When the cure for terrorism is worse than the disease

There’s a conundrum in anti-terror operations.  Military necessity dictates stopping, killing and capturing terrorists.  However, the priorities of ordinary citizens are, more often than not, simply survival;  and, after survival, the security of their property and possessions.  This has led to many situations where military counter-terror operations have been opposed by local civilians, on the grounds that they are suffering more from them than the terrorists.  (Iraq and Afghanistan have provided many examples.)

The most recent such situation occurred in Marawi, in the Philippines, earlier this year.

More than six months after Filipino and foreign fighters claiming allegiance to the Islamic State stormed this lakeside city, setting off a monthslong war with U.S.-backed Philippine troops, liberated Marawi lies in ruins and its people seethe.

The heart of the city has been bombed and burned beyond recognition, its domed mosques pierced by mortar fire. Homes stand roofless, blackened. There are armored vehicles on the streets.

Some 200,000 residents are still scattered across the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, living with weary relatives or in displacement camps thick with mud and worry.

Those who have been allowed to return found their homes sacked and looted – safes open, jewelry snatched, appliances gone.

Many are angry at the men who seized their city in a failed bid to establish a caliphate, taking hostages and targeting civilians. They are angry, too, at the forces that fought those men, namely the Philippine army and its backer, the United States.

. . .

In late May, Philippine troops stormed a compound in Marawi, expecting to make some arrests. Instead, they set off fighting that lasted more than 150 days.

After a prolonged gun battle, the Philippine army slowly pushed the militants toward the city’s center, where they dug in. “It was heavy urban fighting,” said Col. Romeo Brawner, a U.S.-trained soldier who is now the deputy commander of a Marawi task force.

. . .

More than six months after the fighting started and more than two months after Duterte declared Marawi liberated, it still looks and feels like a war zone, with the destruction centered in the city’s heart, along the shore of Lake Lanao, and radiating outward.

The center is a no-go zone controlled by soldiers. Militants had turned the houses that are still standing into snipers’ nests, where furniture has been trashed and pro-Islamic State graffiti is still on the walls.

It may be years before the main battleground is habitable. At the periphery, where people have been allowed to move back and schools are reopening, families are returning to wrecked and emptied homes.

. . .

The bombing is a source of tremendous anger here. “Why didn’t they warn us, ‘Hey, be prepared because we are going to deploy an airstrike?’ ” asked Drieza Lininding, a displaced resident who runs the Moro Consensus Group, a nonprofit that seeks to counter radicalization.

The strikes sent people fleeing without money, documents, weapons and other valuables – much of which has since been taken from damaged homes. The military denies assertions that it was behind systematic looting, but civilians, including Lininding, are not sold.

“Who are we going to blame for that looting? Nobody could do this without using a truck,” he said.

There’s more at the link, along with photographs.  It’s well worth clicking over there to read the article in full.

I remember seeing many similar situations in Africa, in South Africa, Rhodesia, Mozambique, Angola, the Congo, Rwanda and other countries.  In every case, government and/or military priorities dictated an offensive against terrorists.  In every case, the locals suffered because of it.  Many died.  Many lost loved ones, even entire families.  Many lost everything they owned.  None of them could understand how their government could completely ignore their needs and priorities, in order to concentrate on the military mission of killing terrorists.

I don’t have an answer to that conundrum.  All I know is, having seen at first hand how innocent people suffer through military and/or terrorist action on both sides, my preference is to work against terrorists in less indiscriminate ways.  Military action may, indeed, be unavoidable;  but could not military forces do more to evacuate civilians from danger zones, or refrain from using weapons that target an area, regardless of who may be in it?  As for fighting in a major urban environment, that’s virtually guaranteed to cause mass civilian casualties, simply because they’re stuck there.  Avenues in and out are likely to be blocked by fighting, or damage resulting from fighting.  Who’s going to pay any attention to their needs?  With the notable exception of US and First World armies, most soldiers will not.  Their priority is to stay alive themselves, and to hell with anything and anyone who stands in the way of that.  As General George S. Patton famously said, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”  Most combat veterans of my acquaintance (including myself, when I was still wearing a uniform) would wholeheartedly agree.

I truly feel for the citizens of Marawi.  They’ve been largely abandoned by their government.  What does their future hold?  Only what they can rebuild for themselves.  It’s a cold, hard, brutal world out there.



