War in perpetuity
Bin Laden is dead. But the war is on. It has been on since 2001. The “war on terror” is in full swing on a global scale. What Laden spawned continues to be a thorn on the side of the United States (US) and its allies. The original al-Qaeda is in retreat but other movements like ISIS and al- Qaeda offshoots have taken centre stage to wage holy war against “infidels.” This scenario was probably not on Mr. President Bush Jr.'s mind when he chose to make war in Afghanistan and the disastrous campaign in Iraq later in 2003. Today, the US has withdrawn from both these theatres. Has the war been won? No. Will it ever be won? Perhaps we can revisit that question next decade.
What is clear is that US policymakers have reconsidered their earlier option to man “battle stations” and take the fight to Islamists with men and material on the ground. And whilst smart bombs over Iraq today make wonderful headlines diligently reported by embedded journalists, the war is at best being contained and not won. In the 13 odd years that have elapsed since 9/11, the world has not been made a safer place for anyone. According to State Department data 16 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks in 2013. That of course is not saying much since 33 Americans died in the US from lightning over the same period. Hence, while much hype continues to be put on the war on terror, more Americans were killed by lightning than terrorism. Yet, the threat cannot be wished away. It does exist.
Aaron David Miller, who has served six secretaries of state as an advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations and currently Vice President for New Initiatives and a Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, stated in an article recently: “President Obama has said that we will 'ultimately defeat ISIL,' the self-declared Islamic State also known as ISIS. Back in 2013 the president went so far as to suggest that that the war on terror was over. But he's wrong on both counts. And here's why. First, we have yet to take care of old business. Talk to any terrorism analyst or CIA or FBI counterterrorism expert and they'll tell you that the most immediate threat to the United States comes not from ISIS but from an al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula AQAP. Sure we've had great success against the old core al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing Osama Bin Laden and most of his top lieutenants, and dismantling infrastructure. But the Paris attacks were either directed or inspired by AQAP, making it obvious that almost 15 years after 9/11 we have yet to 'defeat al-Qaeda.'”
Whenever an Islamist outfit emerges, be it al-Qaeda or ISIS, conventional wisdom is to bomb it back to the Stone Age with the hope that it will stay there. But as history has taught us, every militant outfit or movement that has emerged from the Middle East is the product of “an angry, broken and dysfunctional Middle East where large ungoverned spaces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, and widespread bad governance or no governance at all, combine with a growing sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia to feed extremism and violence.” The brutal operations against a civilian populace carried out by government forces in Syria and the wholesale deletion of the Sunni populace from the political equation in Iraq have been heaven-sent recruitment options for radical Islamic movements in the region.
With the US conveniently declaring the war being over in Afghanistan, time will tell whether the Afghan forces are up to the task of keeping the Taleban in check. What about the Pakistani offshoot of the Taleban? They have proved their potency in the recent attack on a school in Peshawar. What of the Islamist schools or madrassas churning out fresh zealots in that country ready to die in battle for what they perceive to be a just war against the “infidel” West? It is all very convenient to withdraw from a theatre of battle and let the locals sort it out to please a disenchanted US electorate, but what happens if these newly forged governments, imbued with democratic values in countries that have never had any notion or inkling of democracy before the US arrived simply collapse in the face of battle-hardened forces who believe they are fighting for their religion and God? What will be the response in such circumstances? More laser guided bombs and Tomahawk missiles fired from off-shore or a redeployment of conventional forces on the ground.
At the end of the day, the only thing that will work to check the rise of radical Islamist movements is to foster good governance in the Middle East and other trouble spots. Without better governance and a right to vote for change in autocratic countries, there will always be radicalisation. In countries that have significant Muslim minorities, there has to be more inclusivity. Failure to do so can only lead to more alienation among young Muslims, more incidents like Charlie Herbdo and a continuation of the “war on terror.”
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.