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« Punish the deserving »: the war against terror and its dead ends

In spite of the colossal amount of resource consumed during the operations evoked, none of the coercive options of these last fifteen years has proved effective with regard to the pursued objectives of stabilization.

American F-15Es struck an Islamic State training camp in rural Libya, killing dozens. Mohame ben Khalifa /Press Association. All rights reserved.The events of 9/11 in 2001 gave a boost to militarized policies to fight terrorism. In spite of fifteen years of mediocre results, the United States with a number of allies has persevered in this task. Three days after the November 13 Paris attacks, President François Holland renewed his commitment to this preference by declaring in Parliament gathered in Congress in Versailles: « France is at war ». Prime Minister Manuel Valls proceeded to pronounce the word « war » 9 times within 10 minutes during an interview broadcast on Saturday, November 14, 2015 on TF1[1]. With the multiplication of spectacular and tragic attacks on such cities as Bamako, Brussels, Istanbul or Paris, it has become urgent to question this belligerent political choice.

At the risk of being overly schematic, the militarized fight against terror has evolved in five phases which, each in their manner, have fed political instability in several parts of the world. We should add that these five phases did not so much follow each other sequentially as tend to overlap.

Classical military action

American and European armed forces began by resorting to rather « classical » military actions, aimed at the destruction of the opponent thanks to their technological and fire-power superiority. During this phase, soldiers relied on the operational lessons learned from the Second World War and the Cold War, while sometimes adapting them significantly. The intervention of 2001 in Afghanistan corresponds broadly to this pattern of action. In particular, the invasion of the country that took place between October and December, 2001 had as its objective the overcoming of   Taliban forces through airpower. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, partially motivated by a supposed link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, followed a similar logic.

The infamous « Shock and Awe » plan was aimed at rapidly defeating the Iraqi army through a combination of mechanized and motorized attacks supported by aviation. As is well-known today, these operations by no means contributed to stability in Afghanistan or in Iraq. The American intervention in Iraq, besides being illegal from the point of view of international law, created the conditions for Daesh to emerge. As to the intervention in Afghanistan, it precipitated a political system essentially based on the power of the warlords.

The 2011 air operations in Libya, although not initially aiming at terrorists, also deserve to be considered here. British and French armed forces, with the support of several other armies allied within the framework of NATO, used a 1973 UN Security Resolution to protect the Libyan populations to overthrow the regime of Gaddafi and facilitate his execution. In so doing, these operations contributed to the destabilization of the Libyan state and helped trigger a local civil war. This also contributed to the increasing destabilisation of Mali, due to the release of pro-independence Northern Malian fighters previously integrated into Gaddafi’s security forces. In the end, this NATO intervention is to be considered as one of the causes of the ambient Libyan chaos. Ironically, some of the consequences of this situation, such as the rebellion in Mali or the apparition of Daesh in Libya itself, were and are still analysed by the United States, France and Great Britain through the frame of the war against terror.


Secondly, to respond to the instability directly or indirectly generated by these interventions, American and European armed forces, with the more or less active support of organizations like NATO or the UN, updated their doctrines by focusing on counterinsurgency (COIN) whose aim was officially to « seduce the hearts and minds » of the local populations.

From this perspective, soldiers striving to eliminate terrorist threats in countries like Afghanistan or Iraq had first to protect the civilian populations and participate in the restoration of infrastructures necessary for the improvement of local living conditions. In reality, these efforts did not produce the expected effects. The operations against insurgents were led at the same time as coercive actions, not having so much the objective of seducing the native populations as  eliminating individuals. Therefore, the implementation of the « clear, hold, build » counterinsurgency principle, came along with lethal plans to behead the terrorists’ networks. According to an American serviceman deployed in Iraq during the years 2000: « It’s like Jekyll and Hyde out here, (…). By day, we’re putting on a happy face. By night, we are hunting down and killing our enemies »[2]. In any event, the application of the counterinsurgency doctrines did not stabilize either Afghanistan or Iraq. We should also note that, even after this doctrine was questioned (among others in the United States and in France) because of its very failures in Afghanistan, it did not disappear. The campaign which Turkey currently leads against certain Kurdish groups is another example of counterinsurgency. In these operations, the Turkish armed forces rely much less on the « seduction of the hearts and minds » than on brute coercive pressure.

Military assistance

Thirdly, and in addition to classical and counterinsurgency operations, these interventions were accompanied by diverse forms of military assistance. The fight against terror also consisted in offering military trainings and/or in materially supporting foreign (para)military units and, in some cases,  non-state militias. The underlying objective is to transfer the main burden of the fight onto the shoulders of local fighters in order to reduce the American and/or European military “footprint”. For example, the United States and their allies massively support(ed) Afghan and Iraqi security forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The assessment of this policy is however hardly convincing. In spite of the huge amount of support they received, the Iraqi security forces were not able to confront Daesh militarily. The same can be said of  Afghan security forces not able to prevent a return of the Taliban movement. This modality of the war against terrorism is nevertheless still widely applied in several countries.

