The scorpion’s tail

The Scorpion’s Tail’ is a valuable contribution to the literature —and debate—on whether present strategies to deal with militancy, insurgency and extremism are adequate or misplaced in their emphasis.

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi (GEOPOLITICS)

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Published: Wed 24 Nov 2010, 8:53 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

Written by Zahid Hussain, one of Pakistan’s top journalists, the book is an insightful account of the rise of militant groups in the country and how their power and reach expanded after the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan, which has become America’s longest war.

One does not have to agree with all that the author says to benefit from his gripping account. This is not some armchair commentator but an experienced journalist who goes out into the field to uncover the facts and form judgments on that basis.

This is a timely publication because it comes on the eve of Washington’s much anticipated December review of its Afghan war strategy. It also coincides with a delicate juncture in Pakistan’s counter militancy campaign when critical transitions are underway—in areas that saw military offensives last year— to consolidate these gains..

Two key aspects of the book raise critical questions about the fate of counter-insurgency efforts as also prospects for the war in Afghanistan, which as the author puts it: “has led to stronger alliances among Al Qaeda, the Taleban and a host of militant groups and has inspired a flood of new recruits”.

The crux of the book lies in the following assessment: “The strategy ….. has failed to account for the ability of (militant) groups to regenerate…The killing of senior leaders has little effect on their operations”.

This emphasis on the flow of recruits is by far the most compelling part of the book. It raises the question whether the overwhelming reliance on military means—in Afghanistan and in some ways in Pakistan—has distracted attention from the need to address the ideological and political dimensions of the challenge. If there is a steady stream of young men eager to replace those neutralised by the kill-or-capture approach, is the campaign against terrorism being won or lost?

The “relentless rise” of militancy poses the question whether a militarised approach has dispersed the threat and made it harder to deal with rather than diminish it. The point is that unless counterterrorism strategies are devised so to be able to thwart recruitment and break the cycle of radicalisation they will fall dangerously short of being effective.

The book is the first to examine the blowback effects of drone strikes—what has increasingly become a weapon of choice for the Obama Administration. Hussain draws the conclusion that the strategic costs of these raids have far exceeded the tactical gains, and questions whether the drones can tip the balance in the fight against insurgency.

Apart from the legal and moral issues it raises, an approach that evaluates its effectiveness by body counts achieved through targeted killings misses the point: unless there is a strategy that prevents others from following the path of violence and halts the flow of recruits from disaffected youth, terrorism or militancy cannot be successfully combated.

The limits of a decapitation strategy are evident from the fact that it has done little to stop—and may even have encouraged—the steady stream of fresh recruits into militant organisations. It has had the perverse effect of motivating groups to enlarge their objectives and sphere of operation. As others have pointed out the drone strategy has also unified militant groups and inspired them to pool resources and cooperate with one another.

A one-dimensional, intensely kinetic approach that measures gains by how many leaders or militants are eliminated rather than how the flow of recruits is retarded cannot be deemed as either wise or effective. An American academic, Bruce Hoffman, has convincingly argued that a drones-reliant approach reduces fighting terror to a game of checkers or drafts, whereas counter-terrorism should be like engaging in a game of chess. This means understanding the threat and responding to how it changes by a strategy that uses reason and guile not just brute force.

Zahid Hussain says that drone attacks have already driven Al Qaeda into closer collaboration, even reliance on local militant groups and this poses an even more complex threat.

The Obama Administration’s ramping up of the drone campaign is reflected in 102 such strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas so far this year. The number of attacks since September 2010 has exceeded those in the first five years beginning in 2004. If the CIA’s current assessment is that there are a hundred Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, and 200 or 300 in Pakistan’s tribal region, then 200 strikes by Hellfire missiles in Pakistan’s border region since 2004 should have eliminated most of the Al Qaeda leaders and members.

Hussain’s book should hopefully focus attention on revisiting the approach to militancy and radicalisation with more emphasis on causes and not just symptoms. A multilayered strategy is needed that employs a diverse tool kit including efforts to engage in the ideological battle to counter the narrative the militants use. Inability to address the factors that create a breeding ground for militancy and feed the narrative used by terrorist groups means ignoring what regenerates their network of supporters.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom

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