During the nadir of America’s war on Iraq – a war which was portrayed by US politicians to their domestic audiences as part of the infamous US “war on terror”, as more and more terror groups did in fact rise to prominence in Iraq in the aftermath of the legally recognised government’s downfall, it became increasingly popular for Americans exasperated with the war to say that it is simply impossible for a state military to win wars against terrorist organisations. As the American public witnessed the dead bodies of US soldiers returning from Iraq by the score, few could see the point of fighting a losing battle against terrorism in the Middle East, especially when it was unclear how these foreign groups could have ever realistically threatened US soil even if they sought to.
Therefore, a narrative at the time developed which postulated that wars against terror groups cannot be won by any regular state military force. In hindsight though, this theory has proved to be one designed to console a US public aghast at the carnage caused by terror groups in an American theatre of war in the early 2000s. It was certainly not an accurate statement regarding the nature of fighting terrorist groups.
Since many Americans began stating that it is impossible to beat terror groups, the following countries have in fact won wars against terrorism in the 21st century:
Beginning in 2004, multiple terrorist groups converged upon what was then known as Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province as well as what was then known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. These groups sought to effectively turn back the clock on Pakistan’s modern statehood by establishing terrorist controlled khanates in which feudal extremist ringleaders would rule over legally defined Pakistani territory in the most violent ways imaginable.
The war’s terrorist aggressors took advantage of the instability in neighbouring Afghanistan while many terror agents also took advantage of Pakistan’s supreme generosity towards genuine Afghan refugees. Moreover, many of Pakistan’s enemies in Kabul and in other major regional capitals with a long time grudge against Pakistan’s existence, funded and aided the terrorists who made life a living hell for the civilians of north-western Pakistan.
And yet while in the early 2000s things looked almost hopeless, beginning in 2007, the tide started to turn as Pakistan’s Army began scoring hard won victories against the extremist groups. As terrorist organisations including Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, proto-Daesh/al-Qaeda elements and the notorious Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan tasted defeat after defeat, normalcy was slowly returned to the region while over time, the ability of such organisations to stage attacks outside of the north-west slowed to a trickle.
Since 2013, a progressive PTI led regional government has held power in the province now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Normalcy has largely returned as state institutions replace those once controlled by the extremists, while civilian governance and a modern rule of law replaces the rule of the neo-feudal mob. KP’s fortunes have been transformed by using both a tough military and intelligence approach to neutralising terror that has been combined with the PTI government’s ability to resurrect the hopes, dreams, moral strength and patriotism of a once neglected and depressed population. This has turned every sound minded civilian in the region into an important asset in the fight to preserve peace.
In Pakistan’s big cities that were once hot targets for terrorists, life has long since been restored to peace and today,the terror threat in Pakistan’s major urban centres is no greater than in any European city while Pakistani authorities have a track record of neutralising terrorists that is far more convincing than any European security force.
In many ways though, it is the private rather than governmental sector which can offer the best indication that a terrorist group has been defeated. This week it was announced that for the first time since 2008, British Airways will resume flights to Pakistan. This development has widely been seen as an acknowledgement from a major foreign private air carrier that Pakistan’s security situation has normalised and peace has returned in a manner from which there is no going back.
After years of supreme human and material sacrifice, Pakistan has beaten the terrorist plague that threatened the country’s stability in the early part of the millennium.
While still disputed by India, it is now common knowledge that elements of India’s national intelligence agency, the RAW helped to fund, arm and train the Sri Lanka based LTTE terror group in its early years. This short sighted attempt to gain leverage over the political situation in Sri Lanka was however ultimately ill advised as it was always foolish for India to think that Tamil ethno-nationalists would cease their ambitions having carved out a separatist enclave in Sri Lanka without then seeking to do the same in southern India.
In an attempt to gain leverage over the situation in Sri Lanka though less objectively devious measures, India sent a peace keeping force to Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990, although the mission was widely perceived as an abject failure. While India failed to help Colombo end its conflict with the LTTE, many LTTE loyalists in India became infuriated and began committing atrocities against prominent Indian officials due to their “betrayal” of the LTTE case. Most notably former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE member in 1991.
The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi resulted in the inevitable plummeting of support for the LTTE in India while throughout the course of the last decades of the conflict, Sri Lanka’s all-weather partners China and Pakistan continued to provide much needed material support to the war effort.
Ultimately Sri Lanka was able to neutralise the LTTE and bring an end to the decades long insurgency in 2009. The victory was achieved through a combination of persistence in terms of an unrelenting political and military campaign against the extremists as well as the fact that as the conflict wore on, many peace loving Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka became enraged at the LTTE making their lives a living hell. As a result, some Tamils gave crucial intelligence to Colombo, while others openly rebelled against forced conscription into the LTTE by local terrorists.
This combined with India realising that it effectively burnt its own bridge in the 1980s and could no longer meddle in the situation as it once did, along with the continued political and logistical support of China and Pakistan, helped Sri Lanka defeat the LTTE militarily in a victory that was considered resounding even by observers with a pro-separatist bias.
