jump to navigation

Ten years of the War on Terror: a strategic reassessment May 13, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Afghanistan, Kumar, Vikas, Pakistan , trackback

Vikas Kumar

The future of international terrorism and the War on Terror is being hotly debated after Osama bin Laden’s death. Osama’s liquidation could increase the risk aversion of Islamic extremists and trigger competition for supremacy among them. But it could as well lead to more attacks from his enraged supporters and nudge the otherwise factious extremists to join hands against the West. Irrespective of which of these two effects dominates we have no reason to celebrate because the decade long War on Terror, by design the third best solution, is a colossal waste of taxpayer’s money. In fact, the wild celebration of one man’s death highlights the pointlessness of the War on Terror waged by the most powerful nation of the world.

Under the first best solution, modernist, democratic forces directly ideologically challenge the religious extremists. But this solution is difficult to implement in AfPak, where any ideological campaign presumably has to first clear the Islam-in-danger hurdle. The second best solution involves supporting moderate, traditionalist religious groups in their ongoing conflicts with the religious extremists. The traditionalists need not clear the Islam-in-danger hurdle because they cannot be portrayed as anti-Islamic. The first and second best solutions include provision of physical security and development funding to non-extremists.

Unfortunately the United States opted for the third best solution, namely, military operations coupled with development initiatives. In the best case scenario, this purely secular strategy will bring the war-torn AfPak back to pre-war levels of development and temporarily neutralize ragtag Islamist militias without affecting their ideological appeal. But in the meantime the militarized counter-insurgency is damaging the cause it is meant to defend.

The militarization of the conflict and its spread across AfPak has destroyed public institutions and infrastructure, given birth to a militant culture, and paralyzed the economy. Both the modernist, democratic and moderate, traditionalist groups have suffered attrition due to their inability to withstand the physical onslaught of the extremists. The inability or unwillingness of the state to check extremist violence has further demoralized them. These developments have strengthened the extremists by reducing ideological competition and allowing them to access cheaper human capital and material resources, which is precisely what the War on Terror was launched to prevent.

The modernist, democratic camp has also suffered secondary attrition. The collateral damage due to the drone-borne war financed by democratic countries has discredited the idea of democracy more than it has harmed the extremists. Also, the secrecy surrounding the war and availability of unaccounted funds from abroad have spawned corruption and undermined the existing democratic institutions. Furthermore, nationalists within the democratic camp are now less open to the United States’ development and democracy initiatives because they see the War on Terror, particularly the way it has been conducted, as an affront to their sovereignty. The secondary attrition in the moderate, traditionalist camp has resulted because of the militarization and radicalization of some of its members triggered by the demonstration effect of extremist successes.

In short, faulty execution of the War on Terror has severely weakened the non-extremists while leaving the ideological appeal of the extremists intact. This limits our ability to encourage local ideological resistance in future, which is particularly worrisome because the revival of Islamic extremists after NATO’s withdrawal seems inevitable. But it would be presumptuous to believe that the United States is unaware of the limitations of its strategy. So, why did it choose a primarily secular, military strategy in the first place?

Perhaps the clamour for swift revenge forced the Bush administration to respond with hardly any reflection. Moreover, it believed it could pull out after a quick military operation but ended up chasing a mirage. But ten years is long enough a period for course correction. Maybe the United States’ constitutional commitment against interference in the religious and cultural spheres hinders the pursuit of the second best solution by any administration, whether Democratic or Republican. That this commitment is not a constraint should be clear from the way the United States used cultural and religious cleavages, even though clumsily, to bolster the anti-communist resistance.

Alternatively, it could be argued that the United States’ strategic inflexibility or blunder is a consequence of the intellectual and cultural arrogance of the West, accentuated by its military and economic superiority. At least initially, the strategists presumed that once the extremists are physically defeated the masses will automatically and irreversibly follow the Western model, which is not only superior to other models and hence desirable but is also culture-independent and hence replicable anywhere. But even this alternative explanation is only partly credible because some of the most nuanced critiques of the West’s arrogance and finest contributions toward understanding the non-West have emerged from within the West.

So, we need a clearer understanding of the flawed presumptions and compulsions of the War on Terror for a better counterinsurgency aimed at bringing back normalcy to the lives of millions of hapless poor in AfPak who have seen their worlds destroyed many times over for no fault of theirs. It is, however, extremely unfortunate that revellers and policymakers in the West have completely forgotten the biggest victims of terror and counter-terror.

