The “expert” report Max cited yesterday, which declared Afghanistan unwinnable even while acknowledging progress in the war, reflects a broader problem: the claim that “there is no military solution to terror” has become virtually unchallenged dogma among Western intelligentsia. Yet as Israel’s experience in the West Bank shows, terrorist organizations can be defeated — if their opponents are willing to invest the requisite time and resources.
In March 2002, Israel was at the height of a terrorist war begun in 2000 that ultimately claimed more victims — mainly civilians — than all the terror of the preceding 53 years combined. Every day saw multiple attacks, and a day without fatalities was rare. But then Israel launched a multi-year military campaign that steadily reduced Israeli fatalities from a peak of 450 in 2002 to 13 in 2007.
Last month, Haaretz published two other statistics reflecting this success: the number of wanted terrorists in the West Bank, once in the hundreds, is now almost zero. And Israeli troop levels in the West Bank are lower than they have been since the first intifada began in 1987.
Western bon ton likes to credit these achievements to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his American-trained security forces. But in reality, the number of Israelis killed by West Bank terror in the year before May 2008, when Fayyad’s forces began deploying, was all of eight — virtually identical to last year’s five and this year’s six. Indeed, had the war not already been over, Israel wouldn’t have agreed to Fayyad’s plan.
What produced this victory was the grunt work of counterterrorism: intelligence, arrests, interrogations, military operations, and, above all, enough boots on the ground long enough to make this possible. That wasn’t obvious in advance: as Haaretz reported, many senior Israel Defense Forces officers accepted the dogma that terrorist organizations can’t be defeated, because they have an infinite supply of new recruits. But then-Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter, who insisted that “the ‘terror barrel’ had a bottom,” proved correct.
What Dichter understood was that while there may be millions of potential terrorist recruits, counterterrorism can dry up the supply of actual recruits by making terrorism a business that doesn’t pay. The more terrorists you arrest or kill, the more potential recruits decide that the likelihood of death or imprisonment has become too high to make terror an attractive proposition.
Two articles, in 2007 and 2008, reveal how this dynamic works: Palestinian terrorists, once lionized, were now unmarriageable, because the near-certainty of Israeli retribution made marriage to a wanted man no life. As one father explained: “I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one. I want her to have a good life, without having the army coming into her house all the time to arrest her while her husband escapes into the streets.” And therefore, the terrorists were quitting.
Most terrorists aren’t die-hard fanatics, and non-fanatics respond to cost-benefit incentives. When terrorist organizations rule the roost, recruits will flock to their banner. But when the costs start outweighing the benefits, they will desert in droves. And then the “unwinnable” war is won.