‘Restraint’ is the only word that keeps coming to my mind as I witness the quick unfolding of the events post the Paris attacks. Hearing the French president address both houses of parliament, proclaiming that “France is at war” reminded me of George W Bush’s speech after 9/11 in which he told the American people that “terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundations of America”. Francois Hollande expressed similar feelings to defend his country and its way of life as he vowed to fight the Islamic State (IS) externally, by announcing the movement and deployment of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier for use in Syria, while internally proposing a law extending the country’s state of emergency to three months.
The Americans set high goals in the aftermath of 9/11 to ensure no one could touch the foundations of their country. Securing those foundations, however, came at a cost — largely paid by Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Iran, Pakistan and scores of others whose very foundations were shaken by American military power. Simultaneously, as the French president was addressing both houses of parliament, the US president was addressing the G20 Summit in Turkey and the striking contrast between the contents of the two speeches was very hard to miss. The ‘seen it and done it all president’ sounded more restrained and controlled as opposed to the ‘victim president’ who was promising to bring the enemy to justice. Can what failed to work out for America, work for France? During his second term, the US president has done everything in his power to wind up the two distant wars that his country chose to fight. Today he is being credited for pulling out the American ground forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, but not before offering battle space to the IS, thus enabling it to advance up to Syria and capture many strategic locations, including the cities of Palmyra and Raqqa. If there had been no ill-fought war in Iraq, there would have been no IS and obviously no terror attack in Paris.
Yet again, military power is readily being applied in seeking revenge. France is doing exactly what Americans did post-9/11. On October 7, 2011, the latter fired 75 Tomahawk Cruise missiles at Afghanistan. Fourteen years and $1 trillion later, the Taliban, al Qaeda, the IS and many other terrorist organisations still exist in Afghanistan and continue to pose a threat internally, to the Afghan government and externally to the whole world using client terrorist cadres similar to the ones deployed and used in Paris. The IS will not be eliminated and destroyed through air strikes alone. President Obama admitted this in his speech. The French will learn this after they overcome their initial national fury, anger and rage. To finish the job, they will have to lead the deployment of yet another coalition force to fight yet another war that will cost trillions of dollars. One can only hope that this does not happen.
Hollande, during his speech, also announced the activation of French reserve forces. Traditionally, reserve forces are mobilised when national survival is under threat. French operational reserves constitute a total of 20,000 persons. Hardly a potent force for a population of 66 million, but France’s militarised police force — or gendarmerie — has a 40,000-strong reserve of its own. The fact that Pakistan, too, has a national guard of over 30,000 persons reminds me of our lack of attention to utilise them in a similar role. Held in reserve to be utilised in case of war or emergency, they have not been activated even when we face a shortage of security forces in our cities. Well-trained, retired armed forces personnel can also be called upon to assist the civilian government and the Rangers in maintenance of law and order in security-starved urban cities like Karachi.
Having heard the French president’s speech, my immediate thoughts reach out to the 3.5 million Muslims living in France. I can only hope that the French understand that it is not any religion that is violent, but a small minority of people who are and that a vast majority of Muslims subscribe to non-violence. The speech also reminds me of our vulnerability as a nation. Let there be no doubt that if the IS was to execute such an attack in a city like Karachi, it will not be due to its superior strategy or skills, but due to lack of our preparedness to meet such a challenge. A government too busy in building elegant modern cities might just be doing that at the cost of bankrupting the state and people’s security.
The West must learn from failed attempts | Muhammad Ali Ehsan
Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2015.