  1. As I recall it was Orde Wingate that advised the nascent state of Israel on how to deal with the terrorists seeded among and largely protected by the population. His solution to endless attacks by hit and run raiders was to roll into the nearest inhabited village and destroy it. It mostly worked for the Israelis, not so much for the PLO supporting Palestinians and it sure energized the otherwise unengaged into hating Israel and the IDF.
    OTOH, what are you going to?
    As you say, a conundrum

  2. You can apply discipline on an ongoing basis, expelling, imprisoning, or killing Muslims and Socialists and invaders, which is tiring and frustrating, and meets a lot of resistance.

    Or you can let the problem build and simmer to the point where only military solutions are left.

    I fear many Americans will share the Marawi experience before this is all over.

  3. "After a prolonged gun battle, the Philippine army slowly pushed the militants toward the city's center, where they dug in."

    Sounds like poor planning to me.

  4. This sort of thing has been happening for time immemorial. When combat happens, civilians get their stuff destroyed at looted by both sides. If you're fortunate what is destroyed and looted aren't the female members of your family.

    Many of the particular instances mentioned could have been avoided by getting incompatible groups out of each other's midst. Removing Muslims from the Philippines for instance. Much of the Israeli problems could've been solved by expelling every Palestinian from their acquired territory. That sounds cruel and heartless, and it is, but it's a far better solution than decades or centuries of internal conflict. After WW2 many historically German areas of Europe had their German populations removed. As cruel as it was it probably defused decades of conflict. Not a lot of Germans causing problems in Danzig now.

    Probably a basic rule of thumb for multiethnic empires like the US is to not import people from countries you've told everyone are so dangerous that you must bomb them such as Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan etc or from backward dysfunctional states. Why would a sane nation look at a Haiti or Syria and think "Wow! We need to get us some of that!".

  5. Islam has been, is, and will continue to be the problem.

    Removing Muslims…does not sound "cruel and heartless", anymore than removing a gangrenous limp or a metastasizing tumor sounds "cruel and heartless".

    Just as Japan needed the incandescent glow of enlightenment, so too will some Islamic entity before this is over.

  6. An armed populace with a profound distaste for this sort of thing could have easily told the Muslims to find somewhere else to play early on, if they weren't either already sympathetic, or oblivious. I believe, in this case, you have a combination of all three…they are mostly disarmed, partly sympathetic, and until too late, completely oblivious.

    True, the end result may have been tragic for some when the Muslims refused to take no for an answer. We have only to look to the American West (Coffeyville, KS for example:
    https://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/99condon/99condon.htm) for the end result of a populace that says NO and has the guts and armament to make it stick.

    Unfortunately they will not place the blame for their predicament squarely on the shoulders where it belongs (their own), but instead look for someone or something else to push responsibility onto. So, in the end, like always, by failing to accept responsibility for the quality of their lives and safety of their community, they have neither.

  7. The US had the same problem in Iraq. First attempt to clear Fallujah was met with howls about non-combatant casualties and was called off.

    This just made things worse.

    The second battle started with the US announcing leave the city or be considered a combatant.


  8. Why should I be surprised that "The Islamic City of Marawi" was taken over by Islamic militants? Why then should I care that the city was destroyed in retaking it the government of the Phillipine Islands? My only problem with this episode is that they didn't implement the methods of MacArthur, Otis and Pershing there a hundred years ago. Kill every man and boy capable of growing hair, scatter the women and children. There can be no peace with Muslims – they have taught us that.

  9. Defiant – A State must maintain its monopoly on violence in order to maintain its integrity. Armed insurrection must be suppressed as quickly as possible. (From the excellent movie "The Lion in Winter" – It's my province because it's got my soldiers all over it!") You also have to understand the mindset – peasants don't count, and there will always be more peasants. Cities can be rebuilt, and a city in enemy hands is a resource that can be used against the regime.

  10. HMS Defiant, the PLO didn't come along until well after Wingate was dead. The tactic continued to be used for some time; Arik Sharon was one of its proponents.

    The downside to the approach is the grist it provides for propaganda mills, and since 1967 when the Left began to turn against Israel, this became a real problem. Actually, it started much earlier; one example is the so-called "massacre" of innocent civilians at Deir Yassin. The Israeli troops there were mostly Irgun and I think I think some Lehi fighters.

