Revitalizing global counterterrorism

The Threat is Common


Brahma Chellaney

The Times of India, February 6, 2009


HERZLIYA (Israel): In the face of a spreading jihad culture, President Barack Obama has ended America’s global “war” on terror as dramatically and unaccountably as his predecessor had initiated it. With the stroke of his pen, Obama has effectively terminated the war on terror that George W. Bush had launched to defeat terrorists who, he said, wanted to “establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia”.


            The asymmetric weapon of terrorism is a lethal one. Dealing with such unconventional warfare remains a central theme in international discourse, as at Israel’s Herzliya Conference involving participants from the highest levels of government, business and academia. But the blunt truth is that the war on terror stood derailed long before Obama took office. The US occupation of Iraq proved so divisive in international relations that it fractured the post-9/11 global consensus to fight terror. Guantánamo, CIA’s secret overseas prisons and the torture of detainees, including through waterboarding, came to symbolize the excesses of the war on terror. 


            The abrupt end of the war on terror thus means little. With Iraq and Afghanistan searing his presidency, Bush himself had given up the pretence of waging a global war on terror — a war he had once equated with the Cold War struggle against communism. In fact, ever since Bush declared his war on terror, the scourge of transnational terrorism has spread deeper and wider in the world. The war’s only outcome has been that it enabled the Bush administration to set up new U.S. military arrangements extending from the Caspian Sea basin to Southeast Asia.


            Not calling it a war any longer but labelling it a “struggle” or “strategic challenge” doesn’t change the grim realities. Secular, pluralistic states have come under varying pressures, depending on their location, from the forces of terror. After all, vulnerability to terrorist attacks is critically linked to a state’s external neighbourhood. A democracy geographically distant from the Muslim world tends to be less vulnerable to frequent terrorist strikes than a democracy proximate to Islamic states. The luxury of geography of Australia and the U.S. contrasts starkly with the tyranny of geography of India and Israel. It is such realities that no change of lexicon can address.


            Still, Obama is right in saying “the language we use matters”. He has been wise to reach out to the Muslim world and to start undoing some of the excesses of the Bush years. The international fight against terrorism will be a long, hard slog. After all, the problem and solution are linked: Terrorism not only threatens the free, secular world, but also springs from the rejection of democratic and secular values. Worse, terrorism is pursued as a sanctified tool of religion and a path to redemption. Thus, the struggle against transnational terror can be won only by inculcating a liberal, secular ethos in societies steeped in religious and political bigotry.


            In that light, the with-us-or-against-us terminology and use of offensive terms like “Islamofascism” were counterproductive. Counter-terrorism is not a struggle against any religion but against those that misuse and misappropriate religion. The need is to reach out to Muslim moderates through correct idiom, not to unite the Muslim world through provocative language. Obama’s gentler, subtler tone no doubt will help. But such a tone can be sustained only if the US continues to be free of any terrorist attack, as it has been for more than seven years. If a terrorist strike occurs in the US on Obama’s watch, the president will come under intense attack for dismantling tools that had successfully shielded that country for long

            Having appointed a special envoy for each of the two regions central to the global fight against terrorism — the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt and the Middle East — Obama is likely to discover that ending the war on terror was the easy part. In fact, at a time when America’s challenges have been underscored by a deep economic recession, increasing reliance on capital inflows from authoritarian China and jihad-bankrolling Saudi Arabia, two overseas wars and eroding global influence, Obama has already started redefining US anti-terror objectives more narrowly. His defence secretary has given the clearest indication yet that the new administration will seek to regionally contain terrorism rather than defeat it.

            While outwardly the US looks set to pursue a military strategy in Afghanistan and a political approach toward Pakistan, in reality its troop surge in Afghanistan is intended to cut a political deal with the Taliban from a position of strength. According to Robert Gates, US objectives have been “too broad and too far into the future” and the new scaled-back goal is “to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base for Al Qaida attacks on the US”. There isn’t enough “time, patience or money”, in his words, to pursue ambitious goals there. Washington’s proposal to triple non-military aid to Islamabad while keeping existing military-aid flow intact, other than to tie it to concrete Pakistani cooperation on the Afghan front, will free Pakistan to continue its asymmetric war of terror against India.

            The jarring US intent to focus on preventing attacks against America by regionally confining terrorism means that democracies with uncongenial neighbourhoods, like India and Israel, will bear the brunt of escalating terrorism.


The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.

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