[Image courtesy: Indian Express]
The fall of the USSR, as a superpower, ended global war as we knew it. The overwhelming superiority that the United States commands, and continues to, in terms of conventional and nuclear capabilities make it impossible for nation-states to engage it directly in the field of battle. The age-old imperative for armed conflict, the conquering of rich lands and capturing natural resources, is no longer realizable in the world of the coalition of the willing, as Saddam Hussein found out in 1991. This, and the nature of the modern economy where wealth lies no longer comes from the ground, save for oil, makes industrial espionage and cyber-attacks directed at large corporations, a more strategic pathway for grabbing the resources of others, than charging forward with armies of horses and swords.
So, on the face of it, we should be seeing a period of physical peace, with conflict migrating largely to cyberspace, with nation-states and criminal gangs as actors.
And yet we are, and I use the words with full realization of their import, in the middle of a Third World War. The theater of this war is global, as World Wars are by definition, from Nigeria to Bali, from Sudan to Paris, from the USA to Australia, from India to Spain. The life of every citizen is in danger, whether it be in the lounge of an airport or out in your favorite restaurant, tending sheep in the mountains of Afghanistan or walking to a school in Nigeria. And while we do not see casualties on the scale a Hiroshima or a Leningrad or a Dresden, The Third World War, more than makes up for that by virtue of its longevity and inscrutability, subverting as it does every assumption history has taught us about wars. And the reason why the one with lesser power, if we go by traditional metrics of military might, is winning is because America and the world at large chooses to fight the war in a way that they have been used to.
With tragic consequences.
For this is not your grandpa’s war.
For one, the enemy has no centralized command and control, no cut off the head of the serpent, no Hitler’s bunker to storm. Which means you kill Bin Laden and you get Baghdadi, and if you kill him out will pop some other exotic name. ISIS may be reduced to a rump, and so may be the Taliban, but that does not lower the intensity of the global Jihad, because ISIS or whatever acronym is popular at the time, is never really in control of the war. World War 3 is franchised, in the way soda conglomerates are, where you have franchisees, bottling and distributing, and then sticking the label at the end to become the brand. ISIS or Al-Qaeda are primarily that, a fancy sticker with a good marketing budget, and of the global Jihad organizations, ISIS understands this the most. Which is why their videos of decapitations and stoning and burning and throwing off tall buildings are so professionally produced, they are developing their brand in a way that corporations, and forgive the pun, would kill for. In contrast, Al-Qaeda is still grainy VHS tapes and old men droning on incoherently, the Blackberry to ISIS’s iPhone.
Second there is an almost invisible line between combatants and non-combatants. One side does not wear an uniform, one side does not live in garrisons, one side does not march in formation. Targeting them through conventional warfare, as is done in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, causes high collateral damage of non-combatants, which then provides the other side a narrative of victimhood which they can leverage to recruit and expand their war. Trying to pre-empt strikes using pro-active policing and restrictions on flow of people across borders leads to charges of targeting and profiling, which again strengthens the victimhood narrative. Killing the radical Islamist post-terror-strike also ends up as a victory for the other side, because unlike conventional forces, the tactics of the radical Islamists do not include an escape plan. They fight to die, and therein is their victory. Or so the messaging says. Despite all this, The West keeps fighting the war of the 1940s, spending billions on conventional warfare, the so-called “shock and awe” demonstration of overwhelming military might, and that only aggrandizes the defense industry and their political backers, while being largely ineffective for the war at hand.
Third, the motivation of the enemy is amorphous and varied. Yes there is a vaguely articulated aim to establish an Islamic caliphate or the liberation of Palestine, but that does not explain an attack in Paris or in Dhaka or why well-educated privileged men from Europe are running off to Syria. For some, the global Jihad is a way to live out fantasies they cannot in a civilized world, to murder, maim and rape with impunity, under the comforting cocoon of an ideology. Kind of like the movie “Purge”, except it’s every day. For others, rich urban young men, it is simply a way of becoming famous, the quickest way to attain world-wide notoriety, even though it comes at the cost of death. The more violent and lurid the executions, the greater the social media capital. And for a few, its lashing out at supposed Western evils, like promiscuity, where the underlying pathology, if we care to go through their social media postings, is not getting enough of the evil themselves.
The path to global Jihad is many and it is this diversity that makes it impossible to solve or root out, at a fundamental level. You cannot regime-change it. You cannot hearts-and-minds it. You cannot buy, kill or hug your way out of it. To make a pop culture analogy, the war is being fought as if the opponent is the greedy Penguin, who operates on conventional perceptions of gain and loss. Except it is the Joker, and no one, definitely not he himself, knows why he does what he does, except to “see the world burn”.
And finally, in today’s world, victory lies in perception. It was the Vietnam War that first brought this home, that you could win on the ground and yet lose, if the other side seizes the messaging high-ground. This is where the forces of global Jihad have chalked up their greatest victory. While every act of brutality they commit increases their support-base, which is why they spend so much time on publicizing them through slickly shot videos, every act of violence they endure and the collateral damage that such acts inevitably bring about also, and here is where the paradox is, strengthen their narrative of victimhood. In other words, they cut both ways. Their opponents however are hamstrung by having to appear to stand on the moral high ground. That is why they have to lie to go to war, and use rendition to perform torture, and use elaborate structures of secrecy to hide that which happens in every war, the indiscriminate killing of innocents. Except that the subterfuge is invariably caught, and they end up looking bad, and, yes, you guessed it, it helps the PR department of their enemy. Now this is some shit that General MacArthur and Eisenhower never had to deal with.
If all this sound dire, it is. The Third World War is a war without end, and like diabetes and genital herpes it cannot be cured but only controlled, and that too at great personal sacrifice, like eating vegetables or, in this case, through restrictions on civil liberties.
This is, of course, that stage of the article where I am supposed to propose a solution, or at least one that hasn’t been tried or you the reader haven’t thought of, but I cannot.
All I can do is to ask for those reading it to be thankful to be alive tonight. And to take heart that, unless you are in Syria or Iraq or right next to the Boko Haram, that you are more likely to die from a heart attack or from a side-impact collision than World War 3.
That, I am afraid, is about all the positivity I can offer.
[Update: My next two books, Sultan of Delhi Ascension and Mahabharata Murders, are releasing October and December, 2016]