March issue 2017
The Big Question: Are we losing the War on Terror?
Moeed Yusuf is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.
Osama Bin Laden and his accomplices had little idea of how the global terror network would evolve after September 11, 2001. They must have known that one attack could not bring about America’s downfall. But they did hope that it would begin to deepen the divide and cement the ‘us versus them’ clash between the Islamic world and the West. Exactly this has happened. The terrorist enterprise has made momentous physical and ideological gains since 9/11, and is better placed to further its agenda than most would have imagined a decade-and-a-half ago.
The policy world likes to note its several successes since 9/11 – be it cutting Al Qaeda to size, or more recently, pushing back against IS. Yet, the fact is that Islamist transnational terrorists have influence or control over more territory around the world than ever before. Catastrophic errors in western counter-terrorism policies have led to chaos in the Muslim world and have resulted in a mushrooming of ungoverned spaces – across the Middle East, in North Africa, and South Asia. These have allowed terrorist outfits to coalesce, plot, plan, and execute their actions with relative impunity.
Encouraged by this, new organisations have emerged in countries previously not infested with such violence. The threat has become more complex.
Challenging the terrorist enclave are typically divided nation-states. Geostrategic realities have continued to trump the need to coordinate and optimise counter-terrorism policies and implementation mechanisms. In fact, coalitions and individual countries have continued with policies aimed at securing themselves by making terrorism someone else’s problem. We have experienced this first hand in South Asia. India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan’s Machiavellian approach towards each other has played right into the hands of the terrorists they seek to defeat. Much the same is the case in the Middle East where ISIS has benefited tremendously from the geostrategic tussles over Syria and Iraq.
The news on the ideological front is no better. Examine Islamist terrorist outfits from the Sahel to the Middle East to South Asia and you’ll find them selling a toxic discourse that, at its core, is geared towards promoting the ‘Islam is under attack’ narrative to channel Muslim anger towards the West. Intrusive western policies since 9/11 have left Muslim societies more susceptible to this narrative. Leaders of Muslim countries have often reinforced the sentiment, if only to distract their citizens from their governance failures. The net result is a terrorist narrative that has kept Muslim societies ambivalent and shy of unequivocally denouncing their tactics, irrespective of where the violence takes place. A truly coherent counter-narrative owned by Muslim societies is yet to emerge. Further, the democratisation of information and communication tools has allowed transnational terrorists unprecedented reach. Its force-multiplying effects have been demonstrated by IS’s online recruitment, and by the increasing number of lone-wolf attacks occurring in the West.
Sustainable policy solutions require patience and measured approaches. Overreactions from the West play right into the ‘Islam in danger’ narrative. Global and regional powers must also compromise on geostrategic competition in order to optimise a truly global counter-terrorism effort. This is anything but natural in international politics, and there are no signs of a positive shift. Finally, the Muslim world needs to step up to create a coherent counter-narrative to the terrorist propaganda. It too has little to show for its efforts so far on this front.
The immediate future may entail tactical counter-terrorism successes, but strategic victories require these fundamental issues to be addressed. I see little hope. If anything, the recent political changes in the West will make it even harder to course correct.
Lt. Gen Asad Durrani
Lt General (R) Asad Durrani is a former Director-General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
For the late Hilary Synott, once the British High Commissioner in Pakistan, the American General William Odom, and me, terrorism — ‘targeting non-combatants in pursuit of a political or an ideological agenda’ — is a tactic of war. It has been used by both, the state and non-state actors at all times, and will continue to be used. For most of us however, it is a state of fear affected by violence against a state or a society. Since the phenomenon is on the rise, one may reasonably conclude that the ‘war on terror’ is lost.
In this so called ‘asymmetric’ war, the ‘terrorists’ have an edge: operating clandestinely in small groups, they are difficult to detect. A large number of soft targets can be battered at the time of their choosing, and indeed, they have proved to be ingenious. Moreover, the state seldom gets real-time or actionable intelligence. But what actually works in the terrorists’ favour is the state’s inability to conduct counter-terrorism operations based on sound principles.
