal who glorifies in his crime, of the racist blinded by his inborn racism; all as lately seen in the withdrawl of Zionist colonizers from Gaza and the wanton killer of innocent bystanders to vent his frustration at giving up his loot!


omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Simon seems to be a master at reading people's minds and coming up with the predetermined conclusions he was always after...irrespective of what was said.
All he needs is for something to be said and the prepacked conclusion is hurled.
To bridge the gap between what was said and his "conclusions" he couches his words with easily retracted, should the need arise, expressions and qualifications!
Witness:"Basically Omar's argument..." by which he pretends to go beyond what was said to its "basics";"he would have realized .." assuming that he did not ;"...but Omar gives the impression ..." and "..It seems people don't matter to him .." safe enough this "impression" and " it seems", pariculary in the absence of any evidence etc.
A conscious attempt at misreading to misrepresent and mislead ? Patently both in abundance.

However if by "such pithy observations " Simon means the interpretations of a sick mind then I would agree with him; his obsevations are pithy enough!


omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Why is it that the demolition of the WTC, the Madrid and London bombings, are considered acts of "terrorism" while the air bombing of civilian shelters, by the USA in 1991 in Baghdad which resulted in some 500 civilain fatalities (Al Amirieh) and by Israel in Qanaa (Lebanon) which led to some 200 civilian casualties, are NOT considered as acts
of "terrorism" but deemed acts of war since both were terribly
"terrorizing" and both led to the same result: the killing of uninvolved civilian bystanders?

(Surely it is not a question of numbers; otherwise Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be the worst ever.)

Is it because the bombimg of the Baghdad and Qanaa shelters were undertaken by regular official armies while the WTC ,Madrid and London were by a " band of irregulars"?

If that is the reason would not that be grounds to maintain that such acts of regular armies are indeed more "terrorist" than those of the "irregular band" since the governments behind those armies are, supposedly, more law abinding and more responsible than the "irregular band"!

Or is it that legally constituted governments have a licence to kill both civilians and military, with or without UN authorization, while "irregular bands" do not?

If that is the reason then it would not be illogical to maintain that such acts of governments are much more criminally " terrorizing " since undertaken by , suppoesedly, entities acting under the supervision of other legally constituted bodies!

Would not that make it "doubly" criminal, by the army/government(1) and its supervisor(2), to undertake and/or condone such acts of killing !

If acts of civilian killings are excusable on the grounds of being inevitable "collateral damage " then its corolary would be that "only those with the capabilty of undertaking "intended/major" ,with some "collateral", killing are allowed to undertake "excusable" killings!"

Would not that mean that either you kill "doubly" or do not kill at all?

Would it not, then, be possible to deduce that: if you can not inflict the "double" killing then the "single" killing is not only more permissible,( IF any "killing" at all IS which it is NOT ),but also "more humane", and less "terrorist", since it results in fewer casualties!

Is it not reasonable to maintain that the nation , whose legally constituted and democratically supervised army and in whose name its army undertakes the killing ,is MORE responsible about the killing than the nation out of which a "band of irregulars" emerged ?

The only "moral" distinction that could be made, in a better more law abinding and human respecting world, is between legitimate resistance to aggression/occupation , excusable as a last resort, and aggression itself.



omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Evil should be fought, injustice should be redressed, aggression should be resisted and the aggressor should be made to pay for his aggression ...is that not what distinguishes man from the animal world: his ability to tell the difference between evil and good, between justice and injustice, between aggression, and legitimate self-defense?


omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

"While it is true that terrorism is a tactic, the view that it is a product of desperation is not well supported by the record."(Re: Terrorism does not arise from desperation (#66700)
by N. Friedman on August 15, 2005 at 8:44 PM)

"Peter
The issue is desperation, not alienation. Neither the Palestinian Arabs, in 2000, nor the London Jihadis this last July were desperate. "(Re: Terrorism has many causes (#66744)
by N. Friedman on August 16, 2005 at 1:33 PM)

Is it the same incomparable Mr.N.Friedman or is it that my eyes are playing games on me?

On August 15, 2005 at 8:44 PM he had the following to say:
"....the view that it is a product of desperation is not well supported by the record."

On August 16, 2005 at 1:33 PM he revised? Edited? Or just added:
"The issue is desperation, not alienation."

It is not that I agree or disagree with his erudition and sagacity on the subject of terrorism as much as I strive to decipher his mind and try to understand him!

Or is it that in the intervening 16+ hours he obtained the "supporting record"?







Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

As with the previous installments of this series, the article fails to properly confront practical difficulties. The theoretical construction of five "groups" involved in guerilla conflicts and the associated metaphor of "draining the sea" are useful starting points for analysis, but are quite insufficient as either historical explanations or as guides for current policies against terrorism.

