General Sir David Richards, commander of the British military and former NATO
commander in Afghanistan, gave an extremely important and easily misunderstand
interview to the Sunday Telegraph. The headline statement has been Richards’s
remark that military victory against al-Qaida and the Taliban is not
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Many have seen this quote as one more example of a disturbing
trend in which the West lacks the willingness to attain victory – the patience
and staying power to fight the revolutionary Islamist threat whose very
existence is denied by all too many. This is certainly a real issue and
reasonable concern, but Richards isn’t joining that kind of thinking.
great, secret weapon of these radical forces is a refusal to compromise or give
up. No matter how long the battle goes on, how many are killed or how their
countries are wrecked, these extremists will go on fighting. This gives them two
First, they can wear down (or think they are wearing
down) their enemy by outlasting them. The idea is one of winning victory by
getting the other, stronger side to give up because its people fear death or
don’t want to continue paying the financial price of the conflict, or just lose
Second, they can play on internal defeatist forces on the part
of the West. Just by forcing them to kill your people, wreck your
buildings and inflict suffering, they can be made to feel so guilty as to
abandon the struggle.
There are many in Western political, intellectual
and media circles who advocate appeasement, concessions and even surrender. But
this does not seem to be what Richards is saying.
According to his
interview, Richards views this is as a necessarily protracted struggle; his
estimate is that the battle will go on at least 30 years. He points out that
military means alone cannot root out an idea.
Richards claims one cannot
defeat ideas merely by fighting wars. Islamism, he avers, isn’t going to
disappear, nor does he wish to challenge the right of “fundamentalist” Muslims
to hold their beliefs.
Instead, he puts forward a practical, functional
definition of victory: contain the enemy, prevent it from attacking you. In his
words: “You can’t [achieve victory through combat]. We’ve all said this –
[General] David Petraeus [the US head of NATO forces in Afghanistan] has said
this... In conventional war, defeat and victory is very clear cut and is
symbolized by troops marching into another country’s capital. First of all you
have to ask, do we need to defeat it [Islamist militancy] in the sense of a
clear-cut victory? I would argue that it is unnecessary and can never be
“I don’t think you can probably defeat an idea. It’s
something we need to battle against as necessary, but in its milder forms why
shouldn’t they be allowed to have that sort of philosophy?
“It’s how it
manifests itself that is the key, and whether we contain that manifestation –
and quite clearly al-Qaida is an unacceptable manifestation of it.”
think a lot of what Richards says is reasonable, though it also contains some
dangerous implications. He is obviously not advocating retreat, since he says
the NATO operation in Afghanistan has been largely successful and opposes
withdrawing in the near future. The problem, rather, is that he is
(understandably) focusing on his job of being a British general and fighting
BEFORE CONTINUING, however, it is necessary to point out a
potential disaster in Richards’s words that reflects serious errors in Western
thinking. If the West focuses only or overwhelmingly on blocking attacks against
itself in the short run, that will lead to more attacks in the long
The idea that the revolutionary movement’s main front should be
launching terrorist attacks on the West is an al- Qaida strategy, not one of the
revolutionary Islamists generally. This fact means that Western military and
intelligence forces are engaged in fighting al- Qaida. But it is not the main
strategic threat. It didn’t take over Iran, the Gaza Strip or large parts of
Lebanon. Al-Qaida didn’t wage civil war in Algeria or Egypt. The main
strategic threat is not scattered terrorist attacks but a political
transformation of the Middle East – countries with huge territories, tens of
millions of people and billions of dollars in resources, all of which can be
used to spark a lot of future wars and attacks.
Consequently, if the top
Western priority is preventing attacks on itself, the second top priority should
be keeping Islamists from taking over other countries and using them as bases
for further expansion. When Islamists take over somewhere – as in Turkey or the
Gaza Strip – it invigorates that ideology, gives it additional financing and
safe havens, and inspires many thousands to join its ranks. Coddling Syria,
partner in the biggest Islamist alliance, has the same effect.
NON-CONVENTIONAL wars against irregular forces that are fighting for an idea have
their special problems. In 1945, many Allied leaders doubted that capturing
Berlin or taking Tokyo would wipe out Nazism or Japanese warrior fanaticism. In
fact, though, this was achieved because those ideas were seen to be costly
The Middle East’s modern history is not so different. True,
some basic concepts – expelling Western influence, destroying Israel, finding
some miracle solution to become wealthy and powerful overnight – did remain over
Yet the ideas building mass movements and inspiring attacks were
discredited, including Nasserism in the 1950s-1970s era; Ba’thism as a regional
movement; Marxism; Cuban-style guerrilla warfare; the belief in Saddam Hussein
as messiah; the belief in quick upheavals after Iran’s revolution; and faith in
Osama bin Ladin as messiah. Each time an idea was defeated, some years of
relative quiet went by and the scope of the problem was often reduced.
prove a movement and its ideas have failed, the first step is to ensure that it
doesn’t win a quick and easy victory. The second step is to defeat it
soundly and throw it out of power where possible, as happened in Afghanistan. In
other places, though, the West did the opposite, for example, saving the Hamas
regime in the Gaza Strip.
The third step is to root out the movement in a
serious manner. The West doesn’t have the stomach to do the dirty work necessary
to succeed here. And given the fact that the present-day problem is within the
framework of Islam, it is probably impossible and certainly undesirable for it
to do this.
So who can do it? Other Muslims. The Saudi, Algerian and
Egyptian regimes, with all their shortcomings, have been willing to fight in
The PA has been too weak to do so and too eager to use the
Islamists for its own purposes against Israel. The Lebanese government has been
too weak while lacking Western support and facing an enemy which enjoys full
Iranian-Syrian backing. In Afghanistan, the government – partly due to its
sensing Western faint-heartedness – also seems inclined to try to make a deal
with the Taliban.
The final stage is an ideological assault on the enemy
ideology. But given the “infidel” nature of the West, its ignorance about Islam
(albeit an ignorance that is the exact opposite of what it is usually accused of
holding) and refusal to acknowledge how jihadism and revolutionary Islamism are
deeply rooted in the texture of Islam, this also can only be accomplished by
The real moderate reformers are too weak; Muslim phony
moderates and apologists for the radicals try to hide the truth. That leaves
governments in Muslim- majority countries, some of which are incapable of tough
action. Moreover, even the strongest Muslim-majority country regimes use this
weapon against their own enemies, and thus keep it alive.
however, the West can understand the nature of the enemy and the basis of its
appeal. And it must understand that radical Islamic views and practices on its
own soil are likely to lead to revolutionary Islamist movements.
is saying that the Taliban, al- Qaida and revolutionary Islamists aren’t going
to be dissolved into nothingness by Western military action.
But there are other ways of attaining victory.