War on Terror

After 9/11 George Bush declared a ‘war on terrorism’ (WOT) and invited the nations of the world to take part. After 3 years, the WOT continues unabated and most commentators believe this will carry on for at least the next decade. Lone voices, like Sir Michael Howard the eminent British historian, have questioned the description of a ‘war’ since the beginning, but it is only recently that there has been sufficient interrogation surrounding the objectives of this war.

One can argue against the prevailing wisdom that the WOT is on track. The WOT remains the central tenet of current US foreign policy but, fundamentally, WOT is a misnomer; at best a half-truth. There is certainly a ‘war’ but it is neither solely aimed at eliminating terrorists and ending terror, nor is it exclusively aimed at Muslims who engage in violence to achieve their political goals. The WOT (though not in a military sense) is also aimed at another larger category of Muslims who don’t support the use of violence to create political change but who may have similar political goals to those who do advocate violence. The objective with this section of Muslims is to win the battle for hearts and minds—a battle which is currently being lost, largely as a result of the harsh manner in which American and British policies have been carried out. Though there have been some specific political gains and military victories, these have been more than offset by large strategic and political losses. The American plans for reform in the Muslim world, an integral component to winning its WOT, will only be partly successful, as the US itself currently lacks credibility, a key precursor to gaining change in the Islamic world.

The WOT as stated is a fundamental misnomer and as such leads to confusion and misunderstandings within the wider populace. We cannot accurately declare a war on terror, as it is an operational tactic which inherently seeks to terrorise civilian populations for political or religious ends; it is not itself an enemy that is clearly personified. Declaring a WOT after 9/11, as one US politician earlier in the year put it, would have been like declaring war on fighter aircraft, rather than Japan, after Pearl Harbour in 1941. Furthermore if this is really a war on terrorism why have we not seen any real focus by the Bush administration on fighting Spain’s ETA, the Provisional IRA or the Columbian FARC. The tactic of terrorising populations is not simply the preserve of small entities that seek asymmetrical methods to challenge larger states. Rather, it has been used by most nations in the past with varying degrees of success—the air bombing of London, Dresden and Hiroshima in WW2 are all specific examples of terror where civilian populations were deliberately targeted for political reasons. So far, the attempt to subsume the current war under the general rubric of a ‘war on terrorism’ should be rejected as being far too vague and simplistic.

A multitude of commentators have said they believe this is more than just a WOT: Newt Gingrich on the political right to Will Hutton on the progressive left, academics and commentators like Professor Geoff Porter (NYU) and Andrew Winner (Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis), and also influential journalists like Lou Dobbs (CNN) and Christopher Hitchens (Vanity Fair).

Will Hutton says: “Radical Islam represents the biggest challenge to Western Civilisation since the demise of fascism and communism”. Christopher Hitchens says: “We’re fighting theocratic fascism.” Newt Gingrich: “This is not in the end about bin Laden, its not even about Al Qaeda, its about a reactionary form of Islam with a worldwide network.” Professor Porter in response to Lou Dobbs’ statement that the war should be renamed a “War against Islamists” says: “It would be better to say War against Radical Islamists.” Andrew Winner argues in a similar vein when he says the war should be called a “War on Islamist Terrorists”. Indeed the latter is close to what the 9/11 commission concluded and recommended, that the WOT should be renamed as a “War against Islamist terrorism.” Therefore many western commentators now see this war as a continuation of the wars that were fought first against fascism, then against communism and now against what they believe to be ‘Islamist terrorism’. There are many reasons why western politicians show a continued reluctance to state that Islam or an offshoot should be declared the enemy. Firstly, there are large Muslim communities living in the West; secondly there are 1.2 billion other Muslims distributed throughout the world. Pseudonyms such as fundamentalist, Islamic terrorist, religious fanatic and militant have increasingly become everyday terms in the post 9/11 political lexicon. However, the 9/11 commission gave very good reasons why the war should be accurately renamed by the Bush administration. First and foremost, to accurately define the enemy and so avoid ambiguity in measuring progress, and secondly, to target specific strategies that deal with the roots of ‘Islamist terrorism’.