As recently as 2016, the Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETO), sometimes known as the Gülenist Terrorist Organisation threatened the very existence of Turkey. After steadily infiltrating elements of the army, judiciary, educational sector, police and local governments, FETO used its sleepers in the Turkish Army to stage a lawless coup against the legitimate government in July of 2016.
The coup was ultimately stopped when President Erdoğan rallied his supporters to defend Turkey with whatever resources they could muster. When FETO terrorists saw that they were surrounded by patriotic Turks willing to give their lives for the freedom of the nation, the coup ended. As a result, Turkey’s government declared a state of national emergency which lasted until 2018. Throughout that time, thousands of FETO members were brought to justice and state institutions were cleansed of the terrorist infiltration that had been systematically built up for years.
Today, a terror organisation specifically designed to inflict harm on Turkey operates mostly from foreign soil. While some FETO members are still occasionally brought to justice in Turkey, the group’s ability to threaten civilians, state institutions and the Republic of Turkey itself has been totally neutralised and was done so during a state of emergency under which the lives of normal Turks were not ultimately inconvenienced in any significant way. In other words, Turkey was able to devote state resources to a fight against terror while still allowing for normal civilian life. All the while Turkey’s increasingly robust economy continued to grow.
The result is that the situation in Turkey is becoming more secure while battles against the PKK terror group that has set up operations in both Syria and Iraq, look to at long last neutralise the other major unique terror threat to Turkey.
While The Philippine war against terror is not over, government action has made it impossible for terrorist groups to attempt and achieve their aims. When the independent minded President Rodrigo Duterte was first elected President of The Philippines in 2016, terror groups took advantage of international forces trying to undermine Duterte’s legal authority by launching a terrorist assault on the Mindanao city of Marawi in May of 2017. Duterte immediately declared martial law throughout all of Mindanao and by October of 2017, Marawi was liberated and the Daesh aligned Maute terror group was fully neutralised.
Duterte’s approach to his native Mindanao remains one that combines a sustained state of martial law which is not unlike Turkey’s prolonged state of emergency used to cleanse the country of FETO, along with a simultaneous political process that has seen former Moro (Philippine Muslim) insurgents lay down their arms and embrace a progressive political process for autonomy within the framework of the Bangsamoro Organic Law that Duterte signed in 2018. Beyond this, Duterte has empowered local Moro leaders and encouraged them to take ownership of a war on terror which effects their safety directly. Duterte has said that his government is a friend of the Moro people as indeed Duterte is the first modern Philippine leader with Moros in his extended family. Thus, just as the normalised political situation in Pakistan’s KP province has helped to fight terror at a social level while the military remains vigilant, a similar model is being used by Duterte in The Philippines.
At the same time, Duterte’s refusal to deal with the far-left terror group NPA until they renounce violence has led to a policy wherein the NPA is slowly dying of suffocation. Apart from dealing drugs, the group no longer has any real ability to raise funds from foreign regimes or from domestic criminals outside of its own narco-circles. Just as the Maute group has been neutralised, it appears that the disappearance of the NPA is now a matter of “when” rather than “if” thanks to Duterte’s decisive stance.
Syria’s war against terror is still not over but the most notorious terror gangs that had been operational in Syria since 2011 have largely been neutralised. The Daesh terror organisation that once threatened to take over all of Syria has been defeated as a para-military group and all that now remains of the group are some besieged Daesh loyalists in Syria’s hinterlands who no longer pose a threat to the country’s large population centres. Likewise, other terrorist groups such as the al-Nusra Front have seen most of their terrorist fighters and resources eliminated.
While Syrians still face threats from the YPG/PKK terror group and the remnants of Takfiri terror groups, while such terror organisations once threatened to erase Syria from the map, such an ambition is now impossible. While Donald Trump has awkwardly taken credit for the elimination of Daesh in Syria, it was in fact an international coalition working with legal authorities, of which Russia was the largest member, that ended up doing the lion’s share of the fight against Daesh – a fight that was ultimately won decisively.
If there is one common theme throughout the aforementioned successful fights against terrorism, it is that the nations that fought and won against the terrorists did so on their own soil, by trusting their own people and mobilising their domestic resources to maximum effect. Beyond this, the aforementioned victories against terror were at times achieved through close cooperation with nearby allies as well as constant vigilance against foreign regimes that sought to aid the terror groups in question.
While the United States and some European countries have tried and failed to fight terrorism in distant lands – lands about which both the political and military classes of North America and Europe know little, indigenous efforts of legitimate states fighting barbaric terror groups have in fact paid off in the fight against 21st century terrorism.
It is of significance that all of the countries on this list are Asian. Thus, when it comes to fighting 21st century terror threats, it is not the west from which the world must learn valuable lessons in counter-terrorism, but from the aforementioned Asian states that have confronted the threat to peace and in so doing, have successfully restored peace.