How the war on terror became an act of terror
CI is counterinsurgency. CT is counterterror. Insurgency violently challenges the established state order, but is not necessarily criminal – in most cases it is not. Terror is the deliberate use or threat of violence against innocent persons to obtain specific ends. It is always criminal, even when part of an insurgency.
Since 9/11 the western world, and status quo powers in general, have sought to conflate insurgency with terror, and criminalise both. This is contrary to international law including UN resolutions. According to currently prevalent US legal interpretations, any local resistance to US invasions and occupations – even when they are in clear violation of the UN Charter – are acts of terror to be dealt with accordingly. American savagery is legitimated by American legal doctrine. And we talk of ‘anti-Americanism!’
Terror is indeed an international menace. But who are its main perpetrators? There are three kinds of terror: state terror, state-sponsored terror, and non-state terror. The major western media, academic and political focus is on non-state actors whose terror, when not exclusively criminal, is often part of the response syndrome to western economic exploitation, political violation and military humiliation. This terror is a small fraction of global terrorism.
State-sponsored terrorism depends on the nature of the particular state’s relations with the US. Those that willingly serve US interests are granted a very considerable degree of impunity. They are generally excluded from the ‘core concerns’ of counterterrorism. Israel’s genocidal policies, which are implemented with US provided hi-tech weapons, platforms and systems, are never considered to constitute any kind of terrorism whereas the firing of apologies for rockets by the Palestinians, in response to permanent and unbearable provocation, is pure terrorism. A matter of who controls the narrative. As the great Eqbal Ahmad noted, the question is “whose terrorism?”
The overwhelming proportion of global terror is US and allied state terrorism which is excluded from discussion. As a result the UN has remained unable to agree on a definition of terrorism – which should normally precede any discussion of counterterrorism. The majority of US acts of terror are subsumed under the rubric of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. The US mantra of ‘keeping all options on the table’ and its doctrine of preventive or pre-emptive war are permanent threats of terror and, accordingly, criminal. These threats have been implemented repeatedly resulting in casualties of several millions. Reference to any of this is considered inappropriate and irrelevant in ‘serious’ discussions of CI and CT.
The other day at a local hotel an excellent presentation on the lessons of CI and CT in South Asia was made by a rising young Pakistani star in the academic firmament. According to him it was important to identify what worked in counterinsurgency, why insurgencies turned violent, and what non-violent interventions might be effective. Iraq and Afghanistan provided basic templates for counterinsurgency operations in the region. In the case of Afghanistan, however, the principal counterinsurgent was an external agent – the US. (It would appear the Afghan insurgency is in response to US counterinsurgency!)
He suggested counterinsurgencies in which there was a balance between violent and non-violent components were more likely to be successful. In South Asia, however, counterinsurgencies relied on excessive force. This reflected the ‘paradox of counterinsurgency’ whereby too much violence alienated public support if collateral damage was significant, but too little failed to weaken the insurgency sufficiently to bring it to the negotiating table.
A related point pertained to ‘add-ons’ such as the broader context of poverty, injustice, lack of development, etc. These might be relevant to the start of insurgencies, but once they got started throwing money at the problem made no difference. The ‘core concern’ of counterinsurgency had to be nation-building. The speaker might have had in mind the British success in Malaya in the 1950s which provided the main inspiration for General Petraeus’ celebrated manual on counterinsurgency which has been ‘the Bible’ of US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The manual emphasised protection and the provision of basic services in order to undermine support for insurgencies, especially in targeted rural areas.
Another interesting observation was the allegedly greater readiness of Maoist and Communist insurgencies to enter into negotiations at some point for a ceasefire or settlement compared to the refusal of Islamist insurgencies to consider any compromise. The implication here was that religious zealots had to be dealt with a greater degree of force than secular insurgents who relied on reason and (at least temporary) compromise according to circumstances. Islamist insurgents supposedly sought martyrdom as much as worldly success.
Actually, tactical compromise is not alien to Islamist insurgency experience. After 9/11 the Taliban sought a legitimate compromise regarding the issue of Osama bin Laden. But the US would have none of it. It chose war instead. Even today, while refusing to publicly talk to Karzai, the Taliban have contacts with him and have been willing to talk with the US without preconditions or guaranteed outcomes. They may be ready to engage with the incoming elected Afghan government. They will need to if Pakistan cuts its umbilical cord with them. Will Zarb-e-Azb ensure this?
The speaker’s central point was that unless the state made its counter-narrative clear from the narrative of the insurgency its counterterrorism policy would come across as confused and unconvincing. This had happened in Pakistan. The state needed to “create” its counterinsurgency narrative and sell it to all the stakeholders whose participation and support were critical to the success of the operations. Many in the audience pointed out that a narrative had to reflect the reality of policy for it to have any practical effect. The speaker agreed that the government’s current narrative was often the same as that of the insurgency largely because of the confusion created by its orthodox Islamic stance, its pandering to anti-Americanism and its need to cover its inability to deliver essential public services.
The presentation concluded with four points emphasising the need to identify the enemy against whom the counterinsurgency was undertaken; the central importance of civilian law enforcement and the criminal justice system; the suitability of ‘moderate Islamists’ rather than the ‘liberal elite’ for shaping the narrative of the counterinsurgency; and the need to prepare public opinion for an extended war against the extremists since expectations of a short and limited conflict would undermine its chances of success.
An interesting exchange of views ensued in which the speaker’s audience applauded his brilliant presentation but also differed with some of his observations, including moderate Islamists controlling the state narrative. Some suggested that the ‘enemy’ might be the government itself. It could also be argued that the presentation was more technically prescriptive and engineering solution oriented. This raises the question whether issues such as ‘terrorism’ that apparently issue from deep structures of societal trauma are amenable to ‘value-neutral’ analyses and ‘technical fixes’. They are necessary. But are they sufficient?
I was told by the US ambassador in Delhi after 9/11 that any advice to address the root causes of the tragedy would not be acceptable to American opinion. It demanded an immediate and overwhelming response. Any counsel of reason and moderation as a more effective response would be seen as indulging the perpetrators. This reflected a terrorist mindset – which has elicited more terrorism than it has eliminated.
This is how the ‘global war on terrorism’ became the greatest act of terror itself as well as the greatest generator of regional terrorism that is enclosing upon all of us today. Any discussion on lessons of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, without centring deprivation, human rights and good governance, and without identifying state terrorism as the main culprit, will elicit more questions than answers.
The writer is a former envoy to the US and India.