In reaction to events since 9/11, some Muslims have labelled the WOT as a ‘war against Islam’ and a ‘war against Muslims’. However it would be incorrect to state that this is a war against all Muslims per se or even Islam in the understood sense of the latter being a mere spiritual faith. However as most aware observers can testify, Islam is much more than a mere spiritual creed and the Prophet Muhammad and his successors were both political and spiritual leaders. The tenet of “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” is fundamental to the Christian doctrine but is alien to the Islamic heritage which believes that the Islamic creed shapes both the spiritual aspects as well as societal ones. Though it is beyond this article to delve into that media obsessed subject of whether Islam itself is fundamentalist or moderate, the author believes these terms to be unhelpful, as we should try to have an objective debate on what the key concepts of Islam are. Too many people, many of them sincere, unfortunately still look at Islam through their secular liberal prism and judge according to predefined values and standards which would be no different than refuting secular values using Islamic texts. But even if we accept that there are similarities between secular liberalism and Islam in terms of the goals of achieving a better society, there are significant philosophical differences about the role of God and the state, the prioritisation given to different values, the role of the market vs. the individual as well as how the rule of law should be implemented. Needless to say, there is more than a hint of evidence to indicate why secular liberal nations would not welcome a new Islamic state, not just for political or security reasons but because of deep philosophical ones. Professor Chris Brown of the LSE cites these when he says the following “What we have is a war between two different conceptions of how life ought to be lived. The West for all its faults imperfectly instantiates a number of Enlightenment goals that are an anathema to the Islamo-fascists and it is precisely for this reason that the West is worth defending and must be defended.”

The key issue to state therefore is that in the West there is a great deal of opposition to not just the violent means of groups such as Al Qaeda, but also its eventual goals and ends. These goals are, to invert Chris Brown‘s quote, an anathema to Western secularists. Charles Hill, Chief of Staff at the State Department in the Reagan administration, echoed this when he warned that “the states of the region (Middle East) are jeopardized by bad governance and an Islamist ideology that would abolish states and re-create the caliphate”

Though many Muslims reject the use of violence to enact political change, many more of them do support the goals of an Islamic political entity such as the caliphate and oppose the secular basis that underpins western values. To declare war then on ‘Islamist Terrorism’ as the 9/11 commission seeks to do , using a term that is unknown within the Islamic lexicon but which they define as “an Islamic militant, anti-democratic movement, bearing a holistic vision of Islam whose final aim is the restoration of the caliphate” does no favours in fostering an honest or productive debate. It however has the pernicious effect of stigmatising many millions of Muslims from the start who may believe in the restoration of the caliphate. In not adequately separating between means and ends, the 9/11 commission like the current Bush administration falls into the trap of fomenting strategic ambiguity. Yet as the 9/11 commission concedes implicitly, the ‘war’ cannot be won by military tactics alone. For example one of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission is to allocate funds for the building of primary and secondary schools in Muslim states . On page 363 and 364 of the report it outlines the choice of strategies more starkly when it states, “The first phase of our post 9/11 efforts rightly included military action to topple the Taliban and pursue Al Qaeda. This work continues. But long-term success demands the use of all elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defense. If we favor one tool while neglecting others, we leave ourselves vulnerable and weaken our national effort.”

However on the basis that the commission also concludes that the opposing side can only be “destroyed or utterly isolated” as there is no room for negotiation , it can only be assumed that the use of diplomacy, foreign aid, law enforcement and educational funding strategies of the ‘war’ are not there to coax the likes of bin Laden to the negotiating table, but designed to win the battle for ideas amongst the masses in the Muslim world. It is clear that the current ’war’ is therefore as much about transforming the ideas and values of the Islamic world than about defeating the men of violence, the issue that most preoccupies the global media. It is this new perspective that a new ideological struggle needs to be fought rather than a mere military one, which is now dawning on more and more western commentators. David Brooks writing in the New York Times alludes to this when he says, “Most of all, we need to see that the landscape of reality is altered. In the past, we’ve fought ideological movements that took control of states. Our foreign policy apparatus is geared toward relations with states: negotiating with states, confronting states. Now we are faced with a belief system that is inimical to the state system, and aims at theological rule and the restoration of the caliphate. We’ll need a new set of institutions to grapple with this reality, and a new training method to understand people who are uninterested in national self-interest, traditionally defined. Last week I met with a leading military officer stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose observations dovetailed remarkably with the 9/11 commissioners. He said the experience of the last few years is misleading; only 10 percent of our efforts from now on will be military. The rest will be ideological. He observed that we are in the fight against Islamic extremism now where we were in the fight against communism in 1880.”

Is the War on Terrorism being won?

