Identifying the pattern in the California and Paris attacks is easy, but fixing it isn't

The California attackers have been described as the next-door immigrant living the American Dream. The victims invariably have been innocent people. These are not senseless, random acts of violence but carefully thought out and crafted, strategic acts.

Wajahat Qazi December 04, 2015 15:30:25 IST
Identifying the pattern in the California and Paris attacks is easy, but fixing it isn't

Colin Gray — a British American strategy thinker — and General Rupert Smith were perhaps among the first to put the character and nature of war(s) in the 21st Century into perspective. Both, albeit with a different approach and methodology, held that wars in the 21st Century would be qualitatively and quantitatively different from wars of yore. While modern history could be held to be an age of wars, the nature and scope of these wars fell along the Total War and Limited War continuum.

Total war entailed the total and unlimited devotion of resources — human, industrial, technological, economic and so on — to the war effort and held both civilian and military targets as legitimate. Total and comprehensive defeat of the enemy was the end goal of Total War. The First and the Second World Wars constitute examples of Total War.

Limited War, on the contrary, as its nomenclature suggests, was more limited in its aims and limited resources and goals defined it. Historically, states veered between these two concepts and ideas of war. The Crimean War, the Falkland Islands War and even the Vietnam War constitute examples of the Limited War type.

Identifying the pattern in the California and Paris attacks is easy but fixing it isnt

File image of law enforcement officers searching for the perpetrators of the San Bernadino shooting. AFP

Two developments threw a spanner into the works of Total War and to a lesser extent Limited War. One was the very nature of states — power-maximising and security-oriented entities; the other was globalisation. The security orientation of states made states take recourse to developing and expanding upon their security doctrines. The major prong of this approach was the development and implied use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons — essentially, non-usable weapons — that work on the calculations and premise of deterrence, by and large, precluded Total War.

An egregious example of this is the Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD) between the United States and the former USSR during the Cold War. In recent history, the manifest and open outbreak of hostility or war between India and Pakistan can be attributed to nukes.

Similarly, and even perhaps counter-intuitively, globalisation threw a spanner into war between states. Characterised by what Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane, called Complex Interdependence, which entailed a dense and voluminous interactions and networks of economic interdependence, war meant throwing these into disarray.

War, however, is a feature of the human condition. This stems from the very nature of humans and states: People are people, and states states. Enter Messrs Gray and Smith. The essence of Gray’s insight lay in defining the nature of war in the 21st Century. He called these wars, ‘irregular wars’. Professor Gray differentiated 'irregular war' by positing two differentiating characteristics: One was the nature of combatants — their political and legal status as 'non-state combatants' and the other was the method they employed — guerilla war and its adjunct terrorism.

General Rupert Smith added the dimension of people as the centre of gravity of wars in the 21st Century. General Smith in his book, ‘The Utility of Force: the Art of War in the Modern World’, held that  a new paradigm of conflict defined the post 20th Century world. He called the new wars ‘wars amongst people’. The defining characteristics of "war amongst the people" are that conflicts tend to be timeless, more political in nature, and fought between parties that are part of, and in amongst, the civilian population rather than between uniformed armies on a battlefield.

Both Gray and Smith’s insights apply to the Paris attacks, the California attacks and conflicts in West Asia. The centre of gravity of these attacks and conflicts are not states but peoples. Attacks, counter attacks, parries and counter-parries appear to be aimed at sowing discord, hatred, dissension and what David Miliband called ‘intergenerational conflict’. People become the lightning rod and the primary audience of these wars.

Consider the Paris attacks and the attack in California. The attackers are non-combatants in the sense of not being part of regular armies — disgruntled immigrants, radicalised young Muslims and what have you. The California attackers have been described as the next-door immigrant living the American Dream. The victims invariably have been innocent people. These are not senseless, random acts of violence but carefully thought out and crafted, strategic acts. The Islamic State (IS) attacks France, kills people; France responds by bombing IS strongholds. Innocents are trapped in this maelstrom of tit-for-tat violence. The natural concomitant on both sides is anger, bitterness, suspicion and the call for recriminations and revenge — precisely the aim of the masterminds.

Identifying the reasons, rationales and nature of warfare employed is the easiest bit. The question and the nagging issue is: Can there be a corrective and antidote to the drift of these events and the motivations undergirding them? The answer sadly is no.

We live in a paradoxical age where the human condition can be said to have both progressed and regressed. A counter-narrative to restore balance to this world is much needed but is form and nature is unknown. Alas!

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