Sunday 18 September 2011

Don't Mention the War

I have never thought it helpful to refer to a "war" on terror, any more than to a war on drugs. For one thing that legitimizes the terrorists as warriors; for another thing terrorism is a technique, not a state. Moreover terrorism will continue in some form whatever the outcome, if there is one, of such a "war".
-          Eliza Manningham-Buller, Former Director General of MI5

I disagree. 9/11 was a criminal and military act which could only be responded to with a military response. There is no contradiction; something can be criminal and it can be a war crime.  After 9/11, given the Taliban’s intransigence and alignment with Al Qaeda, the only way to remove that that threat was war. Afghanistan was and remains a war of self-defence against a group of transnational networked criminal terrorists. (It’s actually noteworthy that despite her insistence that 9/11 was a crime, Baroness Maninghmam-Buller states that ‘we had discussed the near-certainty of a war in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda bases there and drive out the terrorists and their sponsors, the Taleban. We all saw that war in Afghanistan as necessary.’)

However, one must take issue with the concept of a ‘War on Terror’ – or Global War on Terror (GWOT) - not because it gives them ‘legitimacy’ as some have supposed (when they fought in Afghanistan in the 80s, when they attacked Americans pre-2001 – they thought they were warriors). The criticism that the term is a tactic and therefore cannot be fought against is similarly misguided for reasons that I have blogged before: Al Qaeda’s ends are terror: the use of violence to stop non-combatants from that which they have a right to do. A Talibanised Caliphate is exactly that: persecuting those of other religions, stopping women from going to school, stopping people from having the right to self-determination.

It is misleading in a sense because it is simply not a war in the sense of a twentieth century war. We do not live under a constant state of fear, we are unlikely to be bombed, we are unlikely to have parades when ‘victory’ comes. To label it a war is to underestimate the role of the police, security and intelligence services in countering terrorism. But this is simply part of the evolving role of warfare: technology means that terrorists can no longer handles by just military means. Drone attacks carried out from Langley are part of warfare – it matters not that they are carried out by men in suits who drive home.  And even though our reliance on said services has increased – it does not change the fact that we have a prolonged military confrontation for a political purpose. 

My gripe with the ‘War on Terror’ is that it is simply too decisive and does not give us a clear goal. It is decisive because whether we like it or not, there are different definitions of terrorism. Instead of bringing people and nations together it maintains divisions. A better formulation is the War against Al Qaeda and its allies – simply because it is a call that people can get behind: support for Al Qaeda in the Arab world is low and decreasing. Peter Bergen sums up this approach by taking issue with another one of Bush’s phrases:

"Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," said Bush. An alternative formulation could have been "If you are against the terrorists, then you are with us," and that formulation would have vastly increased the number of potential allies of the United States.

Most importantly, this also allows for us to have a clear goal: the paralysation of Al Qaeda and its allies. A War on Terror – even though, as I’ve argued, makes sense because for Al Qaeda terror is an end, does not embody that fight.  A ‘War on Terror’ goes beyond on strategic resources: we will not be able, anytime soon, to destroy the nations which use violence to stop the right of self-determination. It goes beyond what Al Qaeda is – to nations like North Korea and Saudi Arabia and organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah. It is so broad as to include an ideology. And that is inaccurate for what we are fighting in those fights with Al Qaeda and its allies. President Obama and his administration have got it right. This is an excerpt from an AFP report:

President Barack Obama is replacing the "global war on terror" with a new US strategy more narrowly focused on Al-Qaeda and relying more on a broader effort to engage the Muslim world... "It plays into the misleading and dangerous notion that the US is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world," he said. In a question and answer session, Brennan suggested that the new administration was prepared to reach out to groups like the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah that move away from their "terrorist core."

President Obama in a speech has even used something precisely like the recommended formulation above in a speech he gave in 2009 as part of his strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The single greatest threat to that future comes from al Qaeda and their extremist allies, and that is why we must stand together.... So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future... And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.

This is despite the fact that Obama agrees that we are ‘at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.’ Indeed, Obama’s foreign policy in attacking Al Qaeda is better than Bush’s in that it has increased drone attacks, carried out raids and arrests against Al Qaeda and has increased the troop presence in Afghanistan. President Obama is clearly not a man who disagrees there is a war going on. 

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