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Lessons learned from 9/11: The Pill is mightier than the sword

Malcolm Potts

Wars drive technology and technology drives warfare. All too often, generals and politicians fight today’s war with yesterday’s strategies.

In the American Civil War generals sent men into battle to face greatly improved firearms, but they continued to marshal their troops in the formations Napoleon had used. At Gettysburg over 7,000 men died and over 33,000 were injured as the price for this stubbornness. In some U.S. states one quarter of military-aged men died in the Civil War. Hiram Maxim invented the machine gun in the 1880s. Its deadly power was demonstrated in colonial wars, but the generals in World War I failed to understand that one machine gun could mow down any number of men lined up for attack. The five months of fighting in the Somme in World War I cost a staggering 650,000 British, German, and French casualties.

During the Cold War supersonic aircraft, giant aircraft carriers, tanks with guns stabilized to fire on the move, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarines hidden deep in the oceans gave the Russians and the Americans the potential to destroy each other many times over. After the implosion of the Soviet Union, the U.S.A. stood alone as the one unchallengeable superpower. Whatever the weapons, wars are fought by small groups of young men, primarily in the 15 to 30-year-old age group, who are willing to lay down their lives for one another and who often have a visceral hatred for an enemy they may not really know.

9/11 was another revolution in warfare which the politicians and generals have still not understood. Al Qaeda, and other fundamentalist groups, know perfectly well that they cannot defeat a U.S. or European army on the ground. The technology of modern warfare is so powerful that our enemies are forced to adopt what is called asymmetrical warfare. Al Qaeda and similar groups develop tactics that are the mirror image of modern weaponry. They build improvised explosives triggered by a cell phone or garage opener, they blow up trains in Madrid and buses in London. Suicide bombers driving vehicles learn loaded with tons of fertilizer, or individuals put on explosive belts filled with nails to kill 10 or 20 other people.

One Hammas leader said, “We don’t have tanks or rockets, but we have something better, our exploding Islamic bombs. All they cost is our lives, but nothing can beat them — not even nuclear weapons.”

He was right. Trying to defeat such an enemy with helicopters and well-equipped troops is as inappropriate as ordering columns of men to walk across open fields at Gettysburg in 1863, or sending men loaded down with weapons and equipment to struggle across the muddy fields of Flanders in 1916.

Ten years after 9/11 our presidents, politicians, and generals still do not grasp that guns, bombs and armored personnel carriers will never defeat testosterone-driven young men who have been radicalized by poverty and lack of education.

On 9/11, 19 men were willing to give their lives and use civil airliners newly loaded with jet fuel as their weapons in an asymmetrical war. They killed over 3,000 people. It is something none of us will forget, but as an act of war it was relatively small. In relation to our population, one in 100,000 Americans died on 9/11. More American were killed in 2001 (and every year since) by fellow Americans with handguns than died in New York on that terrible day.

In another sense, 9/11 was the most successful attack in human history. It is thought that 18 to 20,000 jihadists fought the Russian in Afghanistan and that at most 4,000 were recruited into Al-Qaeda.

However, this tiny Al-Qaeda army triggered two wars. Both Iraq and Afghanistan were paid for with borrowed money, and when you take into account the direct cost of these wars, the budget for trying to heal those who been physically and psychologically wounded, together with the interest that will have to be paid on the borrowed money, then Nobel prizewinner economist Joseph Stiglitz calculates these two wars will costs three trillion dollars. That works out at between $250 million and almost $1,000,000,000 for each of the Al-Qaeda warriors. Never in the history of human endeavor has so much been spent on fighting so few — and with so little result.

Today, Al-Qaeda is metastasizing to Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia and whatever rapid population growth leaves young men without education or employment — a situation the 9/11 Commission called “a sure prescription for social turbulence.”

Asymmetrical warfare requires a different strategy. We must look upstream.

In December 2001 I represented the UN Population Fund on a World Bank team to write the budgets for restoring the health systems in Afghanistan after five years of Taliban cruelty. Our two-year budget was $182 million and the ten-year budget was $1.3 billion. I suspect even those budgets were not spent. In 2001 America and the international community had a genuine opportunity to invest in women, to help raise the age of marriage in this cruelly patriarchal society, and to make family planning accessible throughout Afghanistan. We did none of those things and we will pay the price.

When I first went to Afghanistan in about 1970 the total population was 12 million people. In 2050 there will be 66 to 81 million Afghans, 12 million of whom will be angry, unemployed, uneducated men 15 to 30 years old; if only one in one thousand decides he wants to be a suicide bomber, there will be 12,000 volunteers.

Most informed people in the security business believe that sooner or later other attacks, perhaps more damaging the 9/11, will be launched against the U.S.A .or Europe. There will be more, more failed states such as Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan. And failed states, like Humpty Dumpty, are very difficult to put together again, even if you control all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.

The upstream strategy we need to defeat Al-Qaeda and similar groups of men is to educate their sisters and give their mothers the freedom to decide when to have another child. We must do both things together, because unless we also slow rapid population growth, education will never keep pace with growing numbers of young people.

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Comments to "Lessons learned from 9/11: The Pill is mightier than the sword":
    • J E mankowski, UCB 1987

      I mostly agree with your summation of how the US went wrong in its response to 9/11 attacks.
      There were a couple of lines that trouble me. In regards to suicide bombers “young men who have been radicalized by poverty and lack of education.”
      I think an even more important ingredient is forced fed religion infused with hate and self-destruction in the service of some politically inspired collective-religious identity.
      Sure, in Marine Corps boot camp we echoed that we would kill for “God, Country and the Marine Corps” In war, some even sacrificed themselves in the service of a fellow marine. Yet, I recall no one willing to sacrifice themselves with the primary goal of killing a few innocent civilians. Maybe we were just not “hungry” and “hopeless” enough?

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    • BRUCE STEIR

      Most interesting essay encompassing history, military tatics and the
      frustrations of waging an unwinable war. Why are we still there?
      We have not learned the history lesson from the British or Russians in Afghanistan.

      Keep the message going Malcolm. No one can say it better than you.

      Best regards to Martha

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