Reign of Terror: Counterterrorism After Afghanistan

As military operations in Afghanistan wind down, the United States and its allies must abandon their so-called “War on Terror” and move forward. 2014 will bring the end of all combat operations in Afghanistan, but the West must begin to recognize that this gives it the opportunity to make a clean break from the past and form more effective counterterrorism strategies. The Obama administration has already taken great strides in distancing current US policy from the Bush-era War on Terror, instead opting in favor of the “Overseas Contingency Operation” (OCO), but this has simply been an exercise in trading one vague moniker for another. The underlying problems remain the same: ill-defined targets and a lack of metrics for success.

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All terrorists are simply alienated individuals who identify with a group’s ideology and find some level of societal support in violently pursuing its goals. But in targeting terrorism, NATO and the United States have almost exclusively focused on individuals, attempting to win the war by racking up a high body count of terrorist operatives without turning to the societies behind them or deeply analysing the ideology that appeals to their societies’ legitimate grievances. Moreover, the question remains as to which terrorist groups the West should target and to what extent. The OCO, also known as Operation Enduring Freedom, is a direct response to the 9/11 attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda on US soil, but in the broader context of terrorism, that organisation does not necessarily pose the greatest threat to global peace and security. From 1998 to 2008, al-Qaeda committed just 0.3 percent of all terrorist attacks worldwide and can only be held accountable for 5.4 per cent of deaths from terrorism, and in 2011 it carried out a grand total of 75 attacks compared to 371 belonging to the Communist Party of India-Maoists. To win the war, does the West have to erase these numbers entirely or cut them down to some arbitrary acceptable number of deaths from terrorism? Knowing what it means to succeed in a counterterrorism campaign is integral to succeeding at all.

This raises a fundamental challenge with respect to the nature of the military campaign: if the “global war on terrorism” seeks to do away with the practice of terrorism entirely, then surely its scope should be expanded to combat radical Indian communists, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Colombia’s FARC, and other organizations that kill civilians in order to make a political statement. But if the goal is instead to get vengeance and hunt down al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations—a perfectly sound aim, though this analyst would prefer to see more court convictions than martyrs—then the notion that the United States and its allies are waging war on terror is simply a distraction from the OCO’s strategic objectives. When NATO and the US withdraw from Afghanistan, they must work to articulate who or what their targets are and what success or failure in their operations would look like.

For the most part, the United States has wisely dropped the term “War on Terror,” but the West has not adequately broken free from the worldview it implies or the unsatisfactory strategies it endorses. The war began with the aspiration of eliminating radical Islamic terrorist organisations, especially al-Qaeda, and eroding the base of support they received from rogue states such as Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. On both counts, military force has certainly achieved at least limited progress, but unless the United States ends up invading another country in the meantime, the military approach will prove insufficient after Afghanistan. As states become ever more dependent on reliable intelligence gathering and terrorists become ever more dependent on recruitment and political posturing over the Internet, the changing character of counterterrorism demands equally adaptable strategic responses.

The international community must not only end the War on Terror but also design a new framework for addressing the complex phenomenon of terrorism through international cooperation. Instead of fancifully seeking its absolute eradication, the United States and its NATO allies should employ a policy of containment directed at reducing the spread of terrorism rooted in extremist Islamic ideologies. The Arab Spring has afforded the West the perfect political opportunity to back moderates without artificially inserting itself into domestic discourse. Western nations should be particularly tactful when reaching out to other countries’ moderate organisations, but the stated aim should not be to create more pro-West states with agreeable leaders. Rather, to fight terrorism, the West must be willing to defend the Middle East’s right to peacefully criticize it. There must be a conscious, public effort to listen to many of the region’s valid concerns; so long as there are legitimate, somewhat effective, and non-violent options for potential recruits to voice these concerns, violence against civilians will rarely be seen as a viable alternative. The containment of terrorism is a strategy that requires patience.

 After Afghanistan, the United States and its Western allies must recognise that winning hearts and minds is not necessarily a matter of winning wars. To do both, however, it must learn the value of knowing one’s enemy. The international community should also invest in sophisticated cross-country intelligence networks; in a similar manner to how the CIA and the FBI failed to coordinate responsibly prior to 9/11, different countries may find it valuable to start sharing more intelligence with regards to terrorism. When using this information to grapple with terrorism, there will be different roles to play for different sorts of institutions: established, regular international organizations such as NATO and the UN will likely have a limited but essential part to play in military operations and sanctions regimes, while task-specific collaborations, whether on a regional or on a “coalition of the willing” basis, might be far more effective at attending to variable economic concerns.

As the War in Afghanistan is at last consigned to history textbooks, its conclusion in 2014 will not mark the end of terror. The next phase in global counterterrorism strategies will emphasise smart power, balancing the hard power of calculated drone strikes and covert special operations with the soft power of long-term economic investment and appeals to redress genuine grievances, tied inextricably together through intelligence networks and increasingly diffuse globalized power structures. But no matter what approach the West settles upon, it should keep in mind that any counterterrorism strategies. Perhaps for now President Obama should hold off on buying his set of star-spangled “Mission Accomplished” signs.