 

 

 

The future of international terrorism and the War on Terror is being hotly debated after Osama bin Laden’s death. Osama’s liquidation could increase the risk aversion of Islamic extremists and trigger competition for supremacy among them. But it could as well lead to more attacks from his enraged supporters and nudge the otherwise factious extremists to join hands against the West. Irrespective of which of these two effects dominates we have no reason to celebrate because the decade long War on Terror, by design the third best solution, is a colossal waste of taxpayer’s money. In fact, the wild celebration of one man’s death highlights the pointlessness of the War on Terror waged by the most powerful nation of the world.

Under the first best solution, modernist, democratic forces directly ideologically challenge the religious extremists. But this solution is difficult to implement in AfPak, where any ideological campaign presumably has to first clear the Islam-in-danger hurdle. The second best solution involves supporting moderate, traditionalist religious groups in their ongoing conflicts with the religious extremists. The traditionalists need not clear the Islam-in-danger hurdle because they cannot be portrayed as anti-Islamic. The first and second best solutions include provision of physical security and development funding to non-extremists.

Unfortunately the United States opted for the third best solution, namely, military operations coupled with development initiatives. In the best case scenario, this purely secular strategy will bring the war-torn AfPak back to pre-war levels of development and temporarily neutralize ragtag Islamist militias without affecting their ideological appeal. But in the meantime the militarized counter-insurgency is damaging the cause it is meant to defend.

The militarization of the conflict and its spread across AfPak has destroyed public institutions and infrastructure, given birth to a militant culture, and paralyzed the economy. Both the modernist, democratic and moderate, traditionalist groups have suffered attrition due to their inability to withstand the physical onslaught of the extremists. The inability or unwillingness of the state to check extremist violence has further demoralized them. These developments have strengthened the extremists by reducing ideological competition and allowing them to access cheaper human capital and material resources, which is precisely what the War on Terror was launched to prevent.

The modernist, democratic camp has also suffered secondary attrition. The collateral damage due to the drone-borne war financed by democratic countries has discredited the idea of democracy more than it has harmed the extremists. Also, the secrecy surrounding the war and availability of unaccounted funds from abroad have spawned corruption and undermined the existing democratic institutions. Furthermore, nationalists within the democratic camp are now less open to the United States’ development and democracy initiatives because they see the War on Terror, particularly the way it has been conducted, as an affront to their sovereignty. The secondary attrition in the moderate, traditionalist camp has resulted because of the militarization and radicalization of some of its members triggered by the demonstration effect of extremist successes.

In short, faulty execution of the War on Terror has severely weakened the non-extremists while leaving the ideological appeal of the extremists intact. This limits our ability to encourage local ideological resistance in future, which is particularly worrisome because the revival of Islamic extremists after NATO’s withdrawal seems inevitable. But it would be presumptuous to believe that the United States is unaware of the limitations of its strategy. So, why did it choose a primarily secular, military strategy in the first place?

Perhaps the clamour for swift revenge forced the Bush administration to respond with hardly any reflection. Moreover, it believed it could pull out after a quick military operation but ended up chasing a mirage. But ten years is long enough a period for course correction. Maybe the United States’ constitutional commitment against interference in the religious and cultural spheres hinders the pursuit of the second best solution by any administration, whether Democratic or Republican. That this commitment is not a constraint should be clear from the way the United States used cultural and religious cleavages, even though clumsily, to bolster the anti-communist resistance.

Alternatively, it could be argued that the United States’ strategic inflexibility or blunder is a consequence of the intellectual and cultural arrogance of the West, accentuated by its military and economic superiority. At least initially, the strategists presumed that once the extremists are physically defeated the masses will automatically and irreversibly follow the Western model, which is not only superior to other models and hence desirable but is also culture-independent and hence replicable anywhere. But even this alternative explanation is only partly credible because some of the most nuanced critiques of the West’s arrogance and finest contributions toward understanding the non-West have emerged from within the West.

So, we need a clearer understanding of the flawed presumptions and compulsions of the War on Terror for a better counterinsurgency aimed at bringing back normalcy to the lives of millions of hapless poor in AfPak who have seen their worlds destroyed many times over for no fault of theirs. It is, however, extremely unfortunate that revellers and policymakers in the West have completely forgotten the biggest victims of terror and counter-terror.

Comments

1. Ten years of the War on Terror: a strategic reassessment | East Asia Forum - May 28, 2011

[…] earlier version of this article was first published here on South Asia Masala.  Print this post […]

2. Ten years of the War on Terror: a strategic reassessment | East Asia Forum - May 28, 2011

[…] earlier version of this article was first published here on South Asia Masala.  Print this post […]