Friday, February 22, 2008

What to Do With the War on Terror

Michael Hirsh argues that the War On Terror (the caps are a requirement here) is silly and that we need to redirect our efforts into a war on Al Qaeda alone, followed by a reengagement on a broad basket of other pressing issues.
The rational policy would be to replace the overblown "war on terror" with what we should have been engaged in every day since 9/11: a war of annihilation against Al Qaeda, an all-out effort to rid the earth completely of the small, lunatic group that attacked us on that day. This is a task we should apply ourselves to fully, at long last. But it is absurd to assign the term "transcendent challenge" to such a band of murderous anarchists, who have about as much hope of achieving their grand dream of turning the Mideast into an Islamist caliphate as scientists have of proving one day that the moon is made of green cheese. Terror cells may be spreading, but their ideology, such as it is, keeps dying every time it is exposed to the open air. Even in the tribal regions of Pakistan, safe haven to the newly regrouped Taliban and Al Qaeda, voters last week turned out radical religious parties because of their ineffectiveness. Al Qaeda and related terror groups are hardly the "heirs" to communism and totalitarianism, as Bush has described them.

Ironically, only if the next president downgrades the war on terror to a far more focused military and policing effort to destroy Al Qaeda completely—winning back all the natural global allies we've lost, placing groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in another category entirely—can he finally achieve the goal of making sure another 9/11 doesn't happen. But to do that we need to rethink the war on terror entirely. Is Barack Obama up to it?
Every few months I think it's important to do a quick reassessment of where we are with this whole uncomfortable exercise. I actually started writing this yesterday and came up short with the realization that something had actually changed and I wasn't sure what it meant.

I think I do, now. We have recently gathered some important data points.

We now have fairly definitive proof of a major defeat for a terrorist insurgency in Iraq.

We now have early indications that another terrorist insurgency in the Pakistani NWFP has seriously discredited itself and has lost significant political support, although it is far from defeated.

On the other hand we have the boiling cesspool that is Gaza, where government by terrorism is alive and well. Hamas may not have discredited itself yet but it seems to be able to maintain dominance only through assassination and intimidation.

And we have the situation in South Lebanon, where a terrorist organization cum NGO (Hezbollah) is well established and governing fairly peacefully.

What to make of these four cases? All four have the same initial conditions: A very weak government was powerless to stop the infiltration of a group that had a very strong predisposition to use random violence as a tool for controlling the the populace. But the wildly varying states into which each cases has evolved should tell us something about the nature of the beast.

First, Hirsh is clearly wrong in thinking that Al Qaeda is the enemy. The enemy is a particular political methodology. That methodology can be incredibly effective if it's ignored. It preys on weak societies but it is also somewhat effective in weakening strong societies. (Think Kenya.) So the term "War on Terror" is as stupid and jingoistic as ever. But that doesn't mean we're not engaged in a struggle to eliminate a major pathology from the world order. Nor does it mean that a major component for winning that struggle isn't military.

From our four cases, I think we can construct a decent narrative not only for how terrorism takes root in a society, but for how it can be removed.

In all four cases, the ideology that the terrorists espoused was initially supported by the population. In Gaza and Lebanon, that ideology was anti-Israeli. In Iraq, it was anti-occupation. And in the NWFP, it was a bit of anti-Musharraf mixed in with a lot of Pashtun nationalism and Islamism. This made all four societies welcome the terrorists in to begin with.

However, in Iraq and the NWFP, we have pretty convincing evidence that the population became simultaneously disgusted with and intimidated by the terrorists as soon as they began actively terrorizing. I suspect that you'd find the same in Gaza but it's still early days there. Lebanon is an outlier here--the locals seem to tolerate them for the most part. This may be because they have so much money to spend on humanitarian projects that their internecine turf wars and attendant carnage are forgiven.

We can also see from the Iraq, Pakistan, and Gaza cases that political support for the terrorists erodes over time. The erosion can be institutionalized in an election as long as the population isn't afraid to vote.

But the most important thing to note is that the local population will stand up to rid itself of the terrorists as long as they think that help is on the way and that that help will stick around when the going gets tough. This help is decidedly military in nature, at least to begin with, but can slowly de-escalate to aggressive policing over time.

This last point is where we've learned the important lessons. Removing terrorists requires intelligent counterinsurgency and the political will to use it as a military tactic. This is where the war on terror will actually be won and it's also why it's a real war.

The Lebanon case should warn us of the consequences of not confronting the terrorists during there initial campaign of intimidation. Hezbollah, because they were left alone for a long period, managed to become a de facto government. As they consolidated their power, they were able to reduce the level of violence and concentrate more on ingratiating themselves with the population. As a result, they're going to be incredibly difficult to remove.

The problem is not, as Hirsh believes, Al Qaeda. The problem is that the world needs to be a better place before it can succeed in developing further. The US had to go through this with organized crime during Reconstruction in the South and in the cities in the early part of the twentieth century. Violence had to be met decisively with violence. If you'd like to think of Southwest Asia as Chicago in 1930, go right ahead--it's not a bad analogy.

Finally, it's important to note that, while we may be fighting for our own security to some extent, we're ultimately fighting for a healthy, peaceful, global society. That would be a boon to all humanity of incalculable value.

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