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This is Not a Conventional War

What drives an individual to take his own life? What diminishes their desire to live? Is there any other animal, which has suicidal tendencies? The research is pretty clear, man is the only self slaughtering animal.

What drives an individual to take another person’s life? What motivates him to commit mass murder? Is there any historical trend, which might be relevant for the people fighting the War on Terror? Can history explain the dynamics of our enemy’s greatest weapon?

The Art of War is perhaps the most widely read book among military tacticians. It is short, crisp and to the point. Sun Tzu focuses on one point more than any other in his long series of advice, knowing your enemy is vital.

The Pakistani populace trembles when a suicide attack takes place. Mostly, innocent citizens who have nothing to do with combat are killed. Our poor nation seems desperately confused when analyzing this tactic, yet it is the most potent weapon in the hands of our enemy. Are suicide attacks original to the Taliban? Most would think so and most would be wrong.

The Japanese called them the Kamikaze. They were young pilots, trained barely for a few days in the sky and unleashed on US Naval Machinery like mosquitoes on blood. Each plane carried a few hundred kgs of explosives, jet fuel and an individual who had vowed to not only end his own life but also the lives of his enemies. His enemies were people he would never know, never understand. They were soldiers like him, fighting for men they had never even seen and seldom understood.

The Chinese had their own version of suicide squads, most famously known as the ‘Dare To Die’ student squads, which were instrumental in defeating the Qing Dynasty. Even today, the 72 Martyrs of Huanghuagang are honored and revered by China.

One could argue that both these tactics were used prior to the end of World War 2. There is a worldview, which implies that the rules of war have been clearly stated and defined and transgression on either side is not tolerable. This is true for conventional warfare, where one state is fighting another. However, it ceases to be true in asymmetric warfare, where both sides are not necessarily states and are not equal in military strength and as a result, are not equal in moral principles relating to the art of war.

The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka have been successful in assassinating two world leaders, namely Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. Both were eliminated using suicide attacks. Before their ultimate defeat in 2009, the suicide block of the Tamil Tigers known as ‘Black Tigers’ carried out 100-200 suicide attacks. Their targets were diverse, ranging from military personnel to politicians to innocent civilians. For over thirty years, the Tamil Tigers dominated the power struggle in Sri Lanka using non-conventional techniques, which could not be accounted for by the conventional handlers of power.

After listing these facts, I hope the readers are in a better position to understand the dynamics and motivations of suicide attacks.

Since the advent of the War on Terror, Muslims have primarily carried out suicide attacks, allegedly in the name of Islam. The concept of heaven has been instrumental in preparing would be suicide bombers to their ultimate doom. Promises of multiple beautiful female companions, rivers of milk and honey and fulfillment of each and every desire is a potent technique used to convince people of committing the most atrocious actions. A common enemy, which, consists of the infidels, is also created in the minds of the people to be sacrificed. The definition of morality is skewed, tilted, tampered and molded in order to satisfy the greater goal, the goal of killing the maximum amount of people. History is nothing but a mirror, it tells us the good and the evil man is capable of doing and we only need to look in the mirror to understand our enemy.

There is one common factor among all suicide squads even if they are from completely different time periods. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the suicide bomber/attacker is a young boy, mostly in his early teens when he is recruited. It is paramount for the age of the victim to be such that his rational capacities are not fully developed. The second is isolation; the victims are kept far away from the real world, from their families. They are not allowed to make friends or choose a mate. The third is extensive brainwashing. They are presented specific information, which would make them think in a particular way. The fourth is adherence to a greater cause, which could be anything. In the case of Kamikazi, it was the honor of their emperor and their country. In the case of the Chinese ‘Dare to Die’ squads, it was ‘freedom and liberation’. In the case of the Taliban/ Al Qaeda, it is the pretention of serving divine will, whilst gaining ‘eternal bliss’. The last common factor is the honoring of the victims. Whichever force has used such victims has always applauded and saluted the victims in order to entice even more lost souls to their cause. The families are compensated in monetary as well as social ways.

