Monday, 20 October 2008

How Terrorist Groups End

An interesting post by Silvio Rendon at Gran Combo Club (in Spanish) led me to the RAND Research Brief by Jones and Libicki on the resolution of conflicts involving 'terrorist' groups. The whole 250 page study is available for download at the website too, and I'm afraid I haven't read it all, but a key point is the utility - or not - of military force to defeat insurgent groups. According to the study, which surveys over 600 terrorist groups from all over the world active in the past decades, just 7% of them are defeated by military actions.

Rendon points out, quite accurately, that stating that it was police intelligence and not military might which brought down Sendero is nothing new. Right, this is standard fare in conventional treatment of Peru's conflict. Yet fujimoristas and other misguided people continue to spread the misinformation that the Peruvian armed forces defeated the terrorists. This leads to the mentality which says, in essence, "Hm, so maybe Fujimori was a bit harsh, but he needed to be, the country was under threat, and anyway look - he beat the Shining Path".

Let us be quite clear: the decisive factor that brought down the Shining Path was the capture of its leader, Abimael Guzman. Guzman was found by a police intelligence operation which Fujimori wasn't even informed of until it was all over, perhaps for fear he would order the execution of the guerrilla leader instead of bringing him to justice. Without its figurehead, Sendero crumbled. Aside from that, the indigenous people in the highlands, many of whom had given Sendero qualified support in the early years, withdrew it as it became clear exactly how vicious and indiscriminate the guerrilla violence was. Their self-defence committees along with the armed forces played a role. So, the military contributed to the defeat of Sendero, but it was not the primary factor. (The RAND report considers Sendero to be still an active group, and this is fair enough considering some of the headlines of recent weeks, but it is nothing like its heyday of the late 1980s, early 1990s).

If we look at Argentina, by contrast, the military force did defeat the Montoneros. But to obliterate this tiny group - Jones and Libicki list their size as in the "tens" - the armed forces ousted the government and ushered in a bloody regime which was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 30,000 people. It hardly seems like a good argument for military defeat of terrorists.

The study advocated the use of effective policing rather than immediately involving the armed forces. I'm certainly not going to comment on this approach with regard to al Qa'ida, because that's not my area, but with respect to Latin America, I would add that not only do militaries not root out the cause of terrorism, they also have a tradition of carrying out devastating abuses in their process of combating it. The preservation of democratic institutions must be a priority, not least since their destruction only plays into the hands of the terrorists.

[Incidentally, I'm aware that the word 'terrorist' is a contentious one, but to stop this from getting too long, I'm not going to go into the whys and wherefores of using it - feel free to ask if you are interested though.]

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