Military actions can, at best, buy time and provide space so that the motivation of the terrorists and the grievances of their supporters can be addressed through political means. Since that requires difficult decisions and even more difficult implementation, all we do is bomb the terrorists and their suspected sanctuaries. The Pakistanis often advise others – the US and India, for example – to address the root-causes of terrorism and avoid using brute force that causes ‘collateral damage,’ thus generating more terrorists. However, when hit hard by terrorist acts, we holler for a swift response, and that too on a mass scale. Then there are those who benefit from terrorism. Post 9/11, terrorism has become a useful instrument of politics. A state can now label anyone who is on its wrong side, as a ‘terrorist,’ and all its actions against such individuals or groups would become kosher. There is no longer any fuss over state terrorism. Under the new order, fighting UN-sanctioned foreign occupation, can be vilified as ‘terrorism.’ Oppressive and aggressive states would ensure that terror retains its currency.
For far too long, the US got the benefit of doubt for its part in the proliferation of terrorism. While conceding that its policies and actions created Al-Qaeda and Daesh, America was spared the charge of wilfulness. How this hyper-power benefits by perpetually initiating wars must change that. To secure a foothold in strategically important regions – the Middle East and Central Asia – ‘war against terror’ was the raison d’être for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. This, inevitably, led to armed resistance, disingenuously termed ‘terrorism,’ and thus not only rationalised inflicting these wars, but also provided the pretext to continue occupation — to fight more ‘terrorists.’
In a high-profile conference on Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the resurgence of Daesh was acknowledged. There was no chance now that US troops would leave, and the Kabul regime got a new lease on life. Terrorism had won, yet again.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is the Resident Editor of The News International in Peshawar and a senior political and security analyst for Geo TV.
Pakistan may have its own policy decisions to blame for opening up its territory to the ‘war against terror’ once military ruler General Pervez Musharaf decided to back the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Since then, there have been many losses and gains in an unpredictable battle. While there has been increasing resolve to tackle the menace through military means, it would be an error of judgement to expect a neat conclusion.
And it would be a mistake if those in positions of authority believe that the back of the terrorists has been broken and the war almost won. On the contrary, once the government acknowledges its shortcomings and corrects course, it will be in a better position to mould public opinion in its favour and decisively fight this unconventional war. The morale of the people must be raised in the face of the continuing menace, but the government should also take the public into confidence about the real gains made, the exact losses suffered to-date, and the likely sacrifices that they will be required to make in the future.
While abruptly changing his government’s policy of support to the Afghan Taliban regime under pressure from the US in the post-9/11 period, General Musharraf had justified the decision to back the US invasion by arguing that the war would be short and targeted. He was wrong on every count, as the war in Afghanistan continues with great intensity more than a decade later, and there is no end in sight to the conflict. What’s more, it has even spilled over into Pakistan.
Pakistan first deployed its troops in parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), such as Tirah valley in Khyber Agency and along the Pak-Afghan border in Kurram Agency in late 2001, to block the entry of Al-Qaeda militants and Taliban leaders fleeing US airstrikes in Tora Bora, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Pakistan’s security forces undertook the first military action against local and foreign militants in FATA by targeting their positions in South Waziristan in late 2003. The militancy could not be contained, and it spread all over FATA and the Malakand division, including Swat. Repeated military action had to be taken to confront the challenge.
However, despite the burgeoning problem, it was not until January 2015 that the National Action Plan (NAP) was formulated by the country’s civil and military leadership to ensure a focused and coordinated response to extremism and terrorism in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, in which 147 persons, including 132 schoolchildren, were brutally killed. And the first serious national effort to build a counter-narrative against terrorism was made by the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) in early 2013. Both initiatives were undertaken after inordinate delays and it will not be easy to get their recommendations implemented, given the government’s short attention span on issues that need long-term solutions.
