The global war on terror – or whatever it is called nowadays – is not going well. From Afghanistan to Libya, the adversaries of the West seem undaunted by Western bombardment. The Taliban advances towards Lashkar Gar in Helmand Province (Afghanistan), while groups such as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and even ISIS hold their ground in central and eastern Libya.
The advantage of the West and its allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel) is its dominance of the skies. None of the groups – neither the Taliban nor ISIS – has an air force or serious ground-to-air capacity. They are at the mercy of the high-altitude bombers – including drones – that can fly over their terrain and hit them at will. But this aerial advantage has a limited ability. It can destroy identifiable targets – what its people on the ground or its eyes in the sky can see. This is possible. What is less possible is to obliterate – without major civilian casualties – the guerrilla fighters on the ground. They do not stand in formation, waiting for annihilation from above. These fighters move in small groups, keep close to natural cover and flitter in and out of civilian areas. To take them from the air is difficult.
When the bombers begin to circle above them, the guerrilla armies of the Taliban and ISIS vanish. This was apparent in 2001, when the Taliban, under heavy U.S. bombardment, took off their turbans and went home or crossed into Pakistan. They waited till the opportunity arose to raise up their guns in places where they knew they enjoyed sufficient support. When the bombing began again, they evaporated. One Afghan security official told me, “the Taliban are like Jinns,” the ghostly creatures of Islamic mythology. “They eat bones,” he said, quoting the Quran. It was their spectral aspect that interested him. “We know where the Taliban hide,” he said, “but we can’t hit them. To hit them hard in some places means we’d have to obliterate entire civilian populations.”