Commentary: Fighting with the enemy's sword

Special to McClatchy NewspapersJune 16, 2012 

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and our Western allies from England to Israel to Indonesia have been fighting with one hand tied behind our backs while our anonymous and amorphous enemies launch suicide bombers, kidnappers, roadside bombs, car bombs, truck bombs, airplane bombs and other sneaky attacks.

These non-state actors such as Al Qaida and its offshoots have killed thousands of civilians and security forces in Yemen, Morocco, Mali, Algeria, France, Britain, Spain, Russia, Nigeria, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Thailand and Indonesia.

Our response has been conventional – heavily-armed troops patrol the poor villages of Afghanistan, stirring up resentment as well as dust and turning our aid projects into targets.

We behave exactly like Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. who was able to crush resistance in Afghan cities; but, as soon as his back was turned the enemies returned from their caves to slaughter his pickets – and all the locals who worked with him.

Why must we play ball according the Marquess of Queensberry rules – polite stuff and hail fellow well met and all that rot — while the bad guys throw acid in school girls’ faces, chop heads and recruit illiterate youths to wear suicide vests or turban bombs?

I’m not saying we need to ante up with our own dreadful horror inflicted on ordinary people. I’m saying we need to pull out some of our own hidden daggers in the game of warcraft in the 21st Century.

Sometimes to fight a fire in the forest or the prairie, one has to set a backfire to burn off the fuel and then stop the main blaze.

For example, Iran has provided Hezbollah and Hamas with tens of thousands of rockets to fire on Israel. Both groups have had their fingers badly burned in this type of warfare as they found that they could drive Israelis into shelters for a few hours each day but then faced an enormous onslaught of tanks, troops and airpower that never touched Iran but left thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians dead and the wounded living in rubble.

Maybe it’s time to play Iran’s game and arm insurgent groups on its fringes such as the Baluchis, the Azaries, the Kurds, the Iranian People’s Mujahideen, and even the Iranian Arabs? We have been nice guys too long.

Another backfire we might want to ignite in order to dissuade those who supply and encourage terrorists is the Shiite-Sunni split. Both branches of Islam are largely peaceful but contain small elements that hate the West and use terrorism to try and bankrupt the West and force us into a defensive crouch. We suffer endless hours in security checks frisking little old ladies from Nebraska because terrorists send killers dressed in exploding underwear against us.

Why not supply weapons and intelligence – laundered through anonymous third parties – to stir up ethnic, religious and sectarian insurgents aimed at harming the nation states that sponsor terrorism?

Pakistan allows and encourages terrorist groups such as Lashkar-y-toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen to train and arm on Pakistani soil and then attack India in Kashmir and Mumbai, killing tourists, civilians villagers, Hindus, Christians, Jews and anyone else they can murder in order to sow fear. Yet India remains aloof and suffers its losses without responding. It fears the nuclear weapons now held by each side could be used if things get out of hand?

Well maybe India should arm and support the Baluchi separatists and other groups ready to take on the Pakistani army? Arming the Pakistani Pashtuns would be a particularly delicate move because it would support a group that hates India. But right now, its primary target is the Pakistani establishment.

American forces have left Iraq and soon will be leaving Afghanistan. Good. Why did we put them in those villages anyhow? I’ve walked and rode with them on patrols handing out aspirin and candy; and handing out cash to build town offices or irrigation channels. But while Afghans and their kids swam in the canals, we sweated in our armored vests and helmets in the 116 degree heat, afraid we’d be shot and killed.

We provided targets to people who have no say in their own government, who want only to force the sensible moderates of that country into joining their crazy jihad with long beards, veils, no music or television, suicide vests and the rest of the medieval agenda.

In the latest round, Al Qaida in northern Mali, armed with Libyan weapons, took over the Tuareg revolt and have driven over 200,000 people into refugee camps. They may be the world’s poorest people living in the Sahara desert but they voted with their feet and fled.

If we cannot defeat the terrorists with conventional forces, we must make them outcasts in every remote corner of the world where they breed. Arm the Shiites and arm the Sunnis. Arm the Hindus and arm the Muslims. Arm the Kurds and Baluchis and Azaries. Support ethnic insurgencies that weaken the countries that support or allow terrorism.

We’ve done this before. We backed the Cambodian guerrillas until they drove out Vietnam’s army in 1988; we backed Afghan guerrillas until they drove out the Soviet army in 1990. (Of course, that one ended badly with civil war and a Taliban takeover). We backed anti-Nazi fighters in the Balkans in World War II and anti-communists in Russia.

By backing rebels, we can make state backers of terrorism pay the same price they impose on their victims. If that price is high enough, it may force these states to play by the rules of modern civilization and end the wave of terrorism that has paralyzed the world since 1991 when victorious Islamist fighters won in Afghanistan and spread across the globe to plant the terrorist flags from Kashmir to Bali, from Jerusalem to Algeria, from London to New York.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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