These are testing times for liberals. Opposed to military interventions, dictatorships and religious extremism, they are faced with a dilemma each time there is a western attack on a despot or a jihadi terror group.
This moral conundrum raised its head again recently when France launched an attack against heavily armed Al Qaeda-linked militants who had seized control of vast tracts of northern Mali, and had begun to move towards Bamako, the capital city. Many Muslims expressed concern about yet another western attack against a group of fellow believers. Even pragmatic western observers questioned the French move after the deadly hostage-taking at In Amenas, a gas facility in Algeria.
They point to the vastness of the territory, and the ease with which the terrorists can blend in with the local population. And clearly, there is no stomach for an extended French presence in the region; nor, indeed, are there any offers of military assistance from France’s Nato allies. All the US and the UK have provided is intelligence-sharing and logistics support. A few hundred troops from ECOWAS countries have been committed, but even these contingents from the West African region began arriving after the French initiative. For months, their leaders had been dithering about intervening.
So, given all these uncertainties about the long-term effectiveness of the French-led move, how justified is it? Indeed, Algerian officials have been quick to blame the intervention in Mali for the In Amenas attack. Although there is some truth in this, the fact is that the assault on the gas facility had weeks of planning behind it, and was not simply a spontaneous reaction to the Mali intervention.
However, anybody doubting the need for this action only has to watch a recent CNN report on refugees from the area captured by the Islamists. In one segment, two young men with their right hands amputated are interviewed on camera. Perhaps ‘amputated’ is inaccurate: the victims had their hands hacked off for alleged theft. After a quick so-called trial, the men were dragged to a square, and had their limbs slashed off without any anaesthesia.
For me, this evil act is justification enough for any kind of intervention that would stop these savages from imposing their will on the hapless people of Mali. Understandably, tens of thousands of them — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — have fled the area and are now eking out a miserable existence in refugee camps.
As soon as these thugs seized control of northern Mali, they unleashed a reign of terror in the name of Islamic Shariah law. Women have been forced indoor, ancient Muslim libraries and shrines — earlier designated as World Heritage Sites — have been destroyed, hands amputated and people flogged.
The slowly evolving consensus on the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been severely tested over the last year. From Libya to Syria, and now in Mali, foreign — mostly western — governments have intervened directly or indirectly to protect local populations from abusive, despotic leaders.
These interventions have, in the minds of many Muslims, seemed to be part of an anti-Islam campaign that has seen the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. It is certainly true that all these campaigns have had the unintended consequence of increasing militancy and terrorism.
And yet, apart from the own-goal that was the invasion of Iraq, what were the alternatives? Should vicious rulers and terrorist groups have the freedom to brutalise their own people, and wage war on others with impunity? If sundry gangs of killers establish their bases on our soil, should they not be pursued and eliminated? And if the state does not possess the means or the will, and these criminals attack others from their sanctuaries, do not their targets have the right to retaliate?
Many human rights activists in Pakistan and abroad have expressed their outrage over drone attacks, citing the civilian casualties that often accompany these precision operations. However, people forget that terrorists deliberately hide behind civilians, often forcing them to provide them shelter. In some cases, greedy landlords charge foreign militants exorbitant rents.
In Mali as in Pakistan, these killers are waging war against the state to seize power. And sadly, in wars, civilians caught up in the crossfire often suffer. In terms of numbers, however, we need to remember that far, far more civilians, soldiers and policemen have been deliberately murdered by these terrorists than the accidental victims of the drone campaign. Many of the victims of these jihadis have been beheaded and mutilated.
Of course we should never draw a moral equivalence between the actions of criminals and the response from legally constituted governments that are signatories to international agreements on sovereignty and the conduct of war. In an ideal world, the crimes of terrorists cannot justify similar acts authorised by the state.
But we live in a violent world, and a state’s first duty is to protect its citizens. When fighting against a foe that despises concepts like the respect for human life and universally accepted norms of justice, can the state afford the luxury of conducting warfare under the Geneva Conventions?
There is no easy answer to this moral dilemma. Thus far, Pakistan’s many gangs of extremists have benefited from the ambivalence in the government and the wider society towards them. All too often, they are let off by a frightened, ineffective judiciary. And the army and the government both search for an elusive consensus on waging war against these groups. Their increasing confidence and strength should therefore not surprise anybody.
However, other states have not been afraid to take off the gloves while combating these terrorists at home and abroad. We might question the human rights implications of many of the laws they have enacted to protect themselves, and the actions they have taken to take the fight to the jihadis. But we need to recognise that when faced with a ruthless enemy, we cannot afford to conduct business as usual. Hard times call for hard decisions.
The harsh reality is that we can’t have it both ways: we cannot use normal laws and methods to combat remorseless foes who think nothing of hacking off heads and hands. Ultimately, it’s either them or us.