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Beyond the ‘war on terror’

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Dr Maleeha Lodhi

maleehalodhiIt has taken the US over seven years and a change in the administration to abandon the use of the phrase “war on terror” to describe its post-9/11 counter terrorism campaign. Britain dropped the term some three years ago and several European countries avoided it altogether, preferring to view terrorism as a law enforcement challenge rather than a warlike enterprise.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared a fortnight ago that the administration had stopped using the phrase. Earlier it was reported that the Pentagon had decided to retire the term and replace it with “Overseas Contingency Operation.” Pakistan has yet to announce such a retirement plan, even as it needs to intensify efforts to organise a more effective response to rising militancy.

Does this change in language really matter? Is this just symbolic, merely discarding a rhetorical legacy of the Bush era? Or does it represent the transition to a post-9/11 mindset in Washington and a new way of thinking about the terrorist threat and how to respond to it? It is too early to answer this question.

But words do have consequences. The catchphrase and its conceptualisation of the challenge were deeply flawed. The very notion of a global war on terror misidentified the nature of the strategic threat and therefore misdirected the response.

There were several reasons for this. Although many pointed out that declaring a war on a tactic made little sense, there were more important reasons why this term created a paradigm that hurt rather than helped the effort to deal with terrorist violence.

When the phrase was adopted by the Bush administration, casting counter-terrorism as a “war” was deemed useful in emphasising the urgency and gravity of the threat following 9/11, especially in mobilising the public and resources necessary to undertake the military interventions that followed. It was also used as justification for human rights and humanitarian law violations symbolised by Guantanamo Bay and detention practices and interrogation techniques that were universally denounced as torture. The Obama adminstration now says it wants to put an end to this.

The metaphor of war and the accompanying rhetoric of a battle against “Islamofascism” had many unintended consequences. In the Muslim world it led to the widespread impression that the US was engaged in a war on Islam. This was reflected in a series of opinion polls. A poll conducted in 2007 by the World Public Opinion organisation found that large majorities in Pakistan (73 percent), Indonesia, Egypt and Morocco believed that the US was working to undermine Islam. Moreover, the resort to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and prolonged confrontation with Iran further reinforced this perception among Muslims. It is therefore no coincidence that the decision to discard this language has been followed by President Barack Obama’s explicit assurance in a speech to the Turkish Parliament that the “US is not, and never will be, at war with Islam.” So dropping the war phrase is also part of an effort that Washington is directing to improve its long deteriorating relations with the Muslim world.

The principal problem with warspeak was that it mischaracterised the challenge, over-militarised the response and de-emphasised the need to engage with the set of ideas, and not just the tactics employed by terrorist leaders and their followers. The lexicon privileged a predominantly military response and shaped a strategy essentially military in its character. The threat warranted a multidimensional strategy in which all elements of national power had to be deployed and a combination of hard and soft power used to separate perpetrators of violence from their support base among the population. In de-emphasising the diversity of the response, this language encouraged an approach that relied overwhelmingly on hard power and placed too little emphasis on the range of policy tools that are essential to any effective effort to win hearts and minds.

The concept also conjured up apocalyptic visions of an epic, transcendental and open-ended struggle, a war without end, which had other unintended consequences. Apart from elevating terrorists to the status of warriors, it viewed different insurgencies through one lens, treating disparate groups as part of “the enemy” and as a single unified global terrorist network. The notion of the “war on terror” conflated the threat, blurred the distinction between local grievances and global agendas, and ended up treating several and separate insurgencies and movements with diverse political and social roots as one big undifferentiated, trans-national threat.

This prevented these threats from being disentangled and addressed on the basis of their separate identities, motivations and agendas.

The key question that the welcome change in nomenclature now raises is whether this will lead to a fundamental rethink of the US approach to counter- terrorism. The strategy review announced for Afghanistan and Pakistan still seems to place principal reliance on military means while pledging to give greater emphasis to diplomacy and development, negotiating with the Taliban, and building national capacities. The real test of how much of a policy shift the change in language signals lies ahead when this broad brush review is translated into an operational plan.

It is not clear whether such a plan will, for example, engage in the battle of ideas to isolate the ideology advocated by the terrorist network that the US aims to defeat. It is that ideology that finds followers ready to replace those that are “taken out” by the use of force. An anti-Al Qaeda strategy must also try to neutralise the network’s appeal in Afghanistan, Pakistan and various parts of the world, where it finds recruits and allies. Terrorist violence is now directed mostly by self starting “affiliates” drawn from young men in different countries who have been radicalised by Al Qaeda’s ideology. The notion of fighting terrorism primarily by military means ignores the critical ideological dimension.

What has been apparent in recent years is the need for a broader, multifaceted strategy that combines short and long term aspects to address both the symptoms and underlying causes of terrorism. There is still no effort at the global level that embraces such a holistic approach despite the priority terrorism has received at every international forum. There has been much talk of eliminating terrorism at its roots but little has happened beyond this.

In most part this is because the debate over “root causes” has yielded no international consensus on the identification of the underlying factors as well as on how to fashion strategies to address them. There are divergences in the very conceptualisation of “root causes” between much of the Western world and Muslim countries.

There are obviously variations among Western nations over how they conceive of the underlying factors that drive terrorism. But the general view tends to identify extremist or jihadist ideology rooted in forms of Muslim teaching, tension between Islam and modernity, lack of freedom, opportunity and democracy in the Islamic world, and economic and social stagnation that fuel hopelessness as among the key factors conducive to terrorism. However Muslim countries identify as “root causes,” foreign occupation and domination, denial of the right of self-determination, unresolved disputes, and political and economic grievance or exclusion that leads to alienation and hopelessness.

These polar views obscure considerable common ground and areas of agreement about the factors that incubate violent extremism. But it is where the emphasis is placed in actual strategy that the differences assume significance. There is persisting reluctance at the political level in the US to recognise and accept that its foreign policy conduct has over the years profoundly influenced Muslim perceptions and created an antagonistic and radicalising effect in the Islamic world. There is similarly a need for internal reform and renewal in the Muslim world as well as improved governance that can help address poverty and the education deficit.

Above all, the divergent views about core causes have to be harmonised to forge an internationally agreed approach to counter-terrorism in both its short and long-term dimensions. Meanwhile, the US and its Western allies have to understand the need to “win,” not “occupy,” hearts and minds in order to defeat terrorism. Countering-terrorism-by-occupation translates into a perilous and self-defeating course, which will almost inevitably result in a heightened rather than a diminished threat of violence. If discarding the war metaphor can urge the Obama adminstration in the direction of acknowledging this, it will mark a significant step towards a smarter and more effective approach to one of the most complex challenges of our times.

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

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