Friday, March 21, 2008

The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism

This is the longer version of an essay that was published in the Jeff/NA News-Tribune...

In this essay, I don't deal with the cost of the War in terms of lives (4000 American troops and an untold number of Iraqis) or in terms of dollars ($500 billion-- $6500 from the average family of four, financed by debt [i.e. credit cards]).

On the occasion of the 5th anniversary of the War in Iraq, it’s worth a look at what we’ve accomplished and what it has cost us.

The best news is that we toppled Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime in six weeks. In other words, we won “the war” easily.

But since then, we have been trying to “build a nation” in Iraq—a much more difficult task. Our attempts to establish a new State in Iraq have been a (very) mixed bag—with uncertain benefits and substantial costs in terms of lives and money.

A more sobering cost is that our efforts in the Middle East since the Persian Gulf War have almost certainly encouraged more terrorism. 9/11 seems to have been caused, at least in part, by our post-Persian Gulf troop levels in the Middle East. And our military efforts in Iraq may well be making another 9/11 more likely.

This is the thesis of a 2005 book by University of Chicago political science professor, Robert Pape: Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Pape’s research is based on a study of the 315 acts of suicide terrorism (ST) world-wide between 1980 and 2003.

(Pape also discusses three historical examples of ST: Jewish “Zealots” in opposition to the Roman Empire; 11th-12th Century Ismaili “assassins” [the group that inspired the word “assassination”], and the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. The practice did not recur again until 1980.)

Since many suicide attacks have been done by Muslims, it’s been easy to assume that ST is a “Muslim fundamentalist” thing. But Pape finds that this characteristic is involved in only about half of the cases. The leading instigators of ST—nearly one-fourth of the cases—are the Tamil Tigers, a secular group in Sri Lanka. Even among Muslims who engage in ST, about one-third of them are secular.

If religion is not the primary cause, then what is? Pape observes that the “logic” of ST is strategic, social, and individual. In terms of strategy, ST is an organized effort to leverage coercive power through a series of planned attacks. Of course, ST requires an individual who is willing to give his life for a greater cause. ST also has a social component in that it strives for and relies upon community support. (This promotes recruitment, helps ST groups avoid detection, and provides social praise and financial support for those left behind.)

Pape’s most profound observations relate to the “strategy” of ST. First, all acts of ST have been committed by members of a weaker group against a much stronger military force. In other words, they believe that traditional warfare—and even guerilla warfare—will almost certainly be ineffective. And so, ST is seen as a military option of last resort.

Second, almost all acts of ST have been committed against democracies. This form of government is seen as more vulnerable or “soft” politically (as opposed to dictatorships). Democracies can be leveraged more effectively and are more likely to be restrained in their response. (As evidence of this, one might recall that the PKK engaged in ST against democratic Turkey rather than Saddam’s Iraq. Note also that ST sends an impressive signal about their willingness to inflict damage, even on innocents. It is useful for them to intentionally violate seemingly universal norms about violence.)

Third, and most important, acts of ST have always been connected to a perception that the stronger power is engaged in an occupation of the weaker party’s territory. (Note that this is the weaker party’s perception—regardless of the stronger party’s motive or intent.) ST then is primarily a nationalistic response to a foreign power’s control over its land.

Although religion is not a primary explanation, religious differences can make ST more likely. Religious differences lead to more fear that the occupiers intend to transform their culture. It is easier to demonize “the pagans”. And with religion, it is easier to transform a taboo like suicide into a glorified occasion for martyrdom. As Pape puts it: “Religion matters, but mainly in the context of national resistance.” (Even within Al-Queda, Pape finds that those who engage in ST are more likely to come from lands that are “occupied” than to hold Muslim fundamentalist or Salafist beliefs.)

It is common to argue that Al-Queda attacks us because they hate us or our culture. But think about the timing of the attacks. We’ve had a similar culture for at least 40 years. But Al-Queda’s attacks coincide with our significant (and seemingly unending) troop presence in the Persian Gulf. We averaged nearly 700 troops in the 1980s. But in the ten years after the Persian Gulf War (1992-2001), we averaged nearly 7,000—ten times more.

Moreover, this is the primary reason Bin Laden gives for fighting us: “There is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land.” Bin Laden has also expressed concern that all six Gulf States are occupied by American military bases. While he may have other private motives, it is the core of his public case for support.

Likewise, attacks began against European countries in 2002 and 2003—but only against those which had sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. And the use of ST was clearly instrumental in getting Spain to withdraw its troops. (See also: the Taliban’s recent kidnapping of missionaries from South Korea to get them to leave Afghanistan.)

While Muslim fundamentalists certainly do not like our culture, this is insufficient to promote the social support and individual motives necessary for ST. Moreover, polling data indicates that Muslims with “a favorable view of the United States” has fallen significantly in recent years—indicating that many of them liked us before we were so heavily involved militarily in their region! In a word, it’s not so much who we are culturally as what we do (or are perceived as doing) militarily.

ST is not just a 9/11 thing. The horrible events of 9/11 are easiest to remember. But Hezbollah used ST to kill 243 Marines and drive the U.S. out of Lebanon. Palestinian terrorists have used ST to try to force Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. The Tamil Tigers have used it to encourage an independent Tamil homeland. And Al-Queda has used it to try to pressure us to leave the Persian Gulf region.

At minimum, understanding Pape’s work is helpful in trying to understand the issues—and in particular, why “fixing” the Middle East is not at the heart of this problem. Pape’s policy conclusions are not those of an ideologue. He is not digging for reasons to leave the region and is actually quite open to staying—as long we understand all of the significant costs involved. (As an economist, I love hearing people talk about all of the costs and benefits!)

Pape observes the difficulties inherent in defeating current terrorists without creating conditions that will encourage more terrorism. And he leaves his readers with this warning: “The sustained presence of heavy American combat forces in Muslim countries is likely to increase the odds of the next 9/11.” Is that a cost we really want to pay?