Though there have been military victories in the WOT in the traditional sense, these have been more than offset by political and strategic losses. The political losses are apparent in that the WOT so far has disenfranchised not just the Islamic world but also significant numbers in Europe, Asia and even the Americas. Negative views of the US among Muslims, which had been largely limited to the Middle East, have now spread to Indonesia and Nigeria. In May 2003 the respected Pew research organisation carried out independent opinion poll research interviewing some 16,000 people in 20 countries . Favourable ratings for the US have fallen from 61% to 15% in Indonesia and from 71% to 38% among Muslims in Nigeria since the preceding summer. Disapproval of President Bush’s international policies continues to erode America’s image even amongst its allies. US favourability ratings have plummeted in France, Germany and Russia. In Britain, favourable views of the US have declined from 75% to 48% since mid-2002. In Italy, favourable views of the US declined by half in the same period (from 70% to 34%) and in Spain, fewer than one-in-five (14%) have a favourable opinion of the US.

The US administration claim that they and their allies are winning the WOT. This may be true in a narrow military sense, but as well as political losses amongst the public and key allies, strategic losses have also been ignored. Maybe this is what President Bush was alluding to when in a frank admission on the eve of the Republican national convention when asked whether the WOT could be won, Bush said, “I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the — those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world.”

Bush’s candour is a reflection of the private views of his inner circle. In a rare moment of self-doubt Donald Rumsfeld in a leaked memo last October asked his subordinates the following

“Are we winning or losing the Global War on Terror? Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

Some of these are good questions and no one fully knows the answers to them. Similarly, we do not know how many people have rejected American policies without necessarily resorting to violence. Rumsfeld’s statement was a telling acknowledgement that his administration lacks both measurable classified and unclassified data in the WOT – yet despite this omission the US administration continues to argue that it is winning the war. However if we believe the conclusions of the Pew survey and also accept that there is some sort of correlation between growing anti-US sentiment and the rejection of US policies, it can be argued that the US is certainly not winning the war of ideas in the Islamic world. Respected think tanks like the International Institute for Strategic Studies also believe that the war in Iraq for instance has probably “inflamed radical passions among Muslims and thus increased Al Qaeda’s recruiting power and morale and, at least marginally, its operating capability.”

This judgement is also backed by ex-CIA director George Tenet’s testimony to a Senate committee in February 2004 when he said, “Al Qaeda is not the limit of terrorist threat worldwide. Al Qaeda has infected others with its ideology, which depicts the United States as Islam’s greatest foe. Mr. Chairman, what I want to say to you now may be the most important thing I tell you today. The steady growth of Usama bin Laden’s anti-U.S. sentiment through the wider Sunni extremist movement and the broad dissemination of Al Qaeda’s destructive expertise ensure that a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future.” He then says, “Dozens of such groups exist.”

So in answer to the question of whether the WOT is being won, the statements of the US President, the US Secretary of Defense and the ex-director of the CIA speak for themselves.

Can the US reform the Islamic world?

A central tenet of US foreign policy is its aim to seek reform of the Middle East starting from Iraq. Before making some criticisms, it has to be acknowledged that in theory the strategy of the neoconservatives, who are a significant influence on the Bush administration, provides a clear and coherent analysis, even if one disagrees with it. Their analysis that the US has for too long chosen stability over democracy in the Arab world is obviously a fact. The endemic authoritarianism, corruption and economic stagnation of the Arab world has led to dissent and opposition being channelled through the mosques and underground political movements. This, the neo-conservatives believe, has led generations of Muslims to be brought up in repressed states, thus having to channel their frustrations through the mosques at America who they blame for being the external benefactor of their corrupt rulers. Denied of legitimate political means to enact change, they turn to violence bordering on the nihilistic. Consequently to drain the swamp of radicalism, the neo-conservatives believe that the US must ensure that democracy and freedom take firm root in the Arab world. Starting from an epicentre in Iraq, the neoconservatives believe that the winds of freedom would soon create instability for the mullahs in Iran (especially with a restless population yearning for change) as well as forcing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf countries to also modernise their political systems. Once these countries were on board the democratic train, holdouts like Syria would either be isolated or if they made trouble, the US military could intervene. The neocons also cite the examples of Germany and Japan after WW2 to prove their case as well as the fall of the Soviet Union that they believe took place without a bullet even being fired. Joshua Micah Marshall writing in the Washington Monthly in April 2003 says this of the neocons plan, “The audacious nature of the neocons’ plan makes it easy to criticize, but strangely difficult to dismiss outright. Like a character in a bad made-for-TV thriller from the 1970’s, you can hear yourself saying “That plan’s just crazy enough to work” But like a TV plot, the hawk’s vision rests on a willing suspension if disbelief, in particular, on the premise that every close call will break in our favor: The guard will fall asleep next to the cell so our heroes can pluck the keys from his belt. The hail of enemy bullets will plink-plink-plink over our heroes’ heads. And the getaway car in the driveway will have the keys waiting in the ignition. Sure, the hawks’ vision could come to pass. But there are at least half a dozen equally plausible alternative scenarios that would be disastrous for us.”

