There is news about another chapter in the Crusade of Western democracies against what they refuse to label as a problem of Islam. The French have taken on the task of attacking--from the air and with ground troops--a northern Mali "army" of assorted Islamic groups that have threatened to overtake the entire country. American efforts to deal with the same problem indirectly, by training Mali''s army, were a dismal failure. The official army collapsed, a number of trained soldiers left their units, along with their weapons, and joined the rebels.
The French may be better at this kind of thing than Americans, given their long history of ruling huge parts of Africa, including what is now Mali, their extensive cultural and economic contacts, the spread of French (lingua franca), the traditions of the Foreign Legion, and what may be less obsessive concerns for political correctness or improving native governments and spreading democracy.
Not that the French record is perfect. They lost Algeria and fled Vietnam before the Americans entered in force, after a military disaster at what was thought to be an impregnable position at Dien Bien Phu.
The heart of the matter is the problem of dealing militarily with irregular forces, i.e., fighters that are not the disciplined armies of an established government, which stop fighting when their government cries "uncle." Irregulars pursue their religious or political purposes with munitions and money received either openly or on the sly from friendly governments, and have shown an impressive capacity to regroup even after suffering serious losses. They are beholden to no government that can control them, and order them to stop fighting.
The problem has been around for a long time. Upon leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan, one can see carved on a cliff the regimental shields of British troops whose remnants left the country in the mid-19th century. That is, assuming the Taliban have not destroyed those carvings along with other remnants of infidels. George Washington''s strategy against the better trained and equipped British was to operate much of the time as irregulars. The French, Poles, and other nationalist Resistance fighters cost the Germans heavily in World War II, and continued their activities despite the drastic steps the Germans took against villages supporting them.
The problem affects not only military commanders who struggle to identify who is the enemy among a population that is alternately passive and hostile vis a vis outsiders. Lawyers and policy makers stutter and stumble around unclear rules of war. What is permitted and forbidden comes from the history of official armies fighting one another, with clear demarcations--at least theoretically--between soldiers and civilians.
The United States has a mixed record in its colonial wars against insurgents. Its best performance may have been against the American Indians, but that carries with it the shame of doing things no longer acceptable. Fighting in the Philippines proceeded in waves from the end of United States'' formal war against Spain until the onset of its formal war against Japan. Americans don''t often discuss that war. They are still arguing about Vietnam, although Chuck Hegel''s ascendance to the Defense Department--if he is confirmed--may signal the ultimate victory of those opposing that war. The first onslaught against the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9-11 may go down as a victory, providing it is not lost in the more prominent American failures in overlooking the record of the British and the Russians, and staying around in order to reform that country. Aspirations to depose Saddam Hussein succeeded, but the search for weapons of mass destruction was a bust, along with the goal of turning Iraq into a democracy.
Whether all of these operations were worth their costs remains open, especially when measured by the deaths of indigenous populations due to foreign soldiers or to the fighting they provoked between various groups of natives. There are questions both about the numbers of casualties, as well as more painful questions about morality. Estimates range above a million deaths in the Philippines between 1898 and the Japanese conquest, likewise for Iraq after 2003, at least two million dead Vietnamese, and whatever can be said about what Americans and other "advanced" populations did to the natives of North and South America.
My own experience comes from being held up by bandits in the Khyber Pass, stoned while serving in the IDF lecture corps in Gaza, being within 50 meters of a fire fight in Lebanon, seminars with American and Israeli military personnel, and lots of reading and thinking.
It appears to me that efforts to reform foreign regimes, or to train the soldiers of another culture infused with insurgence is costly and destined for frustration. The very presence of foreign bases with their own food, music, and other entertainments in the midst of a miserable and restive population may produce as many recruits for the other side as it produces benefits for the foreign troops, especially if the enemy is Islamic extremism hateful of infidels.
Simpler, and more effective, but only partially, are raids that are very costly for the insurgents, without the outsiders staying around to reform a government or remake a society. Examples are the first efforts of the Bush administration against Afghan sources of 9-11, Israel''s lessons from Lebanon I (1982-2000) applied to Lebanon II (2006), Gaza 2009 and 2012. Significant destruction with no ambitions to control may send an effective message at relatively little cost in one''s own bloodshed.
What to do about Islam remains unanswered. Its numbers, and the varieties of aggressive Muslims get in the way of any known solution. Problems from the Taliban of Afghanistan are not the same as those from immigrant communities and the converts produced in the United States and Western Europe, Somali pirates, or the expansive Muslims of northern regions of Mali and Nigeria. Language, history, religious and other motivating factors--like commerce in illegal drugs and simple gangsterism--confuse analysis. It is not one war, but many fronts and skirmishes where the soldiers of governments or profit-making companies learn by doing, failing, dropping out, or trying some more.
It is wise to think of a long war of attrition with no clear end point.
Israel has been dealing with violent Muslims since the 1920s. Twenty percent of the Israeli population is Muslim, most seem to live peacefully, or suffer more than the Jews from the drugs, violence, and religious fanaticism that occurs in their communities. Yet most Israeli Arabs vote for Arab parties that emphasize nationalistic goals.
Pathetic is the blather of activists who see Israel is the prime problem of human rights, while Israel deals with fighters who target its civilians, and Americans and Europeans fighting far from their homelands ignore the constraints demanded of Israel.
Does it help or hurt to tell ourselves that the enemy is not Islam, but only clusters of Islamic extremists? It is not clear if "al Quaida" is a real organization that operates from Indonesia to West Africa, with branches in Europe and the US, or whether it is a label hiding more than it reveals, used by analysts and media personalities who don''t know what they are talking about.
No one wants to make enemies of a billion Muslims, most of whom may be as worried about the extremists as any Christian, Jew, or member of other communities. Yet Muslims who are not active in the fight may support or tolerate extremists on account of religious sympathies, passivity, family loyalties, or fear. The words from high that the enemy is not Islam may delude innocents who lack a protective covering of cynicism, and may actually get in the way of useful measures, like revising immigration regulations to keep problematic populations away from western homelands. One needn''t revert to the racist barbarity of the not so distant past to find some value in a realistic assessment of threats and enemies. It is hard enough combating armed groups that are not the armies of established states, without fooling oneself as to what is the nature of the adversary threatening what has been constructed under the heading of Western Civilization.