I know! You can’t really declare war on a process for conducting war. Terrorism is a tactic, not a country or international entity that we need to destroy. But for more than ten years, the “War on Terror” has been the title of our efforts to defeat a set of Islamic Radicals who declared war on us more than ten years earlier.
These crazies not only declared war on us in the 1990’s, they started to attack us. But you have to hit the Big Guy really hard to get his attention. They managed to bomb the World Trade Center’s basement (how many of you remember that?), a couple of our Embassies, and one of our Navy ships, without us equating these obvious acts of war with an enemy. It was not until this new enemy used modern high-tech stuff, commercial jetliners, as weapons, and managed to kill almost 3,000 US citizens in a single day, that we realized we had an enemy we’d better take seriously.
The problem was that this new enemy was not a nation-state, so it was very hard to characterize this new enemy. We needed to go to war, but Afghanistan, where our attackers were located, was not the enemy - just a place where the crazy radicals lived. Somehow we justified the Iraq war, and we have been chasing terrorists around the world for over a decade.
We have actually embraced three or four national strategies for combating terrorism. One of the first strategies the US adopted was to push these international terrorists back into their countries of origin, where the problem could be treated as a law-enforcement issue…yes, I know that makes no sense. Over the past decade, our strategy evolved to the current one, which is focused on finding and killing everyone identified as a leader, a leader “wannabe,” a leader could-be, or even just a courier associated with the bad guys.
In the early days, we captured these guys and questioned them by various means, seeking intelligence. The residual political fallout from doing this has discouraged most politicians from considering this today. Now, it is just easier to kill them. Often, this is done remotely, using very high-tech Remotely Piloted Vehicles armed with really lethal missiles. These tactics have succeeded in killing all but a very few of these international terrorists, including one who was a US citizen.
The question I pose today is: Will this win the war?
In an article in Policy Review in August, 2003 (during the early days of the War on Terror), Frederick Kagan wrote, “It is a fundamental mistake to see the enemy as a set of targets. The enemy in war is a group of people. Some of them will have to be killed. Others will have to be captured or driven into hiding. The overwhelming majority, however, have to be persuaded.”
We have indeed destroyed most of the targets (people who were in charge) and captured those who could or would be in charge if given a chance. Certainly we have driven all the others into hiding. How are we doing on the job of persuading the rest of the Arab World, the vast majority, that those we killed were wrong and not worthy of support?
I think we have much work left. I call it The War On Terror Part II: convincing the dissatisfied that we can help, vice the current view that we are bad and must be attacked.
Difficult, but if we can’t sell free will, freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, equal opportunity….maybe these things aren’t worth believing in?