It is also disturbing to note to what extent this conception comes hand in hand with an increase of arms sales in favor of otherwise destabilizing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. To name just one example, it is currently well known that military equipment sold to Saudi Arabia had a disastrous effect on the civilian populations in Yemen. CIA operation Timber Sycamore, aimed at supporting, with the help of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, militias opposed to the Syrian regime of Bashar el-Assad may also fit into this category. A growing number of analysts have voiced their doubts over the viability of such operations, stressing that they must contribute to the strengthening of radical fighters. Weapons and funds have fallen into the hands of Al-Qaeda elements along the Syrian-Turkish border. The military support granted to Kurdish Peshmerga’s by the United States and European states such as Germany, Belgium and France, can also be placed into this category of actions. This type of support, intended for a community which has already expressed its desire for autonomy, tends to confirm any doubts concerning the future of the Iraqi state.


The fourth phase is the one dedicated to the development of “manhunts”. This operational modality is actually not new. During the 1990s, militarized hunts were organized against war criminals in the Balkans or against the drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. In the context of the war against terror, this practice became widespread with the use of a special forces “squad hit” mainly deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The elimination of Bin Laden in Pakistan, undertaken without respect for the sovereignty of this state, is part of this operational repertoire.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, manhunts also took a new technological turn with more systematic recourse to drone attacks. Pakistan, Yemen and, in lesser measure, Somalia became operational zones for these unmanned vehicles used for targeted killings. It should be underlined that these attacks are extrajudicial executions whose consequences on the ground are, moreover, not checked independently. Through the testimonies given by French soldiers, one can also consider that the operation Serval (and then Barkhane, spreading over five states of the Sahel) launched in Mali in 2013 amounts to a vast manhunt mostly led by means of motorized vehicles and attack helicopters. The core belief behind these operation is that they improve the security situation through the elimination of “bad guys” (an expression used with great facility by soldiers).

Finally, the air operations led against Daesh in Iraq and Syria for two years also stem from the same cynegetic design of warfare. In reality, the eliminations resulting from these vast hunts have so-far proved incapable of preventing the emergence of new enemies. According to a 2014 CIA assessment, this organization could count on approximately 21.000 fighters, maybe even 30.000. In January, 2016, the Pentagon asserted that 25.000 of its members had been killed. However, also in January 2016, a spokesman of the Pentagon mentioned the figure of 30.000 still active members within Daesh.

These figures, even if taken with all due precaution, suggest that a strategy aiming at elimination has not reached its assigned objectives. Besides, one must not forget that “manhunts” are not without effects on the civilian populations among whom they also cause carnage. As a consequence, in Afghanistan, Pakistan or in Yemen, drone attacks generate resentment against Americans. There are also important links between “manhunts”, the search for information on targets, and the practice of torture and arbitrary confinement (in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, or in Guantánamo or also in CIA « black sites »). Alongside the (otherwise essential) humanitarian and legal aspects, such practices raise technical questions. Testimonies from soldiers who worked in these detention centres stressed that the intelligence obtained under constraint turned out to be of mediocre quality.

Attrition strategy

The fifth operational approach directly ensues from the limitations of the four others. Rather than considering the definitive elimination of their enemy, the drones’ operators sometimes say that their missions consist in “mowing the grass”. This expression was born among Israeli servicemen to describe the fight against the Hamas. According to them, the objective is to contain and weaken the opponent by operations conducted at regular intervals. There is however no possible end to political violence because, in the same way as the grass grows again, the enemy will be back sooner or later. The statements of American and French experts and officers asserting that the fight against terror must be conceived as a long term activity makes the same point. The American general John Allen, interviewed by CNN, asserted in November, 2015 that the United States “would maybe be condemned to fight for ever” against this kind of terrorist threats[3]. French general Jean-Pierre Palasset, at the head of the Barkhane exercise in Sahel, declared that the operation “has no vocation to destroy terrorism completely, that would be conceited. Our will is to contain it at as low a level as possible, that is, in terms of years. It is a fight which is going to ask for a lot of constancy, for a lot of determination, and I think that nobody can give a date, but the timescale is in numbers of years, that it is certain”[4].

In security expert’s parlance, the term which seems best suited to name this evolution is the pompous one of “attrition strategy”. Pompous because, from a historic point of view, “attrition strategies” are very often after-the-fact rationalizations of dead-ends.

In light of the walls and fortifications currently in development in several operational zones, the attrition strategy hypothesis gains further relevance. Kurds, for example, build trenches in Iraq to protect themselves from Daesh. A wall of protection was also set up around Baghdad for the same reasons. More generally, the cities of the North of Iraq became the stake in a war of position between Daesh and Iraqi units supported by the United States and their allies. This phenomenon is also perceptible in North Africa, for example in Tunisia where borders are strengthened with, among others, the help of Great Britain.

Roots of failure?