Though some will consider this neoconservative strategy as plausible, it ignores several key factors.

  1. The analogy with Japan and Germany is misleading, as political circumstances were distinctly different sixty years ago. After WW2 for most parts of the world the US was still seen as a liberator, a country that had thrown off its own colonialist shackles and who sought in an idealistic fashion, freedom and self-determination for others. However the perception of the US in 1945 is not the same as its perception in 2004. As Suzanne Nossel writing in the 2004 spring edition of Foreign Affairs says, “After WW2 most of the world viewed the US as a rightful victor over tyranny, today America is seen as an oppressor, hungry for oil and power.”
  2. Secondly the events that unfolded in Algeria in 1988 still resonate within the Islamic world; the view that western states prefer secular dictators to Islamic states is not just rooted in perception. The current attitude to Uzbekistan where the need for Uzbek cooperation and logistics has meant overlooking the repression of thousands of Muslims who support the establishment of an Islamic state also gives no confidence. As one commentator put it “Ironically, U.S. efforts to fight terrorism have resulted in the fostering rather than diminution of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. Washington’s embrace of sordid governments such as the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, its silence regarding Russian brutality in Chechnya, and other distasteful, albeit perhaps necessary, concessions needed to ensure vital cooperation against Al Qaeda are paradoxically bolstering Al Qaeda’s claims that the United States supports the oppression of Muslims and props up brutal governments.”
  3. The analogy with the fall of the Soviet Union also ignores some key differences. It was clear that the citizens of the former Soviet Union and her satellite countries in Eastern Europe looked up to the West as being beacons of liberty and economic opportunity. The capitalist bloc had long won the ideological battle for hearts and minds over its communist rival; this more than anything brought the Berlin wall down. Citizens of the Islamic world however have a completely different perspective towards the West. As Marshall says “after 1989 the people of those (Eastern and Central Europe) nations felt grateful to the United States because we helped liberate them from their Russian colonial masters…The same is unlikely to happen if we help ‘liberate’ Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The tyrannies in these countries are home grown and the US government has supported them, rightly or wrongly, for decades even as we’ve ignored (in the eyes of Arabs) the plight of the Palestinians. Consequently, the citizens of these countries generally hate the United States and show strong sympathy for Islamic radicals.”
  4. US credibility is also lost when people see the day by day erosion by so called liberal states of the very values that they seek to propagate to the Muslim world. People are increasingly questioning that if western values born from the golden period of enlightenment and defended in two world wars at the cost of millions of soldiers are so rooted in principle, how have they been cast aside so expediently in the last few years. This is not just an argument that stems from the Islamic world but is now increasingly being heard within the corridors of the western body politic. As Will Hutton says, “More than two years after 11 September, the tally of core western values and beliefs that we have allowed to become corrupted as we respond is lengthening by the week. Equality before the law, the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial – all have been seen as expedients to be put aside.” He goes on to say, “We are undermining our own civilisation.” Guantanamo Bay, the human rights abuses in Afghanistan and at Abu Ghraib, the rounding up of thousands under draconian legislation and the unpopular Patriot Act have all damaged the reputation of the US and her allies and led many to question the Machiavellian usage of western values.


The WOT three years on has not achieved its goal of making the world a safer place. 75% of Americans think the world is now a more dangerous place than a decade ago. Yet despite this, there remains a fundamental myopia at the heart of the American and British government’s strategy. They have not only failed to name this war correctly, but in terms of execution they are seriously ill equipped to win the battle of ideas. Finally, they have also seriously underestimated the effect of Islamic political ideas on millions of Muslims. Winning the battle of ideas requires sincere leadership, honesty, strong principles and the ability to convince your opponent through the power of thought, not the barrel of a gun. Though the WOT will inevitably go the same way as the war on drugs and the war on poverty in its failure to achieve its lofty objectives, the residue of failure may have far reaching effects on the future political paradigm, especially in the Islamic world where change may occur in an unintended fashion, this ironically may be its lasting legacy. I will conclude with a quote, but unlike the previous quotes I have given in this article, I cannot name this person. He is if reports are to be believed a serving CIA terrorist expert and he writes under the name ‘Anonymous’. He is a 22-year CIA veteran, who directed research into bin Laden from 1996 to 1999, and his most recent book is called Imperial Hubris: Why the West is losing the War on Terror. When asked by US TODAY about the mindset of the country on the war on terror, and where he thought the misconceptions come from, he answered in the following way, “It’s trite to say, but the idea of political correctness is very, very important in terms of the performance of the intelligence community. How many times has USA TODAY, or The New York Times or The Washington Post discussed the role of Islam as a motivating factor in bin Laden’s appeal in the Muslim world? I can’t remember it very frequently. The director of intelligence and the president say Al Qaeda represents the lunatic fringe of the Muslim world, which, on the face of it, is absurd. But there is no one talking about Islam as a motivating factor for war. There were times when our ancestors went to war to defend their faith. So, the debate is very constricted, not only in America but certainly within the intelligence community. We do a lot of analysis by assertion rather than by reality. Somehow the argument that someone is fighting for his faith is seen as a negative. So we assert that only gangsters do that. We make bin Laden into a gangster. But it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Sajjad Khan