The article pays little account to state authorized terrorism, and state sponsorship of terrorist groups amd/or their "breeding grounds". This oversight is broadened in the final paragraph which advocates a unequivocal renunciation of "actions that others will see as an attack on their sense of nationhood." Adopted as a universal principle, such a distorted simplification of Wilsonian "self-determination" could well have meant central Europe under decades-long fascist domination from the 1940s on, unhindered ethnic cleansing of Kosovo from the 1990s on, unchecked Taliban tyranny over Afghanistan today, or, for that matter, unimpeded permanent Confederate sovereignty south of the Mason-Dixon line from 1961 on. By the same logic, Germany would have to abandon its current laws against neo-Nazi groups, and Israel would have to allow its settlers to remain in their Gaza fairy-tale land in perpetuity.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Make that 1861 (not 1961) for the starting point of the Confederate States of America !


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

While it is a huge stretch, as Mr. Baker implies below, to suggest that Islamic terrorism is generally a last resort response to oppression and occupation, it is also not credible to write off desperation as major contributing factor. Fanatics can feel desperate for reasons which normal people would find hard to fathom (consider for instance the nut-case Jewish settlers in Gaza who are genuinely convinced that Sharon is some kind of Nazi-like traitor to them). The London subway bombers and the milieu out of which they were recruited, seem, by most accounts at least, to be motivated out of an intense frustration. Alienated, deep down, from both the materialistic nihilism of mainstream UK slum culture and the flacid anachronistic nostalgic spirituality of their parents, these young, malleable second-generation British Moslems, fall -out of desperation for something more solid ! - like ripe fruit into the hands of Al Qeada-like Jihadists whose recruiting is made much easier by the daily horrors resulting from Bush's Iraq blunder, and Sharon's brutal policies
(up until very recently) against the innocent in the West Bank.


John Chapman - 8/21/2005

As usual Mr. Friedman understands no other perspective other than that similar to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee who have been highlighting their viewpoints since 1964.


E. Simon - 8/20/2005

The pithy observations into someone's "sick mind" were based on the questions that Mr. Harris posed, questions which Omar, as we can all see, refused to answer. No need for mind reading here. Just watch the questions posed, and the answers not forthcoming, the topics diverted. If they were thought important, someone would address them directly. Someone, just not Omar.


E. Simon - 8/18/2005

Maybe what you "fear" is looking like a conspiracy-theory wielding foreign policy analysis neophyte of the school who never took seriously the possibility that befriending tyrants would backfire on us.

America should never fear standing up for its allies no matter the consternation of monstrous bullies who treat their own people like scum, all the while shifting attention away from their own deficiencies in order to get away with it. How easily swayed their unwitting apologists are.


E. Simon - 8/18/2005

Basically Omar's argument is that the parents of the blown-up children shouldn't be concerned because the people who did it didn't gain much from it. Of course, if he was human enough to care about those children and their parents, he would have realized that they were the ones who stood to _lose_ the most from it. Some would think this to be the more important consideration, but Omar gives the impression here that he doesn't. It seems people don't matter to him so much as does who benefits from the political goal achieved in killing them. In this respect, he is not much different from the savage animals who _intended_ to and succeeded in blowing up the children. But such pithy observations are, as always, lost on Omar.


Dylan Sherlock - 8/18/2005

What are you quacking now? He said the same thing, twice, differently.


Dylan Sherlock - 8/18/2005

Crazy old Omar had an interesting rhetorical question: "is that not what distinguishes man from the animal world: his ability to tell the difference between evil and good, between justice and injustice, between aggression, and legitimate self-defense?"

Actually... no. Actually... more like the opposite. Human beings have a very poor sense of what is right and wrong... that is why we are in all these messes. Should be fairly self-explanatory.

Animals know how to trust there instincts.


E. Simon - 8/17/2005

Yes, there are certainly many animals in this world who lack the ability to distinguish the crucial difference made by the element of intent when they equivocate between "aggression" and other violent actions. Of course, that doesn't stop them from thinking that they're right and littering their justifications with profuse exclamation points to illustrate the effect. Many even lower (although not that much lower) animals also clamor around their prey with similarly loud displays of mob-like, herd behavior, impervious to such subtleties as reasoned argumentation, preferring instead to howl, bark and yelp in order to get their point across.


Jim B. Harris - 8/17/2005

One thing that comes to mind right away is "What was the intent?". What is the intent of the party doing harm and what are they trying to accomplish?

How many times as parents do we ask our kids, "What were you intending to do?"

When the person in Iraq a few weeks got into a car laden with bombs and drove it into a group of school children getting candy from a group of US Soliders, what were they intending to do?

Unless you are a Native American, and you are a US citizen, at some point your family member came here on a boat or a plane or by walking, not because the US was perfect, but because of the opportunity to succeed, of the potential this nation has because of a great set of forefathers who put forth a series of legal documents that provided for civility, equality, and tolerance. Sure that has been tested over time, it still is till this day.

I think when we support a group that espouses tolerance for other people, religions, lifestyles, we are going to come out on top.




