TOPICS : ‘War on terror’: The futility of force

Israel is learning a lesson that the armies of other countries, including the US, have already grasped. Military force can no longer guarantee victory, certainly not in the conflict Israel and its western allies say they are engaged in — the “war on terror’’.

Whether you call them guerrillas, insurgents or terrorists, you cannot bomb them into submission, as the US has found to its cost in Iraq, and as Israel is discovering in Lebanon. Even Tony Blair appeared to admit this in his recent speech to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp organisation. “My concern is that we cannot win this struggle by military means alone,’’ he said.

He was reflecting what his military and defence officials have been saying for a long time. Last September Colonel Tim Collins, who commanded the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment in the invasion of Iraq, said: “We have clearly no plan. We are relying entirely on military muscle to impose freedom and democracy.”

General Sir Rupert Smith, who was NATO deputy supreme commander and commander of UN forces in Bosnia, spells out the limitations of military power in his book The Utility of Force. “We are engaging in conflict for objectives that do not lead to a resolution of the matter directly by force of arms, since at all but the most basic tactical level our objectives tend to concern the intentions of the people and their leaders rather than territory or forces.’’ Senior officers in the British army are wondering whether they will ever again fight a war, let alone win one, in the conventional sense. For them, the phrase “war on terror’’ is a misnomer, one that elevates the enemy and suggests terrorist groups can be defeated by force of arms alone.

Before the 9/11 attacks, the Ministry of Defence had published a paper entitled “The Future Strategic Context for Defence.” No conventional military threats to Britain were likely to emerge, it predicted, in the 30 years to 2030. Instead, it identified terrorism, along with international crime. Prompted by the experiences of the military in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, the Ministry, in a further attempt to drive home the military’s limitations, decided to develop what it calls a “comprehensive approach’’. In this century, it says in the paper, “the symptoms of crisis will be spawned by a combination of climate change, ideology, greed, ethnic animosity, residual territorial claims, religious fanaticism and competition for resources’’.

Military force is no answer to these. What is needed is a “clearer understanding of the root causes’’ of potential conflicts. The paper says there should be more cooperation with other government departments, NGOs and international bodies. The British general who knows this best is David Richards, who on July 31 took command of an expanded NATO force in Afgh-anistan. He knows he is engaged in a battle for “hearts and minds’’, a task that requires political and civil institutions, diplomacy and negotiations, not the barrel of a gun or a bomb from a warplane. — The Guardian