Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, one of the critical questions in need of an answer is how to fight this scourge.
While the call to a new war is necessary to ensure mobilisation—and the use of overwhelming force might be necessary to deal with an enemy about which we know so little—the war the United States ultimately conducts must serve the wider political objective of defeating militant Islam. It should not undertake a counter-jihad on one billion people who profess the faith, many of whom live within and amongst us.
Unlike the worldwide spate of terrorism of the 1970s, when attackers claimed responsibility and pressed their political demands, these terrorists want to remain anonymous. This is partially because of the fear of retaliation, but more fundamentally a return to the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse and Franz Fanon that upheld revolutionary violence as ennobling and cleansing.
The act of violence, and in it death, was in itself a declaration of liberation. In the hands of militant Islam, this philosophy has reached its apogee. Moreover, the unwillingness of the attackers to claim responsibility means that even if the United States amasses a wealth of evidence against the perpetrators, its potential allies may be hesitant to help without their own confirmation of the enemy’s identity.
A failure to convince sensible Muslims to cooperate, however, risks a civilisational war that can only be more horrific than the events of September 11. That is not to suggest that this war should not be fought, or that it must be reduced in its purpose, but that it is fought with all available instruments, including politics.
Insurgency versus Terrorism
The war on terrorism can only be fought legitimately if the term is not extended to all other forms of armed protest to suit the political convenience of certain governments. There is a risk, especially in Russia, India, and Israel, which have long been fighting popular protest against government policies, to conflate those movements with terrorism.
When Chechens, Palestinians, and Kashmiris shoot at security forces within the territories they claim, those actions cannot be called terrorism—they are more properly known as insurgency. However, the suicide bombings in Israel this summer, the Mumbai blasts, the attacks on the Amarnath yatris, the Moscow bomb blasts in 1999, and the takeover of the hospital in Budennovosk, Stavropol Kray, north of Chechnya, were certain acts of terrorism.
While the line between insurgency and terrorism is a blurry one, it must be drawn. Counter-insurgency requires a hearts and minds battle and a willingness to make political concessions.
The most successful counter-insurgency campaigns—prototypically the British in Malaysia in 1956-1960—started with political solutions. Terrorism, on the other hand, generally prompts a greater counter-mobilisation effect, because the rational response to indiscriminate acts of violence, when political solutions become impossible, is self-defence.
However, we can only legitimately sustain an overwhelming attack on terrorism if we are committed to responding in other less violent and more nuanced ways to other forms of conflict and armed protest.
Unfortunately, these distinctions are today irrelevant. As many as 86 per cent of Americans believe that the United States should take military action against those who planned and financed the attacks.
As many as 69 per cent of them back military action even at the cost of American lives. Though we might argue about the solidity of that conviction, it is certainly present today.
One danger in this sense of outrage is the potential for a singular American focus on counter-terrorism. During the Cold War, for example, the focus on anti-communism left decent countries like India out in the cold. Today, even countries threatened by militant Islam have other priorities. It would be unfortunate if the current climate caused policymakers to forget that.
In the case of the United States and India, for instance, what should their policies be towards China? China supports Pakistan, which supports the Taliban, which likes Osama bin Ladin, but China is also deathly scared by Islamic militancy in its western province of Xinjiang.
China is a strategic competitor of the United States and India. Should Washington and New Delhi now ally with China to fight militant Islam—as the West joined the Soviet Union to fight Hitler? This reordering of national priorities compelled by the attacks of September 11 must be sorted out before we wade into war, as we all now know we surely must.
War, albeit a new kind of war, is likely inevitable. But the United States must first assess its political and policy priorities before it sends its young people into what is likely to be a protracted battle for peace and security.