Essays and Stories
by Seyed P. Razavi

© 2020

Win or Losing the War on Terror

How do we know if we have won or lost the War on Terror?

By what objectives do we measure success or failure? Here are some I've come to dismiss:

* No more terrorism: Given this is a methodology of persuasion (not necessarily of the victim, or their relations, but of some segment of global opinion), how can it evaporate? It cannot.
* No more attacks in the West or against its interests: OK, a possible outcome but what is the measuring period? If there are no terrorist attacks for a year? Five years? Ten? A century?
* End of Islamic extremism: It seems absurd to assume an ideological strain of any major religion will be eradicated. Christian fundamentalism is still with us several hundred years after the Enlightenment.

Some more plausible goals:

* A prosperous, democratic Middle East: OK, this seems possible. Assuming the major obstacles are removed it could be, even within our lifetime. The obstacles being oil and water, the regimes and conflicts that arise from the hunger to control both.
* End of Al-Queda / Capture of Osama bin Laden: I'm unsure whether a venture capital driven network with extremely loose global ties based on ideology that is unlikely to be eradicated from people's minds can truly be destroyed. Nor am I certain how much the capture of Osama would bring that about. But I'm willing to assume that its possible the network will be made ineffective if its pool of resources and recruits is limited and its existing structure is targeted to destruction at key nodes which prevent it from reassembling.
* Genocide / Thermonuclear Cleansing: Extreme and immoral but always an option and depending on attitudes (which can change) on the table.

Now, I can't find a clear articulation by the leaders of the free world on what the end game for this war is. Nor can I find much comfort in other ideological wars (such as on Crime, Drugs and Poverty) which also see fighting between states and networks. At least there is a recognition on these previous American crusades that much of the problem is in the creation of demand at home. In the War on Terror, there is recognition that demand is an issue: Demand for "freedom". Which according to supporters of American military intervention means knocking over regimes and putting in place democracies by force of arms, whilst opponents want America to stop supporting friendly-dictatorial regimes and move out of meddling in the region, except in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, you could argue it is America's "meddling" that keeps that latter conflict going: Israel's viability without American supplies and funds is questionable or at least would have been in the past. Whether it is moral or not to let Israel be destroyed is another matter.

However, all this assumes that the War on Terror is a two-way thing. That whilst the United States and its allies combat Islamic terrorism and the Al Queda network as a threat to their "way of life" (read: economic interests) the jihadists equally wage war on the Americans (and all decadent Westerners) in a winner-takes-all duel.

This strikes me as patently false. It assumes a fanaticism and irrationality on the part of jihadists that may be true at the lowest rungs but cannot possibly be true amongst the minds of the intellectual drivers who incite the war. It certainly hasn't been true of other Islamic ideologues who fire verbal assaults at the superpower. The real battle for them has always been about the forces of modernisation within their own societies and its commonly acknowledged that Osama's motives are to capture the Sultanate and end the House of Saud.

Every tactic employed and every assault on Western symbols has been an effort to do two things:

1. Show the fallibility and proneness of the Western hegemony.

2. Provoke a response that will galvanise support for the Jihadis.

By this measure, ever American military move since September 11 bar one (Afghanistan) has played into their hands. Iraq is everything a Jihadist could want: a location close to home, a continuing stream of propaganda wins, easy targets and diplomatic and moral failure of American power.

Whilst the endgame from the American perspective seems clouded and uncertain, that of the Jihadis seem much more clear and achievable. They simply have to see the situation deteriote sufficiently in the region and ordinary Arabs so disenfranchised with modernity that they welcome an Islamic Sultanate that covers the territories parcelled up by Westerners a hundred years ago. They can then try to fortify their people in an effort, which will no doubt prove futile in the end, to bar all Western influences and keep the purity of their Islamic vision.

For them victory is more achievable because they only have to wait for the Americans to lose credibility within the region and grow tired of pouring lives and wealth into the fires of the Middle East. And as long as they can prevent a democratic Iraq and a lasting peace between Israel and the Arab world they can meet that objective. Of course, they will have harsh new realities to deal with should they succeed. One being the Iranians. The brand of Shia Islam theocracy whilst seemingly indistinguishable from a Westerner's perspective from that espoused by Arab Sunnis derives from a different source of power and is controlled by different actors. It is not in Iranian interests to see the emergence of unified Arab nation nor the vanquishing of Israel. Iranians who are already subverting their Islamic theocracy in an apolitical, apathetic manner have always been more tuned in with Western values then their neighbours. In fact, the weakness (from the point of Islamic jihadis) of Iranian society is its plurality and multiethnic tolerance. To them it is a weak point for Westernisation to creep into the Islamic polity and an example of how not to run an Islamic theocracy.

I'm unsure how this will resolve but there is hope for a victory of Western values. The hope lies in a democratic, economic prosperous Iraq; the slow dissolution of Iran's theocracy into a more benign form of Islamic government; the slow democraticisation of Arab states and the integration of Israel into the region. Yet all of that seems more remote today than it did four years ago. Even the removal of Saddam's regime has not really advanced this cause significantly because it drained legitimacy from the very blueprint of democratic values that is America.