The Latin phrase hic sunt dracones translates roughly to “here be dragons,” an apocryphal phrase attributed to Medieval mapmakers who used the phrase to mark unknown areas on their maps. Today these areas are not the unexplored seas, but the lawless, ungoverned spaces of the world.
Groups like Daesh have used these lawless areas to carve a self-proclaimed Caliphate and step up attacks on enemies outside their immediate area — a failed attack on a TGV train in France, bombings in Turkey and Lebanon that killed close to 150, a destroyed Russian Metrojet flight, and the most recentmassacre in Paris all within a three month span. Thus far, the attacks have raised the usual questions about intelligence failures, recruiting tools, and attackers disguised as refugees. These questions are necessary, but the fundamental truth of the situation remains something few seem willing to come to grips with, much less discuss — these attacks are largely predictable.
That violence in the world’s lawless, ungoverned backwaters leads to violence elsewhere should come as no surprise.
If the world community should have learned anything between September 10, 2001, and now it is that violence against the outside world is the natural, predictable result of territories without law and effective governance. That violence in the world’s lawless, ungoverned backwaters leads to violence elsewhere should come as no surprise.
Al Qaeda planned the most spectacular terrorist attack in history from the ungoverned caves and mountains of Afghanistan. Prior to that, Al Qaeda exploited seams in the international fabric and operated from the near-failed state of Sudan as bin Laden planned and plotted attacks on US embassies.
While there is much ambiguity in foreign policy, one thing is almost certain — lawlessness in one area leads to violence elsewhere. Call it the Law of Lawless Places.
Unchecked lawlessness allows Somali pirates to flourish. Lack of government control in Pakistan’s tribally “administrated” region allows militants to frustrate international efforts in Afghanistan and murder Shia Muslims elsewhere in Pakistan. Daesh plotters in Mosul have planned successful attacks in Baghdad and Kuwait. Armed militants of various stripes attack tourists, international peacekeepers, and the Egyptian Army from remote desert hideouts in the Sinai. Meanwhile, a resurgent Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operates from the frontiers of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
These examples are just from the past two decades. Go back even further in history and there are hundreds of examples. Antiquity had the Visigoths andVandals sacking Rome from the frontier. Medieval Europe coined the term “outlaw” to describe someone literally outside the boundaries and protections of law and society. During colonial times there were pirate harbors in the Caribbean and the Carolinas. The Enlightenment had the Barbary Pirates. The era of Manifest Destiny gave us Danite Enforcers and Regulators in the lawless American West. While there is much ambiguity in foreign policy, one thing is almost certain — lawlessness in one area leads to violence elsewhere. Call it the Law of Lawless Places.
While our national security and diplomatic institutions recognize this truism, our national security policy does not. Instead, the U.S. has pursued a policy that appears almost willfully blind to the fact that those who aspire to be the enemies of national and international order intuitively gather where that order is not present. The U.S. response to the rise of ISIS is the best example, although certainly not the only one.
Stable national and international systems do not blossom from the craters of thousand pound bombs.
The US has primarily responded to ISIS advances and Al Qaeda’s Khorasan Group with airstrikes. Setting aside the robust debate as to whether the airstrikes have been tactically or operationally successful, they have been unquestionably a strategic failure. Airstrikes do nothing to improve governance and nothing to bring the rule of law — or even justice — to Daesh-occupied Syria and Iraq. In fact, they have done much the opposite, instead encouraging our NATO ally Turkey to conduct airstrikes aimed at “terrorists” among our Kurdish friends and Russia to conduct airstrikes aimed at “terrorists” among our anti-Assad fellow travelers in Syria.
Far from helping bring about the regional stability necessary to stem the rise of extremist outlaw groups, daily airstrikes from a range of world powers at odds with one another contribute to the breakdown in the very structure that helps check the rise of violent groups in the first place. Stable national and international systems do not blossom from the craters of thousand pound bombs. Especially when those bombs are dropped in support of tactical or operational goals unhinged from any kind of strategy.
The US and its allies have two choices to solve this problem of lawless violence. They can either put troops on the ground, or pick a side already on the ground with a realistic chance to win — even if that means siding with Iran and Russia — and back them to victory. Until they do so, the international community can expect the bombings and horror to continue, because no amount of aerial bombardment will bring stability and governance to those places where the horror originates.
Just as the ancient mapmakers marked their unexplored areas with dragons, policy makers today ought to mark their maps where uncertainty and chaos reign. Until the ground is marked and delineated by properly functioning states, the dragons will always be there.
But they won’t stay there.
David Dixon is a former active duty Armor officer who now serves in the South Carolina Army National Guard. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Army, the South Carolina National Guard, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.
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