Why the war on terror is not going well: Two years later
Why the war on terror is not going well: Two years later
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2023
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2023
Op-Ed / Global

Why the war on terror is not going well: Two years later

The global war on terror that has been waged since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is not going brilliantly well. Osama bin Laden is still alive, and Al Qaeda is down but not out, its offshoots and affiliates in Southeast Asia and elsewhere damaged but certainly not destroyed.

In Iraq, where the terrorist connection was the least plausible of all the reasons for going to war, terrorist violence has now become the most harrowing of all its consequences. Nobody anywhere is confident that the "big one" - an attack bringing together the sophistication and ruthlessness of the attack on the World Trade Center with the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons - can't or won't happen.

There are at least two general lessons we can learn from what has happened so far. One is that to wrap everything up in the language of a "war on terrorism" or a "war on evil" doesn't contribute much to clear operational thinking. A war against evil is, almost by definition, unlimited and interminable. The concept doesn't help us much in identifying points of entry, and there is certainly no obvious exit strategy.

In terms of Isaiah Berlin's famous dichotomy, there's a place for hedgehogs - those consumed by one big idea - when it comes to global security issues, but most of the time the most productive work is done by foxes: those who know many things, and who understand the need for endlessly varied approaches to solve endlessly variable problems.

There are big risks in ignoring problems that are not easily subsumed under the mantle of a war against terror. And perhaps there are even bigger risks in wrapping in that mantle security problems - like those in Iraq, Iran and North Korea - which at most are only marginally connected to it.

The second lesson is how little the fundamentals of conflict have actually changed since Sept. 11, 2001. The great dangers come from political problems - some of them with underlying economic and social causes - that are unresolved, unaddressed, incompetently or counterproductively addressed or deliberately left to fester, until they become so acute they explode.

Part of the fallout of such explosions can be terrorism, including international terrorism, but terrorism is not in and of itself a self-driving concept, or in and of itself an "enemy." It is not even an ideology, as anarchism was in the 19th century. Rather it is a tool or a tactic, resorted to almost invariably by the weak against the strong - weak individuals, weak groups, weak states.

Since power relativities have changed to the point where almost everybody is weak in comparison to America, and since the Sept. 11 attacks have shown the way, there is considerably more risk today that those in serious dispute with Washington, and by extension its allies, will use terror as a tactic to compensate for that weakness.

But the core problems go back to political issues, broadly defined. Military force is part of the answer, and was wholly legitimately used in Afghanistan for punitive, retaliatory and self-defense purposes, but - whether in the hands of the United States, Israel or anyone else - it can never be an effective substitute for the traditional hard work of dealing with those core problems.

The right strategy for dealing with global terrorism involves operating at five different levels simultaneously: first, homeland defense; second, pursuit and punishment of known perpetrators; third, and most crucially, building front-line defenses in the terrorists' countries of origin, by building in turn the capacity and will of those countries to act both internally and cooperatively with the wider international community; fourth, addressing the political issues that generate grievance; and fifth, addressing the underlying social, economic and cultural issues that generate grievance.

The real point of addressing the so-called underlying political and economic causes of terrorism is not to try to destroy the motivation of every individual terrorist. We all know that most of the Sept. 11 perpetrators were not poor and cared little about the Palestinians. Rather it is to neutralize support for terrorists in the communities in which they live, and above all to generate the will to act against them and the capacity to act against them by the relevant governments and authorities. And it is that job we are not doing at all well.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.