One only needs to look at the names used to describe such victims. The Taliban call them, ‘Fidayeen’, a Persian word, which implies love to the level of the most extreme sacrifice. ‘Kamikazi’ means divine or spirit wind. Dare to Die implies that it is somehow brave and honorable to die for a larger cause.

Man has been in conflict since the beginning of civilization, fighting for different reasons in different eras. The world has been in state of war since history can been recorded. This perhaps tells us our species longs for dominance, whether it is in the social, political or military sphere. The ego of one king has many times, resulted in the death of millions of his followers. The worst part about conflict is that one has to sacrifice the people who love one the most, the people who do not fear death in one’s name, the men who will willingly be obliterated merely to satisfy a small military gain for one’s power.

It can thus be argued that whenever an armed group is inferior in terms of weaponry, fighters and other tactics, they will resort to unconventional techniques, which would maximize the output of their inputs. Output could be damage to the enemy and inputs could be money, soldiers, and weapons. Consider the mind of a Taliban commander, a man who trains suicide bombers. Presumably, the commander has experience in warfare and understands the dynamics of conflict. To increase his power, he can carry out various missions from raiding villages to killing tribal elders. All these tactics would cost men, money, weapons, and ammunition and there would be risk of defeat. Now compare this to a suicide attack. The commander has in his possession, a human being who is willing to be used as any weapon deemed fit by the commander. He requires no sophisticated guns or diverse physical training. All he is required to do is press a button. This unconventional weapon is the biggest arsenal in the pocket of the commander. He can inflict more damage with one brainwashed victim than he can with dozens of self-serving fighters.

This situation can be analyzed in a moral or political manner but it can also be analyzed in a purely military angle. For the Taliban, a suicide bomber is more valuable than an AK-47. The damage the suicide bomber can cause is worth much more to the commander than the moral hazard of deceiving an innocent child. The cost-benefit analysis of this operation skews highly in favor of the Taliban while the entire cost is bourn by the innocent victim. In the same way, when the Japanese were losing to the Americans in World War 2, they unleashed their most unconventional weapon. Desperation, perhaps fear drives powerful men to commit the most horrendous of atrocities but I would argue that it is ambition, it is the lust for power, not fear, not divine reward that drives the Taliban.

If one analyzes the TTP (Tehrik-E-Taliban Pakistan), one would think that their origins come from the Afghan Taliban. Fighters in Pakistan’s Pakhtun belt were greatly impressed by their Afghan counter parts who had not only gained riches but were successful in establishing control and dominance on a great land mass. The leader of the Mehsud tribe, Baituallah Mehsud, who could be considered as a mercenary even before the formation of the TTP took advantage of the situation and formed his own group of fighters, which would carry out operations in Pakistan. Let’s not go into the details but let’s just consider the influence of the Taliban since Baitullah decided to wage war on Pakistan.

The Taliban has grown to be a lucrative business and military enterprise for a specific breed of people. It is a good and efficient way to make money for the commanders and it is a platform to exercise alliances and deals with several powerful national and international actors who are all a part of this game. The current leader lives comfortably in Afghanistan, perhaps this tells us that he is not short on friends.

The whole game is about power, everyone wants a piece of it, but not everyone has a piece of it. The Pakistani nation is facing an enemy, which seeks dominance and control through unconventional means. At the front line of this war are Pakistan’s Armed Forces. They are the wall, which protects the entire world from a situation in which terrorists gain dominance in this strategic plane called Pakistan. This is not the time to indulge in blame games. Every powerful institution of the world has committed mistakes, our armed forces are no different, yet in these troubling times, when our enemy is slaughtering us on a daily basis, it is time to forget trivial differences and unite against the more determined enemy, which has no limits and has vowed to destroy us. This is an unconventional war; it cannot be won through conventional means.

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