It would be wrong to say that Pakistan is losing the war against terrorism. It has succeeded in recapturing territory from the militants in FATA and in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Besides, public opinion has finally turned against the terrorists. Most internally displaced persons have been sent back to their homes and significant infrastructural reconstruction and development work completed. However, the escape of Pakistani militants to Afghanistan and the unwillingness of the Afghan government to take action against them has compounded Pakistan’s problems. Besides, Afghanistan and India have forged close relations and agreed to use the former’s territory to destabilise Pakistan, by sponsoring Pakistani Taliban militants and Baloch separatists. Until Pak-Afghan relations improve, Pakistani militants will continue to find refuge in Afghanistan while the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network continue to be hosted in Pakistan.
This has proved to be a long and costly war not only for Pakistan but also for the rest of the world. The US initiated the war against terror, and opposition to its policies was the original and prime reason for Islamic militants to pick up the gun and challenge its authority. Later, each country, including Pakistan, had to fight its own war against terrorism. Will the war ever be won?
There are no easy answers. Those fighting the war will have to remain patient and vigilant, and be prepared for the long haul.
Asad Rahim Khan
Asad Rahim Khan is a barrister and columnist.
In his final address in 2006, when he was departing in disgrace from the Bush Administration, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “The first war of the 21st century… is not well-known, it was not well-understood; it is complex for people to comprehend.”
Rumsfeld was grappling with what filmmaker Michael Moore so succinctly stated about the War on Terror: “You can’t declare war on a noun.”
But war was declared, and the most powerful military machine in human history found itself being baited by a stateless maniac a world away. Osama bin Laden’s dream was essentially a nightmare: an act of violence that would force the whites and browns into endless war. It seemed unrealisable, until the Bush Administration – and its enablers in New Labour – realised it.
Along the way, Mr. Bush also thought to pursue an unrelated revenge fantasy against Saddam Hussein, a man who had nothing to do with 9/11, but who, as Bush put it, “tried to kill my dad.” Coupled with amateur empire-builders ‘Rummy’ and Cheney, who had already sunk a presidency trying to take over the world (Gerald Ford’s), the US also had a dream/nightmare that went toe-to-toe with Osama’s.
Then there were its allies: thugs in uniform that were paid to stomp around the territory under their control in lieu of a war yet to reach their shores. General Musharraf began bombing Wana in the north, inflaming the tribes in Waziristan. He went bowling in Balochistan in the south, reigniting a separatist movement. And in his memoirs, he boasted of the bounty garnered from these exploits.
The entire war was, in fact, so wildly ill-conceived, so utterly without point, that when the first round flopped – Afghanistan becoming a narco-state, Iraq a ticking time-bomb, and Pakistan being pushed into the throes of insurgency – many thought it a war without victory.
But then the war changed. The nature of the enemy changed.
Osama had wanted a romantic clash of civilisations (perhaps Paul Wolfowitz did too): believers against infidels. But a new generation of jihadis saw the world very differently: why fight infidels with apostates?
The new wave of war turned inward: a professional loser called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi publicly snubbed Osama, founded what would become IS, and declared ‘total war’ on Iraq’s Shias.
Meanwhile, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan grew out of the Afghan original and mowed down innocent Pakistanis with breathtaking cruelty. In an act that changed the country, in December 2014, it massacred 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar. Pakistan had already lost thousands of soldiers wresting back Swat and Waziristan from a hideous strain of militancy. But Peshawar changed Pakistan, and Pakistanis, forever.
The war on terror became a war of survival – to lose it, would be the end of the nation-state (as it proved for Iraq). And just recently, Pakistan had, it seemed, started, life by life, to win this war. The country saw a dramatic drop in terror attacks in the last two years. But terror returns in waves, as it did this February, with one attack after another. Clearly, the fight will take far more than guts and gunships.
In Pakistan, the war on terror, and how to win it, is far better understood than what Rumsfeld claimed a decade ago. But the knowledge has come at a terrible price.