Who’s winning the Great War on Terror?

Bin Laden is winning the “Great war on Terror”, and suggestions for changing this.

The operative part of House Resolution 861 – the one that just passed on a strict party split – was the refusal to set a withdrawal date from Iraq. I found the half-baked rhetoric of the preamble at least as interesting, for it shows the depths of confusion into which US policy has fallen; and, by the same token, the extent of Osama bin Laden’s strategic victory.

He started from a very difficult position. Most jihadi Muslims, including the Taliban, Chechen autonomists, Hamas, and al-Zarqawi follow the fairly realistic “near enemy” strategy aimed at “liberating” Muslim majority populations into the delights of fundamentalist rule. He leads a small minority group of jihadis espousing an apparently insane “far enemy” strategy directed at the United States as the ultimate guarantor of the vile régimes all jihadis want to overthrow: secular, corrupt rulers of Muslim countries and of course Israel.

Consider his objectives.

As I understand them, these are:

1. To provoke the USA into a crusade against Muslims in general, a conflict of civilisations.

2. To provoke the USA into revealing the shallowness of its pretended values, in contrast to the authentic ones of Islam; and to show its true colours of exploitative greed, imperial power-lust and Zionist colonialism.

3. Aided by 1 and 2, to persuade the umma of Muslims to rally to a global jihad led by himself.

On 1, it is true that the USA has not declared Islam as its enemy, so the success is incomplete. But HR 861 fails to name the enemy, which is hypostasised as a shadowy, demonic “Terror”. Al-Qaeda is named as a mere example; so is its ally of convenience al-Zarqawi, a brilliant leader in the rival “near enemy” school (as well as a repellent psychopath), who died like Nelson in the moment of his victory; and, so, absurdly, is the Taliban, a backwoods Afghan faction with essentially local ambitions. Since many Muslims have a sneaking admiration for near-abroad terrorists in Palestine, Chechnya and Iraq, the vagueness contributes to Bin Laden’s objective. So, much more, has the invasion of Iraq on false pretexts and an occupation involving continuing military operations against Arabs, which can be plausibly portrayed as part of an anti-Muslim crusade. Score 5 out of 10.

On 2, the success is breathtaking. HR 861 claims the adversary “is driven by hatred of American values”. Where are these left in the day-to-day routine of the GWT: in the lives of its prisoners, in the lies and insults of its spokespersons? Cronyism and incompetence turned the Iraq “reconstruction” into something very close to looting, and the reflexive, disengaged rubber-stamping of Israel’s hapless policies credits the widely-held legend of a Zionist grip on the American state. US support for human rights and democracy in other parts of the world – China, Russia, Africa – has become mere tokenism. (The values of the American people have changed only a little for the worse; but for world perceptions, what counts is the actions of the government.) I would give bin Laden 8 out of 10 here.

So the USA has cooperated rather well with its parts of the script.

Bin Laden has largely failed so far on 3 because most Muslims have too much sense for his agenda. America is much less trusted than before, but this is largely attributed to Bush’s leadership rather than to Americans in general. (See the Pew 2005 world survey: “Bush’s low standing emerges in country after country as the leading link to anti-Americanism.”) Distrust is a very long way from warfare; though it has become much easier to recruit handfuls of young jihadis for terrorism. Score 2 out of 10.

Now let’s dream of an American policy aimed at actually winning in a reasonable time frame, say 10 years. Here are my suggestions.

The first two objectives are just the reverse of bin Laden’s:

1. Counterattack as narrowly as possible. Isolate bin Laden and his followers from other Muslims, even other jihadis; cut the links of sympathy from the mass of Muslims.

2. Return to the best values of American tradition: integrity, steadfastness, due process, magnanimity, and “a decent regard to the opinions of mankind”. This is essential to the first objective.

Consequently the third becomes:

3. When his movement is weakened and isolated, destroy it.

The style of the conflict should be inspired by the half-century of containment of Soviet communism. Global jihadism as an ideology is worthless fantasy and cannot survive more than a few decades. US policy should be principled; Fabian; patient; calculating; multilateral and multi-level; and political ahead of military. A few ingredients:

* Recognise and name your enemy. It is Al-Qaeda, a small jihadi faction, and its emulators. It isn’t even all jihadis. Near-enemy jihadis have a lot of different enemies, Russia, Israel, Mubarak’s Egypt, Musharraf’s Pakistan, etc. America’s first problem is the few jihadis that kill Americans as such.

* Refuse bin Laden’s vainglorious gambit of defining the conflict as a war. Insist you fight criminals: outlaws, pirates, enemies of humanity. When they are captured, try them as such. Take the direction of the conflict away from the Pentagon.

* “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. Avoid the hysterical and alienating rhetoric that HR 861 exemplifies, advertising fear and weakness. This is a great power aganst a couple of hundred fanatics; a threat, but not an existential one.

* Divide and conquer. Don’t fall into bin Laden’s trap of defining the conflict as one. Set jihadis against each other; split jihadis from peaceful Muslim fundamentalists, fundamentalists from modernisers.

* Cooperate with allies but don’t let them set your priorities. Hamas is Israel’s enemy, not America’s. The alliance with Israel may lead America to boycott Hamas; or an interest in splitting jihadism may point to a dialogue. Don’t pretend there is no tradeoff or that interests are identical.

* Show a determination to moralise the conflict with trials of American war criminals and compensation to their victims. Close GITMO and other extralegal camps. Bring all detainees into the ordinary criminal justice system, or release them.

