Occupations and Terrorism

A couple of articles appeared this week that caught my eye, because they both expressed a view of the terrorism problem that I have suspected for sometime has merit but which has never quite achieved manstream traction. The article were an op-ed column by Bob Herbert in the New York Times and a Foreign Policy online article by Robert Pape. Each expressed the hypothesis that the major motivation for terrorists attacking the United States may be a reaction to the continuing American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than the more conventionally held and “respectable” argument that the cause of anti-American and anti-Western terrorism is a fundamental jihadist trait of fundamentalist Islam that arises out of Islamic tradition and/or what Gorge W. Bush liked to see as their basic envy of Western life and prosperity.

The two articles are substantively quite different. Herbert’s article, unsurprisingly given he is a political columnist, is based on his personal analysis and what he views as the commonsensical reasoning that people generally resent military overlordship and are reacting in the only effective manner they have at their disposal, which happens to be terrorism. Pape’s argument is somewhat narrower and is based in his ongoing (and generally heralded) research on suicide terrorism. In his own words, “More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation.”

Both men reach a similar conclusion, which is that a major element in eliminating or reducing the current terrorism problem is to end the military occupations in which the United States is now involved, thereby undercutting the rationale for and appeal of terrorism directed against Americans.

I personally find this a not unreasonable argument and conclusion, although it is a hypothesis, not a scientific fact. The evidence in support of the hypothesis is only partly empirical: the strongest thread comes from what terrorists say. Bin Laden’s famous mid-1990s “Epistles” (in which he lays out the rationale for Al Qaeda’s campaign against the United States) begins from the grievance of a continuing military presence of the United States in the “holy lands”  (i.e. Saudi Arabia), a complaint he later augmented with a similar entreaty against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Further, proponents of this interpretation maintain that their contention simply stands to reason–nobody appreciates being militarily occupied, oppressed, and humiliated, and they will strike back in any way they can. How would we feel in similar circumstances?

This intepretation has always had a certain resonance with me as at the very least a plausible alternative to the demonization of terrorists implicit in the alternative argument, which is that terrorism is simply a part of global jihad imbedded in some Islamic thought that can only be combatted by harsh military methods. This interpretation also may be correct, although its adherents offer no more convincing empirical evidence than do those who argue against occupation. The primary supportive argument of those who oppose the occupation hypothesis essentially argument that terrorist-generated carnage and destruction makes their case. This evidence, of course, is tangible, but it is also a dependent variable (or consequence) of terrorism, the cause of which can support either view.

The Pape article has produced an absolute firestorm of angry responses on both sides of the issue. The attacks are especially vitriolic and arise, in most cases, from accepting the implications of the arguments for Israel, which has a long history now of both foreign occupation (as an occupier) and suicide terrorism against it. The implications of Pape’s analysis would seem to be that the antidote to suicide terrorism is to end military occupation of the West Bank (although he is talking directly about Afghanistan). Such an implication, of course, strikes at the heart of current Israeli policy regarding the West Bank, some of which (the fence separating the West Bank from Israel, for instance) has direct terrorist motivation and some of which is not so clearly based in the terrorist threat (e.g. the Israeli settlements on the West Bank).

The debate about these things reflects an important reality about current national security thinking both in Washington and Tel Aviv. One can make a plausible case for either hypothesis about the terrorist motivation, but which one is chosen has important policy differences. Accepting the jihadist argument means that current policy is the correct one, even if it has not produced a clear “solution” to the problem. What it has done, however, is keep the lid on a problem which, if it is correct, could and would become much worse if a change away from its policy consequences is tried. Since “worse” in this case means the possibility of considerably more violence, there is a natural tendency not to chance it. Accepting the occupation alternative, on the other hand, suggests major change, and while the outcome could be considerably superior to the ongoing situation, it could also be considerably worse if it is incorrect. Once, again, the possible negative outcomes militate toward not rocking the boat. Regardless of the merits, the odds are on the side of those who resist change.

All that said, the war on terrorism, if it is working at all, is doing so at a tremendous financial and physical cost. From an American vantage point, ending the occupation has greater attraction (and less potential negative consequences) than a similar act by the Israelis. Afghanistan, after all, is thousands of miles from the United States; the West Bank is adjacent to Israel. The U.S. is therefore in a much better place to try the experiment: if it fails, the likely consequences for us are not great. If it does work, however, the pressures for Israel to follow suit would certainly mount.

I happen to favor the occupation-as-cause argument, but unlike those who oppose it, I know that I may be right or wrong. The current policy in Afghanistan, in my view, is so flawed and certain of ultimate failure that I don’t see how ending the occupation (while reserving the right to attack Al Qaeda should it return from the air or possibly with special forces) can make matters worse. My perspective (and those of Mssrs. Herbert and Pape) may be wrong, but they certainly deserve a more dignified and thoughtful analysis than I read from the commentators to the Pape piece.

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3 Responses to “Occupations and Terrorism”

  1. Occupations and Terrorism « What After Iraq?…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  2. William Bilek, M.D. Says:

    One can look at both arguments (and the responses) and find support for and dissent from each. It also depends on what the definition of “is” is.

    Is the very existence of Israel defined as “occupation”? If so, that would explain the terrorism before 1967, and even before 1948. Is the existence of a government imposed by a majority of the electorate an “occupation”? That might explain the terrorism of McVeigh. But what explains the Muslim on Muslim sectarian terrorism through the centuries, the terrorism of Abu Sayef in the Phillipines, or The Shining Path, in Peru? And why did the African and Asian colonized populations not resort to terror to any notable extent? And why do 99.99% of those who commit acts of terror identify themselves as Muslims, and claim that they are acting out of religious fervor? Why have Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Shintoists, certainly in the modern era, not resorted to terror in any degree compared to that perpetrated by Muslims? All difficult questions to square with Pape’s narrowly-limited theory.

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