Can this dead-end be imputed to a possible lack of willpower on the part of the political decision-makers and/or of the military personnel in charge of these operations? Some experts and servicemen indeed consider that the failures of the last fifteen years result from a lack of resolve. The argument is sometimes even expressed in a more cynical register, as in the quotation from an American soldier: « I came to believe very quickly that the only way to gain control in Afghanistan was to exert force. Diplomacy did not work. It’s a primitive culture, one in which strength rules and weakness is trampled. The man with a gun has the power … until someone else gets a bigger gun »[5]. It is true that servicemen deployed are not freely entitled to use their fire power. Political reasons as much as legal obligations restrict their actions. This said, weakness is certainly too strong a word to describe their behavior in operations. Throughout these fifteen years of the war against terror, armed forces have not only destroyed infrastructures and destabilized states politically, but they have also run up significant numbers of civilian casualties.

Soldiers insist they take all possible measures to avoid civilian casualties by implementing more stringent procedures and using equipment ever more designed to differentiate enemies accurately from civilians. But, and despite the fact that it is difficult to report the exact extent of civilian casualties resulting from military interventions, the media and human rights organizations regularly confirm that attacks cause deaths among civilians.

According to Human Right Watch, in 2006 alone, 116 Afghan civilians died from the consequences of 13 air operations led by allied forces in Afghanistan[6]. The same organization stated that 22 air attacks conducted in 2007 had resulted in 321 additional civilian deaths. Some attacks sadly became more notorious than others. Take the case of the 2009 Kunduz truck-tanker bombing, at the request of the German army, whose destruction caused approximately 142 deaths among civilians. This was also the case with the November 2015 American gunship attack that destroyed a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, killing among others a big part of its civilian staff.

The Afghan civilians are however not the only victims of these attacks. For example, in 2012, a drone attack aimed at 20 terrorists in Somalia have resulted in the killing of more than 200 persons. Civil losses resulting from these attacks are presented as “accidents”. Indeed, in most cases, these are accidents in the sense that soldiers did not have the intent to kill and hurt civilians. However, it is more difficult to admit the use of the word “accident” if the idea is to make reference to a totally unpredictable act. It is precisely because the risk of killing civilians is important that the soldiers must take precautionary measures. This implies that the soldiers evaluate an ‘acceptable degree of endangerment’ to which civilians are to be exposed. Soldiers even introduced procedures to compensate victims’ families when a complaint is filed further to the death of a civilian. During the 2000s, in Afghanistan, the US armed forces estimated the compensation for the loss of such a life at approximately 2.500 $.

The idea that the United States and the European countries have been insufficiently aggressive regarding the fight against terror hardly seems to hold water. Moreover, and in the light of the examples given, it is not clear to what extent an escalation and/or a long-term extension of the use of the violence could solve the current political crisis. Nothing in the current arguments of the experts, officers or political decision-makers allows anyone to think that, even if we cross a new threshold in the field of the physical elimination of adversaries, the threat would disappear or be reduced to the point of being considered « under control ».

In summary, and in spite of the colossal amount of resource consumed during the operations evoked, none of the coercive options of these last fifteen years has proved effective with regard to the pursued objectives of stabilization. It is also noteworthy that the notion of victory (even if it has not completely vanished) tends to be much less present in the language of soldiers, experts and political decision-makers.

After the Paris attacks, France and Great Britain decided to strengthen their coercive measures against Daesh. The most spectacular measure adopted was to reinforce air bombing. In reality, there was a wide consensus in the public debate on the fact that these bombings will neither solve the security problem nor contribute to a victory. For many, these bombings were mostly symbolic. To say it in a prosaic way, it meant that individuals were going to be killed by strategically useless bombs.

In this light, it seems once again that the use of these military means leads to a dead end. This said, it is however interesting to note that soldiers and security experts are historically used to such situations. In the past, many of them supported the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, which lasted more than fifty years and whose effects are still felt today (as in the proliferation and environmental management of nuclear weapons waste). It is therefore not at all certain that experts in security issues are deterred by the prospect of several decades of useless war to be waged against terror, given a certain technical and logistical position of superiority, in far-away countries. 

[1] Liliane Alemagna and Laure Bretton, « Manuel Valls : « Nous sommes en guerre », Libération, November 14, 2015.

[2] Dexter Filkins, « The Fall of the Warrior King », The New York Times Magazine, October 23, 2005.

[3] General John Allen: U.S. 'very attentive' to ISIS spread beyond Syria, CNN, November 13, 2015.

[4] Our translation. Arte Reportage, Barkhane: La guerre du désert, December 1, 2015.

[5] Salvatore A. Giunta (with Joe Layden), Living with Honor, New York, Threshold Editions, 2012, p. 88.

[6] Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan: Civilian Deaths from Airstrikes. Airstrikes Cause Public Backlash, Undermine Protection Efforts, 2008.

About the authors

Barbara Delcourt  is a lecturer in political science and International relations at the Université Libre de Bruxelles/REPI).

Julien Pomarède is a PhD candidate in political science and International relations at the Université Libre de Bruxelles/REPI).

Christophe Wasinski is a lecturer in political science and International relations at the Université Libre de Bruxelles/REPI).


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