Without initiative, Paris attacks will change nothing

In politics, as in war, success belongs to those who can seize the initiative.

Any military strategy divorced from a political strategy will not achieve a sustainable outcome, writes Ashraf [Reuters]

The demand for instant analysis in the media after a terrorist attack encourages sensational speculation over considered assessment. Myths and prophesies are created by journalists and experts in these type of situations and there is often a disconnection between analytical rhetoric and rational reality.

The claim by many that the Paris attacks are a game-changer is built on a number of assumptions about the incident. Not all of them stand up to scrutiny. Some described the attacks as sophisticated, conducted by “trained men” and coordinated from Syria by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

There is nothing sophisticated about firing a Kalashnikov rifle and killing people. Children of 10 and younger have done this as child soldiers in central Africa for the Lord’s Resistance Army, a pseudo-Christian terror group.

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There is nothing sophisticated about strapping on and detonating a suicide vest in a crowed place. Children 12 years and younger have done that in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Taliban and others.

There is no sophistication in coordination for a bunch of guys, some of whom have a criminal background, saying: “You three attack the stadium, you lot attack the rock concert and we will shoot up some restaurants.”

The only thing that is remotely elaborate about those attacks was the supply chain that provided the weapons and ammunition and the modicum of skill required to produce the explosives used in the bombs.

Nor was the marauding style of attack during the night a seminal shift in terrorist tactics. The 2008 Mumbai attacks were a more elaborate plot, which included a secret amphibious landing by terrorists from neighbouring Pakistan. They then proceeded to do similar things in broad daylight in a crowded station, luxury hotels and the Jewish quarter.

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Wrong assumptions

Another assumption is that Paris will be a game-changer in galvanising the international community’s response to ISIL.

It is easy to forget that the international community had already begun to understand the importance of cooperation once the Russians got involved militarily in Syria in September.

The Paris attacks will only be a game changer if Hollande is able to accelerate the currently leisurely pace at which the international community is considering its collective response to ISIL’s challenge to the world order.


This led to the Vienna peace talks and they were planned to take place before the Paris attacks. The Russians and the Iranians sat alongside the Americans and the United Nation delegation as well as a somewhat reluctant representation from Saudi Arabia.

The previous attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the targeting of tourists in Tunisia had not prompted the Vienna conference. Only when the reputation and interests of superpowers and regional players were put at stake by the Russian intervention, did the international community came together and decide to address the problem.

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Of course, the Paris attacks could have a galvanising impact on cooperation by transforming talks into action.

Just 24 hours before the Paris attacks, US President Barack Obama declared that ISIL had been contained. He was betraying the US’ assumption that by using just enough air power, ISIL could be contained within its existing territory in Iraq and Syria.

The political and economic impact of the refugee crisis and attacks on European holiday-makers and cities is challenging the US president’s assumptions.

French President Francois Hollande’s declaration that France will act mercilessly towards the perpetrators of last weekend’s atrocities again revealed an emphasis on emotional satisfaction through retribution rather than a commitment to the elimination of ISIL.

This implicit acceptance among Western leaders of living with terrorism was further voiced by British Prime Minister David Cameron who repeated his mantra of a generational struggle against Islamist terrorism in his statement following the Paris attacks.

No evident policy change

There appears, therefore, no significant change of perception of threat so far. The French attacks on Monday against a command and control centre, recruitment centre, training base and an arms ammunition dump betray a desire to be seen to be acting rather than a commitment to a substantial political and military strategy with the objective of defeating ISIL.

The more cynical – and possibly well-informed – observers have pointed out that these four important targets could have been attacked many months before, had they been of any significance.

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The deployment of France’s aircraft carrier, to the eastern Mediterranean on Wednesday to bolster its air operations against ISIL seems a signal of “more of the same”.

More air power capability could only make a difference if the fight was being hampered by insufficient air resources. There is no evidence of that.

On the other hand, there is stark evidence of insufficient professional land forces. More importantly, there is evidence of a lack of military strategy, without which, success is unlikely in an already challenging conflict.


Any military strategy divorced from a political strategy will not achieve a sustainable outcome. The political strategy will need to go beyond addressing the interests of global powers and regional players – as Vienna is beginning to do.

It needs also to address the thorny issue of the future of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and the confusing array of groups that are lumped together as non-extremist rebels, many of whom have visions of a future that is ideologically closer to ISIL than to those of the international powers involved in the conflict.

The Paris attacks will only be a game-changer if Hollande is able to accelerate the leisurely pace at which the international community is currently considering its collective response to ISIL’s challenge to the world order.

In politics, as in war, success belongs to those who can seize the initiative.

Afzal Ashraf is a consultant fellow at Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and served in the UK armed forces. He was involved in developing a counterinsurgency strategy and in the policing and the justice sectors in Iraq.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.