Photo above: The Hertford Bridge in Oxford, England. Used by Permission. © Tom Ley 01302 782837

Monday, January 25, 2010

Terrorism is a Symptom, Not a Disease by Dr. Mary Manjikian

In 1902, Britain’s armed forces suffered the most crushing defeat the British Empire had ever known. In total, over sixty thousand military and civilian casualties were sustained on both sides in a brutal war in the African Transvaal region. Despite the numerous English troops which volunteered or were called back into service, as well as the reinforcements brought in from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, at the end of three years the British Army admitted defeat and ceded control of the region to the White South Africans who would go on to establish apartheid rule.

England’s manpower was simply no match for these Boer farmers -- who were better equipped, who knew the terrain better, and who utilized insurgent tactics and guerilla warfare to bring the British Army to its knees. A few short decades later, the British Empire would come to view this War, sometimes referred to as “Britain’s Vietnam” as the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

But it’s strange how difficult it is to view history’s trajectory from inside the events themselves. It is only in retrospect that history takes on a shape and events connect together in a logical fashion, and one can begin to discern chains of causality.

Back in 1892, most British analysts did not see the stunning defeat in the Boer War as the beginning of anything, much less the downfall of the British Empire. Instead, they viewed it as a short-term setback and hearings in Britain’s Parliament focused on the intelligence failures which led to Britain’s army being understaffed, underprepared and outgunned. British military intelligence had, according to these hearings, failed to anticipate how much equipment might be needed in the Transvaal region if threats to governance were to emerge.

These same analysts failed to cultivate the right sources of domestic intelligence, and failed to picture and plan for hypothetical scenarios involving conflict. However, few analysts were able, at that juncture, to see the big picture – either that Britain’s empire was overextended with too many commitments throughout the world or that national movements were beginning to arise which queried Britain’s role and interests in the region.

These were not issues that could be fixed by better intelligence. Intelligence, instead, focused on tactical, short-term solutions to what turned out to be long-term strategic problems.

But the question is whether this story of long-ago events is any way relevant to recent events in the United States, involving America’s own “empire”. I feel that it is.

One can discern a similar pattern in the last months – in our own administration’s focus on correcting and identifying short-term solutions to the US intelligence “crisis” rather than taking a considered and long-term strategic audit of US interests around the globe. The question here is whether it is in America’s interest to simply get better at identifying those individuals and groups wishing to harm the US in our airports, public spaces and embassies throughout the world.

In the short-term, this may be sufficient to shore up America’s interests and prevent further harm to our citizens. However, this assumes that the real problem is ‘only’ terrorist attacks. However, if terrorist attacks are merely a symptom of a deeper disease – of troubling anti-American sentiments throughout the globe, a backlash against globalization and the rage of those who do not share our values or our vision of the future – then blaming intelligence failures and attempting to stem terrorist attacks is a futile approach.

History teaches us that it is simply inadequate to adopt a short-term approach to a long-term, deeply rooted problem. Let us hope that we can learn from the past so that these lessons will not be repeated.

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