When Religion Meets War

Things become tricky when the enemy takes refuge in a religious location. Should America attack anyway or show restraint?

What do you do when you know the exact location of a top level terrorist operative, but dropping a bomb on that location would cause a firestorm that could engulf an entire country into further chaos? Do you suck it up, assess the target and kill the people responsible for numerous attacks? Or do you take the high ground, consider the political context and wait to fight another day?

These are the types of questions that American intelligence analysts are asking themselves in Pakistan today. The target in question is a recruitment and training center of the Haqqani network, an independent insurgent organization responsible for some of the deadliest attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The US military believes that Haqqani leaders meet at this location on a near weekly basis, training new members and planning for the next operation.

It sounds like a slam dunk case. The only problem is that this Haqqani compound is a mosque; the most potent and influential symbol in the Islamic world.

Therein runs the conundrum which the United States face as its armed forces continue to take the fight to militants in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. In fact, therein lies the microcosm of America’s battle against extremism of the past ten years; what is normally a “no brainer” in conventional military terms quickly turns into a tricky situation in a counterinsurgency environment.

The United States have run into a similar predicament before, when US Marines were heavily engaged with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. The battle lasted for weeks, Americans were suffering heavy casualties and the Iraqi population of the city was often caught in the crosshairs. But as the Marines cleared the city block by block, they found themselves closing in on Sadr’s whereabouts. At one point, they circled Sadr’s exact location, inside one of Shia Islam’s holiest of mosques.

The Americans, faced with a choice of bombing the shrine or leaving it alone, wisely decided that the latter was the more plausible strategy. Surrounded from all sides, Sadr negotiated a ceasefire with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) at the time, promising to halt attacks against Americans. The US withdrew and many conservatives became highly critical of the decision. Yet the ceasefire agreement saved the Unites States a lot of aggravation with the Muslim world (to put it mildly) at a time when the military was still grappling with the prisoner abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib detention center.

Six years later, the United States are in much the same situation, this time in a country that has a nuclear weapons stockpile and a heck of a lot more people (approximately 170 million). Thus far, the CIA has concluded that bombing the madrassa in Miranshah is not the best approach, fearing a violent backlash from ordinary Pakistanis. Instead drones have taken another approach to the problem, bombing the suspected militants coming too and from the site.

Coalition commanders who are eager for success in Afghanistan may be itching to pull the trigger on the mosque. But showing restraint, as the CIA is currently doing, may in fact be more effective in the long term rather than killing a few Haqqani militants now. If counterinsurgency depends on the support of the local population, the last thing the American image needs is another wave of angry protesters in South Asia.

Showing restraint, on the other hand, is the best essence of what General David Petraeus so often refers to as “strategic patience.”