A war like no other
By Ahmad Faruqui, Dawn, May 19, 2008
ACCORDING to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the US Congress, the threat of a large, ‘visually dramatic’ attack on American soil is still very much there, even after seven years of furious assaults by the US military on suspected terrorist targets. The GAO also says that the attack may be accompanied by large-scale economic aftershocks and fear in the population.
The CIA traces this threat largely to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan, which have seen an intensification of violence during the last year. All of this doom and gloom stands in sharp contrast to the euphoria that broke out when the US deposed the Taliban in December 2001 and followed up by deposing Saddam Hussein in April 2003. For one brief moment, it looked like the scourge of terror had been put out of business.
The neoconservatives were imagining that the world was going to become a safer place under a Pax Americana. It is now May 2008 and the war on terror continues unabated, its early and dramatic victories but a distant memory. According to many western experts, the US and its allies may be on the verge of losing the war. How did this happen? Can anything be done about it?
Examining the first question, it is apparent that the war was poorly conceived and even more poorly executed, since it was based on false assumptions. First, that there was a finite pool of ‘bad guys’ who could be hammered into extinction. The enemy was largely invisible, melded in among the people and carried out its attacks in the shadows.
Second, that once the top leaders of Al Qaeda would be taken out, the rest of the organisation would shrivel up. Al Qaeda Central is on the run, most of its leaders are dead, its armies are outgunned and its loyal followers scattered to the four winds. But through a Darwinian process, it has given birth to a more sinister, hardened Al Qaeda Informal.
Its members are younger and westernised and therefore harder to detect. They have adapted their tactics to the new environment. They are in this fight for the long haul and have figured out that the way to win is by outlasting the foreign occupying forces. They live or die by Mao’s dictum, “The guerilla wins by not losing.”
And third, that this ‘war’ required conventional military intervention. The failure of this strategy is manifest in Fata. The US paid little attention to the educational and economic development of Fata, which only received four per cent of the US aid that came to Pakistan, with 96 per cent going to the military.
It is unfortunate that Washington chose to ignore the sage counsel that was given by Sir Michael Howard soon after the 9/11 attacks. The renowned military historian had written that the rhetoric and expectations of ‘war’ were counterproductive when dealing with terrorism since much military experience was irrelevant. Howard said the problem required skillful political management and patient police work, backed up where necessary by military force in aid of the civil power.
Just before the Iraq war, I argued in Security Dialogue, a European journal, that Washington needed to rethink the premises of its policy against terrorism. Like other criminal problems, terrorism had a supply side and a demand side. The Bush administration focused exclusively on the supply side, deploying military force to eliminate existing terrorist networks. This was an incomplete cure at best.
As Israel had discovered to its regret, killing terrorists will not eliminate terrorism. For every terrorist that is killed, several more are created. Without condoning terrorists or forgiving their heinous crimes, the plan should be to prevent future terrorists from being created.
Washington needs to rethink its policies in the region, since they are alienating large numbers of young people throughout the Muslim world and some are becoming terrorists. Both the strategy and tactics of the war have to be reinvented. Most importantly, a way has to be found to communicate with the terrorists. It may be impossible to speak in rational terms with the uberterrorists, but it is fairly probable that large numbers of their existing and future followers can be reached.
Political solutions have to be pioneered that would draw people away from a path where they are willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to take the lives of others. Only then will the demand for terrorist acts diminish. Up to now, such views were widely regarded as heretical in the US by those who are managing the war on terror. However, they have just received a strong theoretical and empirical foundation in a new book by forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman Leaderless Jihad.
A former CIA employee, he has analysed the background of several hundred terrorists. Based on this empirical work, he argues that terrorists are not sociopaths but intelligent, goal-oriented people who are infused with a moral outrage stemming from either the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land or, more recently, the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Poverty and lack of opportunity are not necessarily the factors that drive young men to commit violence. Instead, it is the opportunity to sacrifice themselves for the sake of building a better world that ignites the fire inside their heart. They become convinced that blowing up people is the only way of drawing attention to the underlying injustices.
Thus, to answer the second question about how to fix the problem, the best way is to bring about genuine peace in the Palestinian territories and begin withdrawing immediately US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, depriving jihadis of their ability to wage a moral war. Sageman contends that the presence of even one American soldier trumps any goodwill policy the United States attempts to carry out in the Middle East.
He also recommends an end to the offering of rewards, to the publication of most-wanted lists and to the staging of press conferences that proclaim the capture of top terrorists. Jihadis regard all these as badges of honor. It would be better to treat terrorists like common criminals and give them minimal publicity.
Washington had gone tone deaf when Sir Michael said virtually the same thing in 2001. Perhaps the British accent got in the way. One hopes Sageman’s American voice will resonate better.
The writer is an associate with the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford.firstname.lastname@example.org