On March 22, 2016 Brussels has been targeted and no less than 32 persons died in coordinated attacks against the Belgium capital. For many in Belgium, in France and across European countries, there is indisputably no doubt about terrorism equating warfare. Is imposing a stronger and mightier violence the only way to stop violence? Strong to the extent that whoever started the cycle of violence will be deterred by our own violence? One could wonder. An earlier version of this piece appeared on the RTBF, the Belgium public broadcasting organisation of the French community of Belgium.
Five days before the March 2016 Brussels attacks, the EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove declared on Belgian Television that one should expect attacks on European soil. He suggested that every effective military operation against Daesh increases the chances of retaliation. On March 22, 2016 Brussels has been targeted and no less than 32 persons died in coordinated attacks. For many in Belgium, but also in France and across European countries, there is indisputably no doubt about terrorism equating warfare. One could wonder.
War on terror
It would be quite hard to argue that international security policies implemented over the past fifteen years were not influenced at all by the American agenda firmly established as a response to 9.11. The global war against terrorism initiated by the US has been implemented, more or less enthusiastically, by every single American ally. At the core of the American foreign policy since 9.11 lies a simple conviction: the recourse to armed forces is an absolute necessity and weapons should do the talking. Three days after the November 2015 Paris attacks, French President Hollande did not deviate from this course of action when, in front of the Parliament, he declared France to be at war with Isis. Since 2001, and on an operational level, that desire for defeating terrorism with iron resolve became a clear reality. Whether one talks about War in Afghanistan (since 2001 and onwards), in Iraq (2003-2011), Libya (since 2011) or Mali (2013 and onwards), the military option is not viewed as an option anymore but an undisputable necessity. Despite Barack Obama’s effort to end the war on terror by limiting its scope, American, British, Danish, French, Italian, Dutch and Belgian troops are still engaged on the ground and armed interventions have been ratcheting up since. When in 2014 Belgian F-16 fighters have carried out their first attack in Iraq it has been publicised as a success by the Belgian defence ministry but it was also declared that Belgium could no longer afford to continue funding air operation in Syria and Iraq. Two years later, following the Brussels attacks and the visit of U.S Secretary of State John Kerry, Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel confirmed plans to resume F-16 air-strikes on ISIS targets. In the meantime, Belgian citizens also learnt that their government could authorise its pilots to drop bombs in Syria in the months to come. Across European countries the talk evolves around escalating drone attacks and Special Forces.
The law of unintended consequences
Over the past fifteen years, western powers have been military engaged in Middle-East, North Africa and the Sahel region. In the way the United States and its allies keep at it (from a political, financial and human resources’ points of view), one could argue that the war against terrorism had been a huge success. But in reality it sounds more like a failure. One could even say a catastrophic one. Instead of fighting terror, military interventions have contributed to the emergence of new threats. Was it not the case with the 2003 invasion of Iraq mostly motivated by both the fear of (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction and (non-existent) links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda? In terms of political instability, the consequences of this operation were dramatic and still are. The marginalisation of the Sunni community which followed the American invasion widely contributed on the way up in power of Daech. Libya and the role of the intervention led against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi by a coalition gathered on the initiative of France and Great Britain in 2011 would be another unfortunate example. The intervention in Libya’s civil war played a decisive role in the overthrow of the regime but also fuelled the conflict. Gaddafi’s militias moved south to Mali and contributed to the destabilisation of the country. This year, France and the United States again bombed Libya. Their objective was to weaken a local group affiliated with Daesh. Libya is still wracked by violence and political polarisation and one could easily argue that violent jihadist movements grew out of these interventions, occupations and supports over the time for not so democratic political regime. Even Barack Obama is now admitting that the lack of careful planning for this intervention has left the country spiralling into chaos.
