By: Zaid Hassan
All the way from antiquity to the Cold War, strategy was conceived as “grand strategy” which meant that war was conducted as huge ‘set piece’ battles, where two opposing armies faced each other down, head-to-head, toe-to-toe. From two tribes armed with spears eyeballing each other across a field, to the final days of the Cold War where vast armies of tanks faced each other down across the plains of Europe, grand strategy evolved but largely maintained its set-piece nature. Imagine if you will, strategy as a juggeraught, an army of people, machines and material operating as a single unit, moving in a single direction, with a single fat arrow on a map pointing “towards Berlin,” governed by strict command and control, where orders flow smoothly from top to bottom. This is the world of grand strategy and it largely belongs to a bygone era.
The rise of a multi-polar world put an end to such conceptions of war and hence of strategy. The terrain is too complex or simply too big. There are too many civilians around. Opposing forces refuse to stand and fight conventional battles. The Vietnam War and the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan prefigured the nature of contemporary conflict. The Second Gulf war nailed firmly shut into its coffin the idea that grand strategy still made sense in a multi-polar world.
Into the world beyond grand strategy, a network, Al Qaida has proven to be the most agile of foes faced by the aging grand strategists of Western armies. AQ’s strategy has been articulated by them many times and is simple. The goal is to provoke an asymmetrical battle, where the basic tactic is to goad Western forces into battle spaces where an insurgency can inflict maximum damage. Retreat is to be used tactically, fighting where necessary but melting away without firing a shot where possible.
Mali presents us with the most recent instance of this basic strategy being alive and well. As French President, Francois Hollande departed triumphantly from Mali with his Defense and Development Minister, this departure was followed, only days later by the first IEDs and the first suicide bombing. Whereas in previous conflicts with AQ the United States has repeatedly taken the bait, this time it has been the French. AQ’s provocation in Mali, at the heart of France’s former colonial empire, has threatened French interests sufficiently for them to take the risk of intervention. As we have seen from the past, the easy part is intervening and pushing back the Jihadists, whose three allied groups probably constitute less then 3,000 men at best. The hard part is what happens afterwards. France is looking to fall back and hand over control of the final phase to African Union and Malian troops. Having indigenous troops take on the holding role is a familiar part of the pattern. Where the effort has proven moderately successful, it has required ongoing and constant investments of materiel, including an ongoing air war. In Yemen, this air war, coupled with indigenous troops fighting on the ground has become the modus operandi.
The likely end game as things currently stand is wearily familiar. War is death, official lies and the continued manufacturing of a class of people as the enemy who the West must destroy. We can expect an ongoing low-level battle of attrition in another of Islam’s historic heartlands where most of the people dying are Muslims. In this instance the risks for destabilization extend to North Africa, to Algeria, to Libyan and by extension to the shores of Southern Europe.
Can another scenario be conceived? What other strategic options are available to the West other than to do what they are doing now?
The alternative to fighting is negotiation. In any negotiation parties come to the table for very simple reasons, either there is a carrot or a stick. Unfortunately both sides in this conflict have fine-tuned the art of labeling the other side as irrational beings. For the West, the jihadists are barbarians, images abound of the nature of their barbarity. For the jihadists, the continued racism of the West and the persistence of colonial mindsets provide a perfect mirror image of barbarity. How can two such sides negotiate?
This is where a touch of imagination and courage is needed from the post Arab Spring Muslim world. We, too, need to realize that the world of grand strategy is dead. Newer and more agile moves are needed. Into conflicts such as these we need to see the presence of third party Muslim negotiators. We need to see carrots and sticks being offered from the Muslim world. We need to see the [Egyptian President] Morsis of the Islamic world flexing their muscles, mediating and negotiating, offering Gulf cash on the one hand and the stick of censure or worse from the Islamic world. This is not something the Americans, or the Brits or the French can do.
As French sociologist, Bruno Latour, puts it, “To arrive unannounced among other peoples and put everything to fire and the sword with the aim of pacifying them in the name of a fundamental and already-constituted peace, is not the same thing, the same mission, with the same tension, as appearing, perhaps with the same violence, the same fire and the same swords, and fighting on the battlefield to decide which common world should be progressively pieced together. It is not a matter of replacing intolerant conquistadors with specialists of inter cultural dialogue. Who ever mentioned dialogue? Who asked for tolerance? No, conquerors should rather be replaced by enemies capable of recognizing that those facing them are enemies also and not irrational beings, that the outcome of the battle is uncertain, and that, consequently, it may be necessary to negotiate, and in earnest.”