N. Friedman - 8/16/2005

Peter,

The issue is desperation, not alienation. Neither the Palestinian Arabs, in 2000, nor the London Jihadis this last July were desperate.


N. Friedman - 8/16/2005

Typo corrected:

While it is true that terrorism is a tactic, the view that it is a product of desperation is not well supported by the record.

When the Palestinians started their terror campaign in 2000 (or even in 1996), they were not desperate. They were on the cusp of a state and there was no imaginable need for violence - unless, of course, one takes Omar's view (reprinted many times by him on this site) that Israel must be fought until it is destroyed. For Omar's fight, the Palestinians were desperate in that they lacked F15 and the like. But, in the fight for their independence from the Israelis, the Palestinians should have taken up President Clinton's offer in December of 2000. That fight required no arms at all.

I might add, terrorism from Muslims is not desperation. The Jihadis in London were British nationals, not desperate people. The Saudis are not an impotent country yet the Saudis fund much of the terrorism by funding Wahhabi mosques and other institutions which advocate discord and, in some, violence.

So, I think what the good professor writes is largely nonsense.


N. Friedman - 8/16/2005

While it is try that terrorism is a tactic, the view that it is a product of desperation is not well supported by the record.

When the Palestinians started their terror campaign in 2000 (or even in 1996), they were not desperate. They were on the cusp of a state and there was no imaginable need for violence - unless, of course, one takes Omar's view (reprinted many times by him on this site) that Israel must be fought until it is destroyed. For Omar's fight, the Palestinians were desperate in that they lacked F15 and the like. But, in the fight for their independence from the Israelis, the Palestinians should have taken up President Clinton's offer in December of 2000. That fight required no arms at all.

I might add, terrorism from Muslims is not desperation. The Jihadis in London were British nationals, not desperate people. The Saudis are not an impotent country yet the Saudis fund much of the terrorism by funding Wahhabi mosques and other institutions which advocate discord and, in some, violence.

So, I think what the good professor writes is largely nonsense.


brian gregory sieben - 8/15/2005

I think that Mr. Polk should also point out the terrorist tacticts used by the powerful, not just the weak. Mr. Polk described how the Armenians robbed multiple banks to finance their "terrorist opperations". This is just not the case. I presume that Mr. Polk is talking about the taking over of the Ottoman Bank by Armenian nationals. The Armenians took over the bank and were prepared to blow it up to gain the attention of the embassies in the area. Before this time, the embassies did little to no protesting of the murderous policy that Turkey had adopted against the Armenians. The taking over of the bank was not for financial reasons, as they had no plains to take any of the money. They pointed this out later once they were whisked away under cover of darkness by the French because they would have been lynched by the Turks! Now I believe that Mr. Polk should also have discussed how the Turkish police incited the Turks of Constantinople to rape and pillage the local Armenian community during the bank take over. Over 5,000 Armenians lost their lives in the ensuing 3 days of the bank take over. How many Turkish lives were lost? 0. none. Now I do not hold a PHD in terrorist studies, but who sounds like the terrorist body in this case?


Bill Heuisler - 8/14/2005

Mr. Polk,
Your language seems overtly political.
Dictionaries describe terrorism as unlawful acts of violence and include attempts to overthrow a government.

Since governments make laws, the term, "unlawful" becomes meaningless for rebellions against a government unless we accept "unlawful" as meaning universally accepted crimes against humanity - for instance, deliberately killing or injuring innocent women and children.

You therefore confuse terrorists with resistance or partisans throughout your article.
You wrote:
"Our ancestors used terrorism in the mainly guerrilla war we call the American Revolution."

There is no instance I can recall when Americans targeted civilians during our war against England. Will you please supply one?

Further, you wrote:
"In recent times, it (terrorism) has been played out against the British ( Kenya and elsewhere), Belgians (The Congo), French ( Algeria) and Chinese ( Tibet and Sinkiang or “ Turkistan”). When we approved the cause of any one of these groups, we regarded them as “freedom fighters.” When we did not, we called them “terrorists.”"

With the possible exception of Jomo Kenyatta and his Mau Mau, please name a publication/speech/book by persons not involved in the conflicts that has referred to American colonists or Tibetan resistance to the Chinese invasion as terrorists.

Failing that, please differentiate between the deliberate targeting of civilians in night clubs and office buildings and the deliberate targeting of military and government personnel where, if civilian deaths occur, they are incidental to the main purpose of the operation. Without such differentiation you do not distinguish between moral and immoral and - for civilized people - you lose all credibility.
Bill Heuisler


Daniel Ciaramella - 8/14/2005

thank you for telling it like it is.
most Americans have felt that way since the end of WW2 and the blind support of our "friend" in the middle east but fear to say what they feel since anything that does not agree with Us and isreal policy
of genocide and occupation is labled anti semetic and un patreotic. I never thought when i served my country that i would have to fear telling the truth as i see it.