Despite a spreading jihad culture, U.S. President Barack Obama has ended America’s global “war on terror” as dramatically as his predecessor had initiated it. With the stroke of his pen, Obama has effectively terminated the war on terror that President George W. Bush had launched to defeat terrorists who, he said, wanted to “establish a radical Islamic empire that spans the Earth from Spain to Indonesia.”
Effective defense against the asymmetric weapon of terrorism is difficult. Dealing with such unconventional warfare remains a central theme in international discourse, given the growing threat from jihadists and the spreading virus of Wahhabi Islam.
But the blunt truth is that the war on terror derailed long before Obama took office. The U.S. occupation of Iraq proved so divisive in international relations that it fractured the post-9/11 global consensus to fight terror. Guantanamo, the CIA’s secret prisons overseas and the torture of detainees, including waterboarding, came to symbolize the excesses of the war on terror.
The abrupt end of the war on terror thus means little. With Iraq searing his presidency, Bush himself had given up the pretense of waging a global war on terror — a war he had once equated with the Cold War struggle against communism while comparing Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures with tyrants like Josef Stalin and Pol Pot.
In fact, ever since the U.S. declaration of a global 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 labeling it “an enduring struggle,” as Obama has done, doesn’t change the realities on the ground. Secular, pluralistic states, depending on their location, have come under varying pressures from the forces of terror. Vulnerability to terrorist attacks is critically linked to a state’s neighborhood.
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, say, Japan and Australia 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. Indeed, because the concept of jihad is deeply embedded in religion, the line between an Islamic extremist and terrorist can be a thin one. Islamist ideology catalyzes terrorism, and acts of terror in turn strengthen Muslim extremism.
It is thus obvious that counterterrorism will have to be a long-haul exercise. The struggle against transnational terror can be won only by inculcating a liberal, secular ethos in societies steeped in religious and political bigotry — a daunting challenge indeed.
In that light, the with-us-or-against-us terminology and use of offensive terms like “Islamo-fascism” were counterproductive. Counterterrorism 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. It is imperative to cash in on the historical sectarian and ethnic schisms in the Islamic world.
Obama’s gentler, subtler tone no doubt will help. Such a tone has proven such an ideological challenge to al-Qaida — deprived of a hate-spewing and polarizing American leader like Bush — that it has hurled one insult after another at Obama.
Obama, however, will be able to sustain his softer tone only if the United States continues to be free of any terrorist attack at home, as it has been for 7 1/2 years. If a terrorist strike occurs in the U.S. on Obama’s watch, the president will come under intense attack for dismantling tools that had successfully shielded that country for long. Already, former Vice President Dick Cheney has accused the new administration of pusillanimity in approaching the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty business” of keeping the country safe from terrorists.
It is not an accident that Obama, in one of his first acts in office, has 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. With Cheney predicting a “high probability” of a nuclear or biological terrorist attack in the coming years, safeguarding nuclear assets in quasi-failed Pakistan from insider threats and militant strikes is another challenge.
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 already has started redefining U.S. antiterror objectives more narrowly.
Robert Gates, his defense secretary, has given the clearest indication yet that the new administration will seek to regionally contain terrorism rather than defeat it. While outwardly the U.S. 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. Obama’s Afghanistan strategy can be summed up in three words: Surge, bribe and run.
Also, Washington’s proposal to triple nonmilitary 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 the Pakistani military to continue its asymmetric war of terror against India.
Internationally, there is greater need than ever to bring the fight against terror back on track. It will require a concerted, sustained global campaign — and the employment of the full range of counterterrorism tools domestically — to beat back the challenge from the forces of terror.
Yet the jarring U.S. intent to focus on preventing attacks against America by regionally confining terrorism means that democracies with uncongenial neighborhoods, like India and Israel, will bear the brunt of escalating terrorism.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”