Direct and indirect effects
The “classical” interventions do not however constitute the only problem. In the context of the “global war against the terrorism”, The United States and their allies have also produced forms of political instability in a more indirect way. In Afghanistan, the United States became allied to local warlords. In spite of their disastrous reputation, the United States supported them financially and materially, making the stabilisation of the country almost impossible. Likewise, in 2006, the United States also supported a disastrous Ethiopian offensive against Somalia, contributing to widen the zone of instability to this region. Some rebel groups supported by CIA in Syria are considered close to Al Qaeda, sworn enemy of the United States. It is also said that certain weapons supplied to these groups finally fall in the hands of radical elements. Massive amount of military equipment delivered by the United States to the Iraqi army also finished in the hands of Daesh, also contributing to feed local instability. Saudi Arabia, in spite of its tolerance towards the most radical movements and its autocratic regime, had no problem to get military material, including in Belgium. A coalition led by this state even received the support of Great Britain and the United States to lead a brutal war in Yemen which makes numerous civilian victims. Finally, always within the framework of their commitments against the terrorism, the United States and the Europeans were not either very concerned by the political nature of their allies in Africa, in the Middle East or in Asia. In its war in Mali, France leaned militarily on her Chadian ally and hence contributedto legitimize the dictatorship of this state. Great Britain, France and the United States did not either stop supporting, among others through weapons supply, the new and repressive Egyptian regime. The same regime launched brutal counterinsurgency operations in the Sinai. Again, these operations were not without impact on the civilian populations.
Undoubtedly, if we want to understand what happened during the past fifteen years, it would be sensible to keep in mind the logic of “us against them” that prevails in the grand design of the fight against terrorism. However, in light of these extended damages caused by the war against the terrorism, it is – once again – time to wonder if the term “war” is actually the most appropriate one. In his monograph dedicated to the insurgency in northern Uganda – one of Africa’s longest running and most intractable conflicts – Chris Dolan develops his concept of “social Torture”. While torture is usually seen as perpetrated against individuals by a limited range of actors, he expands the frame to encompass what he calls “social torture” executed against whole populations, intentionally and unintentionally, by a variety of agents. Like individual torture, social torture involves violation, humiliation, debilitation, dependency, dread, and disorientation. In many respects, this notion is extremely useful when it comes to describe the situation of the different populations living in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya or in Syria. These populations are literally caught between a rock and a hard place, between ferocious insurgent groups and aggressive local, national but also international groups aiming at defeating terrorism whatever and wherever it could be. It is these populations which suffer the most through the destructions of their houses and properties and are accidentally or deliberately aimed by the fighters. As Dolan reminds us, with the loss of their livestock and access to their farmland, people were impoverished and dependent on food aid. Unable to support and protect their families, men’s roles were undermined and this fed into increasing militarisation through recruitment into the national army, the rebel forces, or the local militias.
Quite clearly, people displaced by conflicts are of the utmost concern. It has always been the case but it is certainly even more important nowadays. Since 2011, the civil war in Syria is by far the biggest driver of migration. And the extremely harsh reactions of some the EU member states to migrants are alarming. Between the rise of groups of vigilantes, the tightening of every European eastern borders and the recent deal between the EU and Turkey, it seems that the tendency is to securitisation rather than any kind of humanitarian approach. Not to mention the various disgraceful videos of Turkish coastguards using sticks to hit a migrant boat. This securitisation of migration is unfortunately not new but takes a different level when an organisation such as NATO recently stepped into the debate on the “migrant crisis” and deployed warships to the Aegean Sea in an attempt to deter smugglers. How far are we from social torture as expressed by Dolan? The securitisation of the migrant crisis produces the same types of violation, humiliation, debilitation, dependency, dread, and disorientation that fifteen years of war against terror have produced.
Fifteen years of war against terrorism were not enough to eliminate the threat and nothing allows, at the moment, to think that the continuation of this policy is going to solve the problem. Despite the clear evidences that instead of fighting terror, armed interventions have fuelled it everywhere, even boosted jihadist recruitment, Belgium seems to be decided to continue in the same misguided direction. It is urgent to rethink this militarised security policy. Rather than to resort to counterproductive military tools and to waste resources in the acquisition of new weapon systems (like fighter-bombers), we would better advised to consider other directions. Is “de-escalation” such a bad word that no-one should use it? Dedicating more resources to diplomatic efforts and relying on ordinary police and judicial tools to fight terrorism sounds like a sensible thing to do. To refuse to use “terrorism” as a catch-all cover for legitimising aggressive war as well. It might be the only way we have to overcome the logic of social torture.
. Chris Dolan, Social Torture. The Case of Northern Uganda, 1986-2006, New York and Oxford, Berghahn, 2009.