The errors in America’s ‘war on terror’

The Daily Star

Despite two invasions and numerous air strikes against targets in other countries, and despite security cooperation with several states across the Middle East and North Africa, the United States still finds itself unable to make serious progress in its global “war on terror.” Even though the United States has imbued its policies with militarism and pragmatism, Al-Qaeda remains an elusive target as it continues to inspire surrogates and attract converts or wannabes even on American soil.

The US is failing to rise to the challenge. Worse, by focusing on certain countries and the capture of certain individuals, it has allowed itself to fall into the trap of fighting the kinds of war that play to the terrorists’ strong suits, both tactically and logistically, while providing them with enough ammunition for their propaganda and recruitment campaigns.

The US is directly bogged down in two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and tactically over-invested in two others, namely Yemen, where Washington has for years maintained security cooperation with the regime, and Somalia, where not long ago it supported a failed Ethiopian invasion. The US may not have introduced troops, but it invested its prestige and tactical support, and the fact that Al-Qaeda continues to thrive in Yemen and that the Islamic Courts Movement continues to dictate events in Somalia are blows to the US and victories for its enemies.

Moreover, as part of its war efforts, the US has built security alliances with states across the Middle East region, and has come to depend excessively on information provided by their security apparatuses. This has exposed the US to the same structural vulnerabilities affecting its partners, while exposing Washington to their deceptive practices.

Terrorists often serve as pawns and proxies used by ruling regimes to “manage” their perpetual rivalries, or as useful instruments of blackmail against the US and other developed countries. This is the case with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where the regimes can always play on the terrorist threat to protect themselves. There are also those Middle Eastern regimes willing to strike deals with terrorists, allowing their countries to be used as staging grounds for operations elsewhere in exchange for the terrorists not conducting operations on their territory. This is the case with Syria.

There are even times when terrorists are allowed, even encouraged, to operate internally, so long as they target the enemies of the ruling regime or certain detested ethnic groups. This is the case with Yemen. And occasionally, factions within a ruling regime use terrorists in their jockeying for power and influence, as we’ve seen in the case of Pakistan.

This confusing intermingling of internal and regional power struggles, ethnic politics, corruption and terrorism often creates a black-hole that sucks in all and sundry, including the US. The current situation in Yemen is a case in point. The impoverished country is currently a theater for three different conflicts involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Al-Qaeda, the rebellious Shiite Houthis, different factions within the ruling regime, and a few dozen warring tribes.

Another problem in the American approach to the war on terror is its over-investment of time and resources in the pyrrhic pursuit of certain key-individuals, such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaki. Indeed, these individuals should be captured when possible, but not under the assumption that their capture or demise would change very much. There are too many others who can step in and fill the gap they leave behind. For they are only a manifestation of the real problem, namely the lack of empowerment that comes from living in underdeveloped states ruled by corrupt and authoritarian regimes. This situation has created large pools of frustrated young people from all social backgrounds, into which radical Islamists tend to cast their nets.

When we consider that these radical groups include not only “operations-focused” groups such as Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and Al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya, but also movements that have social dimensions like Hamas and Hizbullah, the picture becomes more elaborate. The challenge confronting the US is to create similar movements that are sympathetic to its interests and values, so that the “American promise” based on the free exchange of ideas, the rule of law, and representative governance can become internalized in their outlooks; and so that American security can become a reality that these movements identify with.

The “American promise” already has legions of adherents in the Middle East, but they tend to see the US as a fickle ally on account of its conflicting regional policies. Hizbullah stands for Iran, because Iran stands by Hizbullah. Al-Qaeda inspires surrogates because there are those willing to commit the resources and provide the conditions necessary for the emergence of such surrogates. Where is the US in all this?

The Clinton administration focused on a peace process that went nowhere. The Bush administration spoke of a “freedom agenda,” but never managed to flesh it out beyond a resort to war. Then came the Obama administration with its dismissal of democracy promotion and its inability to do anything of consequence in connection with the peace process. Thus, on the fronts that truly count in the war on terror, the US has from the outset been missing in action.

That is why a Nigerian with a bomb could horrify the US on Christmas Day and almost lure it into another campaign in Yemen. Osama bin Laden understood this perfectly, which is why he claimed responsibility for the failed attack. The cord it struck and the confusion it caused was victory enough. Even by failing the terrorists are winning, because they are fighting the war on the one front that counts: that of our minds.

Ammar Abdulhamid, the founder and director of the Tharwa Foundation, is a Washington-based Syrian author turned human rights and democracy activist. He enjoys a global reputation as an advocate for social and political change in the broader Middle East and North Africa. The current article, part of a series advocating the revamping of American foreign policy in the Middle East, was written for THE DAILY STAR.