World War III?

By Anjum Altaf

America declared a War on Terror in 2001; France did so formally in 2015; Britain, Germany and a number of other countries had become partners sometime in the interim. Are we then in the midst of a third world war without quite realizing it simply because this war is so different from its predecessors in so many ways? All the familiar markers are absent – the war is not between nations, it is not fought with heavy artillery, it doesn’t have adversaries who sign or adhere to treaties, it doesn’t distinguish between soldiers and civilians.

What kind of a war is it? One must characterize its nature in order to fashion an effective battle plan. What we hear often is that it involves non-state actors that are fanatics motivated by evil ideologies. These are plausible components but as yet insufficiently imagined as to how and why they come together. As a result, responses remain mired in old paradigms – fighting yesterday’s wars except that they are against some evil non-state enemies who possess mysterious powers to draw resources and adherents to murderous causes.

As an alternative, consider a characterization that relies on melding two phenomena with which we are separately quite familiar – cults and guerilla warfare. Cults need little by way of introduction. Many examples come to mind – that of Jim Jones in the 1970s was a major story of the time. Their main characteristics are the ability to draw adherents to esoteric causes willing to follow a leader even to their deaths. However, cults did not engage in wars with states, domestic or foreign, at any serious level.

Guerilla warfare gained significant recognition during the Vietnam War as a strategy that avoided the deployment of heavy equipment or the commitment of large numbers of troops. Rather, it relied on hit-and-run tactics, ambushes, and exhaustion by attrition, both physical and psychological. It is said that the mighty British army was defeated through guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan in the 19th century as was the powerful American military in the 20th century in Vietnam. True or not, guerrilla armies did wage battles against the state but only in geographically confined areas.

Imagine now a combination of these elements – a cult that wages guerilla war against a state or states – and we have a fairly good description of Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Such a combination has become super-charged and potent beyond limited terrains by revolutions in technology. A cult located in the caves of Afghanistan or the badlands of Syria can now mount guerilla attacks in New York, London, Madrid, and Paris and can bring down planes in Egypt. The cult can draw adherents from all over the world willing to give their lives for a cause. And the cult can have members that do not need to be physically together to participate in its activities. They can be distributed all over the world, including deep inside territories that the cult has marked out as targets.

How does one fight a cult whose members are geographically dispersed but globally connected, one that has decided to employ guerilla warfare without concern for civilian lives? How does one neutralize a cult that now has the ability to cripple life by waging a War of Terror in locations that were never before within reach of a traditional guerrilla army?

Every strike draws a greater flow of adherents to its cause. Every loss of a volunteer in the field inspires a score of fresh would-be martyrs. Every provocation limits the freedoms of those it wants to hurts. Every assault increases the probability of drawing its opponents into a fight on its home territory to its advantage.

It is improbable that such combined, globally-linked, cult-cum-guerilla armies can be defeated by a War on Terror reliant on old military strategies like sending troops into Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern societies, cities, and systems are too open to be fully secured against random acts of terror without losing the very openness that is their strength and attraction. Closing the borders is not an answer when cult members can be anywhere and citizens of any country. Relying on ‘hearts and minds’ stratagems doesn’t work in buying off people who are ready, willing, and wanting to die. Technologically sophisticated precision strikes create more enemies than they eliminate.

A start might be made by unbundling the phenomenon into its two components, assessing their relative importance, and addressing each with methods best suited to the task. The capacity of a guerrilla army can definitely be weakened by military means, perhaps at great cost, but even then the payoff would remain limited if all it aims for is one major incident every five years or so while sustaining a climate of fear throughout the period. Drying up the flow of adherents to the cult might perhaps be the more cost-effective way to diminish its strength but military means offer no support in that regard.

A renewed focus is needed to understand who are the individuals being drawn to these cults and why. It is not sufficient to label them brainwashed or to apprehend a few and punish them severely given that they start off prepared to die. There is need to figure out what predisposes them to be susceptible to such brainwashing that they leave families and friends for unknown quests with very high probabilities of death.

Only the reallocation of resources to a concerted effort that yields a more attractive alternative for such individuals might abort the slide into the global war that was triggered by the game-changing strike on the twin towers in 2001.

Anjum Altaf is Provost of Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan. He would like to thank Kabir Altaf for suggesting the cult as a central element in the characterization presented above.

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