    Irgun was the military wing of the Herut Party (later the main bloc that formed Likud,) while Haganah, which became the foundation of the IDF (though some Irgun fighters were folded in) was the military wing of the dominant Labor movement. There was a long, bitter rivalry between Labor and Herut, and Deir Yassin was a case in which Labor decided that politically destroying Herut was worth blackening Israel's name.

    The reality seems to be that there not a massacre but a few non-combatant deaths in Deir Yassin – not a surprise when barely trained troops are engaged in what turned out to be a house-to-house fight in a fortified and reinforced village.

    But the Arabs began to have help in their propaganda after 1967. The Six Day War was a defeat not just for the Arab states, but for the USSR which armed and trained them. Not long after, the KGB under Andropov began to train Palestinian hijackers and bombers, and to distribute the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Tsarist fraud, in the Muslim world.

  11. In a world where something like 80 percent of the population lives in cities, this is what war will look like: Rattenkrieg, to borrow a phrase.

    The temptation for the attackers will be to just flatten the whole thing.

  12. Experience has shown that on average, when confronted with an infiltrating presence during a major conflict, the average person will simply dig in and ignore the infiltrators so that they may conduct "business as usual".

    This is what happened in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, and it ultimately came down to a few brave men (and the help of some small arms left in the US Embassy on orders from the CIA) to break the DR's people free from that regime.

    But what if local help for regime change isn't forthcoming, and the average person continues to dig in, ignoring the infiltrators or perhaps even helping them?

    Ultimately when military commanders can't identify friend from foe, they realise the situation is complicated, and so they proceed on orders.

    Those orders usually come from politicians who respond to the claims that the problems are complicated with a simple order: Simplify the problems.

    And so let's provide a list for blame then: the infiltrators who started the mess, the locals who didn't put up a fight, the people continuing to engage in "business as usual" without the slightest bit of resistance (social, economic, or otherwise), the collaborating locals, the military for being easily dragged around like cardboard soldiers by the politicians, and finally the political class, which for starters allowed things deteriorate in the region so that the infiltrators thought they had a chance.

    In other words, pretty much everyone involved is to blame, and praise and honours may only be given to the people who were wise enough to stay well away from the mess.

    With that in mind, the temptation of the politicians to "simplify" the theatre of operations with a few cluster bombs and a fusillade of artillery shows the operation of realpolitik in action: they know they'll be blamed anyway, and so they may as well finish the job at hand as simply (and frequently as quickly) as possible.

    I wouldn't necessarily look for innocents in the rubble, in other words.

  13. I see your commentators are very righteous.
    Here is the thing with the civilians and 'business as usual' and 'wars against terrorism' these days. Most of the time, the terrorists, while unpleasant, were survivable thorns for the local citizenry. It wasn't pretty, but it also wasn't generally lethal for them, or no more lethal than the local government or the local water supply. But then some big wig in their capital gets leaned on by the Russians, or the Chinese, or most frequently the Americans because the big wig's government (loosely defined) sponsors terrorism in that ever so righteous country on the other side of the globe. And they do sponsor the terrorism, but the dollars are rather nice to have too. So, they fight the terrorists. Or they fight the people they label as terrorists because they are politically inconvenient.
    Now, the miserable situation for the citizens becomes truly lethal. Not because of any problem they have personally, but because someone got killed on the other side of the world. Frankly, it is a wonder that More civilians don't end up helping the 'terrorists'.

  14. "We had to destry Ben Tre in order to save it." — US Army officer in the early 1960s/days of the second Vietnam war.

  15. "Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant." Business as usual indeed.

  16. The government troops are a curse of a different sort. I remember when a prolonged firefight broke at the Clark A.B. main gate. It was PAF shooting it out with the Philippine Army and local constabulary over drugs and prostitution turf. There are outstanding exceptions within the Philippine armed forces, but they are outstanding because they're so rare. There are some good ones, but when it comes to tjeir own family or extended family — they're as crooked as anybody. Because of the religious aspect and the fact that the soldiers come from elsewhere — different tribes/clans/languages, I expect the occupation of Marawi to be relatively vrutal.

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