Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Future of the War on Terror

We've been in the War on Terror for over 7 years now, assuming it started on or about 9/11/2001. We've gone after al Qaeda (though didn't get bin Laden). We've fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with forays into places like the Yemen, Somalia, and the mountains of western Pakistan. The question remains, has it worked? Or to paraphrase something former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said "are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?"

I offer for discussion the following thoughts. These are not a policy for which I am advocating, but rather a series of slightly less than random ideas on how we can more innovatively wage the war on terror. Please feel free to disagree, expand, expound, and by all means, offer your own ideas.

1) First, drop the "war on terror" moniker. Frankly, it suggests that all terrorism is the same. It is not. And as such it needs to be dealt with differently. The moniker has become trite, which isn't helpful.

2) Al qaeda does not equate with all terrorists. Listening to our political leaders, one would be hard pressed to think that everyone who does something that can be deemed terrorism is somehow linked to al Qaeda. Kind of a "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" game. The truth is that our political leaders want to lump everyone together because it makes it easier to communicate the concept of "war on terror" (see item 1). But doing so makes it difficult to deal appropriately with the different groups, and it also gives al Qaeda a kind of "rock star" status that then can use as a rallying cry.

3) Marginalize al Qaeda. Fareed Zakaria in his new book "The Post-American World" suggests that the al Qaeda leadership has basically already been limited to public relations stunts. Every so often a video or audio tape arises to rile up the loyal followers. But they have had to decentralize their operations to the point where control of terrorist operations now happens at a local level. In a way this is worse - it is easier to cut out a tumor as a whole than it is to get the cancer once it metastasizes and spreads throughout the body/world. On the other hand, we can exploit the fact that these satellite operations are out there alone. Perhaps we can convince them that most of the community thinks of them as "the losers of the neighborhood" rather than the martyrs.

4) Do the same for the other terrorist groups. All of these organizations represent a small minority of the people in their communities. Sure, much of the community might sympathize with them, but in reality they do so mostly out of either fear (think al Qaeda in Iraq, AQI) or because the terrorist organization is providing more social services (schools, roads, safety) than the government (think Hamas and Hezbollah).

5) Go after the money. This is one area for which President Bush should get a heckofalot more credit. By cutting off their funding trails, the President has effectively kept millions of dollars from getting to people who would engage in terrorist acts.

6) Think antibiotics, not OTC. Most over-the-counter (OTC) medicines treat the symptoms, and let the body's natural defenses actually deal with the disease. Antibiotics go to the root fo the problem itself, at the source of the infection. Consider "the surge" in Iraq. The increase in troop numbers gets all the press, but in reality this was merely the OTC remedy for the symptoms (i.e., IEDs, car bombs, sectarian violence). Additional OTC efforts included physical separation (segregration) of Sunni and Shia. However, much of the success attributed to "the surge" actually was the result of greater attention to the root problems facing the people. The "Sunni Awakening," which started well before the troop surge, and the negotiated suspension of hostilities of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, did more to reduce violence than any increase in troops (though all of these factors obviously acted synergistically). The bottom line is that we worked with the Sunni leadership in Anbar province to deal with a mutual enemy (AQI made the tactical mistake of killing more Iraqis than Americans).

7) Admit that we like Muslims. On its surface this sounds a bit silly, or perhaps bigoted. What I mean is that the Islamic world, and much of the non-Islamic world, cannot help but think the US hates them. President Bush, in a catastrophically poor choice of words, even used the word "crusade" in first describing this new war on terror. Our rhetoric often includes phrases such as "they hate our freedoms," "Islamic jihad," "Islamic fundamentalism," and even "Islamic fascists." Emails bantered about the supposed former history as a "Muslim" by our new President-elect, in such a way as to use someone's supposed religion (when they weren't accusing him of being a radical Christian) as a pejorative. But as Retired General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently, "the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is: No." Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States and the world. I have friends who are Muslim (and Jewish and Christian and Buddhist and athiest) and they are just like everyone else...they don't hate America. They do, as does much of the world right now, wonder what the hell our problem is (but that is another post). My point, of course, is that if we demonize people, they will feel like, and act like, demons. And for the record, that is exactly how the rest of the world thinks of demons who are so self-serving that we don't respect the rights of others. Frankly, that's not a real good place to be if we want to call ourselves world leaders.

8) Go green. Okay, this one looks out of place, doesn't it? But it actually may be one of the most important things we can do to fight terrorism. Much of the strife on the planet right now has one source - our addiction to oil. Sure, there is sectarian strife, cultural strife, caste-based strife, religious-strife, etc. But much of that is also related to the fact that oil = riches and development (think Dubai), no oil = poverty and struggle (think India). By finding alternative - and sustainable - sources of energy we will remove much of the bases for conflict. Can we do it?

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