Terrorism and Counterterrorism - Military force and its limits



The United States has used military force in response to terrorism on a number of occasions. U.S. forces bombed Libya in 1986 in response to a Libyan-sponsored terrorist attack in Germany and indications of further attacks being planned; an Iraqi intelligence facility was bombed in 1993 in response to Iraqi involvement in the thwarted assassination attempt on former President Bush during a visit to Kuwait; and, in response to terrorist attacks on American embassies in Africa in 1998, U.S. forces bombed terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan suspected of manufacturing chemical weapons.

While terrorists themselves offer few lucrative targets for conventional attack, military action may still be useful. It can disrupt the terrorists' operations, forcing them to move their camps, tend to their own security, and worry about the possibility of further strikes. It can also be used to reinforce diplomacy. Military force serves as a warning to states that sponsoring terrorism is not without serious risks. It demonstrates resolve and it clearly signals that the country initiating it regards terrorism as a very serious issue. It also carries with it an invitation to states to cooperate.

Military force may also be viewed in some cases as necessary for domestic political purposes, not as a cynical ploy to garner political support or distract the public from other issues, but as a way to demonstrate to an alarmed public that something is being done. The British suffered terribly during the Battle of Britain, and their ability to take the punishment without a complete collapse of morale depended in part on the fact their British forces were fighting to destroy the enemy. The absence of military action could reinforce feelings of national impotence that could, in turn, lead to popular support for draconian measures to ensure security that might imperil civil liberties.

The opportunities for military action against terrorism, however, are limited. It is necessary to focus and carefully calibrate the response; otherwise, the use of force becomes capricious. A military response, moreover, must be delivered soon after the terrorist incident that provokes it. It has been difficult to sustain military operations beyond the first strike. The United States may have wanted the terrorists to fear that it might attack them again, but in fact it never did. That may change in light of the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.



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