1For example Byman, Daniel Nonresident Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy ‘Are We Winning the War on Terrorism? Saban Center Middle East Memo #1, May 23, 2003 http://www.brook.edu/views/op-ed/byman/20030523.htm

2Howard, Sir Michael Speech to the Royal United Services Institute 31 October 2001

3Hutton, Will ‘Why the West is wary of Muslims’ Observer 11 January 2004

4Hitchens, Christopher cited in Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, Uncommon Knowledge ‘Words of War’ July 18 2002 http://www.uncommonknowledge.org/700/709.html

5Gingrich, Newt cited in Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, Uncommon Knowledge ‘Words of War’ July 18 2002 http://www.uncommonknowledge.org/700/709.html

6Dobbs, Lou CNN Moneyline program 5 June 2002

7Porter, Geoff qtd on CNN.com http://money.cnn.com/2002/06/06/commentary/dobbs/dobbsreport/index.htm

8Winner, Andrew qtd on CNN.com http://money.cnn.com/2002/06/06/commentary/dobbs/dobbsreport/index.htm

99/11 Commission Report, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States W.W. Norton & Company p.362

10Brown, Chris ‘Reflections on the September 11th, the ‘War on Terror’ and the International Community, Two years On’ presented at the Goodenough-Chevening Conference ‘Terrorism: The Challenge of the 21st Century’ 18-19 November 2003

11Hill, Charles ‘Waging war to save world order’ Atlanta Times-Star 13 April 2003

129/11 Commission Report, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States W.W. Norton & Company p.562 qtd Mehdi Mozaffari, ‘Bin-Laden and Islamist Terrorism’ (Militaert Tidsskrift, vol 131 Mar 2002 p.1 online at http://www.mirkflem.pup.blueyonder.co.uk/pdf/islamistterrorism.pdf)

139/11 Commission Report, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States W.W. Norton & Company p 378

149/11 Commission Report, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States W.W. Norton & Company pages 363-364

159/11 Commission Report, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States W.W. Norton & Company p 362

16Brooks, David ‘War of Ideology’ New York Times July 28 2004

17War With Iraq Further Divides Global Publics But World Embraces Democratic Values and Free Markets Press release Pew Research Centre June 3 2003 http://www.pewtrusts.com/news/news_subpage.cfm?content_item_id=1645&content_type_id=7&page=nr1

18Bush, George NBC-TV’s “Today” show, 30 August 2004

19Copy can be found at http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/executive/rumsfeld-memo.htm October 16 2003

20International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2003 Annual Report,

21Tenet, George remarks before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence 24 February 2004 copy of remarks on http://www.iwar.org.uk/news-archive/2004/02-24-6.htm

22Marshall, Joshua Micah ‘Practice to Deceive’ Washington Monthly online April 2003 found at http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0304.marshall.html

23Nossel, Suzanne ‘Reclaiming Liberal Internationalism’ Foreign Affairs March/April 2004 http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20040301faessay83211/suzanne-nossel/smart-power.html?mode=print

24Byman, Daniel ‘Are we winning the War on Terrorism?’ Saban Center Middle East Memo #1, May 23, 2003 http://www.brook.edu/views/op-ed/byman/20030523.htm

25Marshall, Joshua Micah ‘Practice to Deceive’ Washington Monthly online April 2003 found at http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0304.marshall.html

26Hutton, Will ‘Why the West is wary of Muslims’ Observer 11 January 2004

27Two Years Later, the Fear Lingers Pew research Centre September 4 2003 http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=192

28Q&A with ‘Anonymous’ USA TODAY.com 18 July 2004 http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2004-07-18-forum-new_x.htm

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