* Accept civilian casualties stoically. This is the only area where the metaphor of war is useful. There’s no reason to think that al-Qaeda is capable of inflicting 9/11 casualties on a regular basis, but make it clear that the USA could stand them indefinitely without changing its core foreign policies.

* Accept failure in Iraq and get out.

PS: HR 861 says that

The terrorists have declared Iraq to be the central

front in their war against all who oppose their ideology.

The Bush administration has used the “central front” trope ad nauseam. Which terrorist leader said this and when?

Update: Link added under “Fabian” to the Wikipedia entry on the steely Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (c. 275 BC-203 BC), called Cunctator, the saviour of Rome after the disaster at Cannae.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

12 thoughts on “Who’s winning the Great War on Terror?”

  1. The Bush administration, being at arrogant, self-righteous, and very naive, would never be able to do more than stay the course.
    Once Bush is out of Office conflict (as John McCain calls it), weary Americans will make sure the soldiers come back hastily.
    Then Iraq shall clamp down very harshly on the rebels, create an Islamic Republic, and become allies with Iran.
    Osama will have won because another Islamic theocracy has risen, and also, the Taliban will gain more strength in Afghanistan as well, because we do not fight these fundamentalist psychologically and economically as we tend to do with the communist.

  2. The desire to make this a grand War on * was certain to lead us to messes all along. I've always maintained this is policing, not military conflict (even if carried out under means that are orthogonal to domestic understandings of those words). If only, some day, Wars on Whatever would disappear from political dialogue, we'll all be better off.

  3. That last line you highlighted in blue really bowled me over. It's pretty clear what the Republicans are up to this year. More war on terror – no matter how disconnected from reality it is.
    I also totally agree with your first bullet point. The enemy is al-Qaeda, a small group in the hills of Afghanistan. But from Bush's perspective, they were a great excuse to do all manner of stupid things. Like start a war.

  4. I don't believe we're at war against Islam, but the way we've conducted the War on Terror makes it easy for bin Laden to depict it as one.
    We said we invaded Iraq to defend ourselves against weapons that it's becoming increasingly apparent we knew they didn't have. So, if we didn't invade because of the weapons, why did we invade? Because we're at war against Islam. It's not true, but it's plausible in the absence of a real reason.

  5. HR 861 says that "The terrorists have declared Iraq to be the central front in their war against all who oppose their ideology."
    As cmdicely points out in a comment at Political Animal, this should be properly interpreted to mean that the GOP is calling the Bush administration "terrorists", as they are the only ones who have made Iraq the central front in a war against those who oppose their ideology, allegedly an ideology of freedom and democracy.
    It is quite obvious, nevertheless, that the Bush administration is lying about freedom and democracy being their ideology, just as they've lied about many other things.

  6. ObL is winning the GWOT, which is pretty much ok with GWB — the strategic aim of the Iraq war has been to establish permanent bases from which to control the Iraqi oil fields. The more terrorism, the easier to provide continuing justification for the permanent presence. Reconstruction work is a handy slush-fund for welfare to cronies, so no harm in letting that go on indefinitely either.
    Creating a model for liberal capitalist democracy in Iraq is a charming cover story which has just enough surface plausibility to sell the program. We're all for freedom, right? Nevermind the many centuries it took European cultures to arrive at their present liberal constitutions, that's too boring and pessimistic to think about. Afterall, as Henry Ford reliably informed us: "history is bunk". Freedom NOW!

  7. "2. To provoke the USA into revealing the shallowness of its pretended values, in contrast to the authentic ones of Islam; and to show its true colours of exploitative greed, imperial power-lust and Zionist colonialism….."
    If you really, seriously believe that bin Laden and his fellow Islamists hate the West, and do battle against it, because it's not devoted *enough* to "its pretended values", I'll respond with two words: Danish cartoons.
    I'm reminded of Bill Maher, who, in the wake of 9/11, expressed the conviction that the answer to the question, "why do they hate us?" was that Americans are fat and use too much oil. Somehow, he'd divined that the reasons Osama bin Laden hates Americans are, by extraordinary coincidence, *exactly* the reason that Bill Maher hates Americans.
    Likewise, James, *you* may be all upset about what you perceive as the Bush administration's "exploitative greed, imperial power-lust and Zionist colonialism". But Osama bin Laden–a Saudi billionaire's son who seeks to conquer the world for Islam–isn't the kind of guy to get all worked up about greed, power-lust and colonialism. Nor are his followers, who openly applaud the brutal slaughter of thousands of innocent Iraqi (not to mention American) civilians, likely to be particularly put off by harsh conditions in a few American-run prisons.
    No, their beef is much more fundamental: the fact that America is wealthy and powerful despite its many and various departures from rigid Islamist orthodoxy. These include its large majority population of infidels; its sexual equality and freedom; and its tolerance of criticisms of Islam.
    There is little the current administration can–or should–do to ease these points of conflict with avowed Islamist supremacists. The only plausibly effective strategies for averting the planned waves of Islamist violence are interdiction–attacking those planning, directing and participating in the violence–and deterrence–ensuring that those involved meet such unpleasant, ignominious ends that their successors are dissuaded from following suit. Strengthening the safeguards protecting the civil rights of suspected terrorists may (or may not) be a valid goal for other reasons, but as a strategy for reducing Islamist terrorism, it doesn't pass the giggle test.

  8. Dan Simon wrote, "No, their beef is much more fundamental: the fact that America is wealthy and powerful despite its many and various departures from rigid Islamist orthodoxy. These include its large majority population of infidels; its sexual equality and freedom; and its tolerance of criticisms of Islam."
    Nope.

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