New & unimproved ‘war on terror’

LAST week, as Pakistan was reeling from an onslaught of terror attacks, and analysts and ordinary people alike were wondering what this new and sudden spate of blasts meant, similar questions were being asked in the United States.

It is widely understood, of course, that little is known about the course that the new Trump administration intends to take on any matter. Surprise, intentional or not, has been touted as an actual strategy, its consequence being that actual inaction cannot be distinguished from apathy or indecision. So it is with the ‘war on terror’, under whose auspices the US has bombed and droned and raided half a dozen different countries over the past decade. Those were the old days; the new days, under this very new and very belligerent administration, suggest that what was will likely no longer be.

As a recent article in the American magazine Foreign Affairs (and written by Peter Feaver and Hal Brands) points out, the options available to the Trump administration with regard to its routinely touted goal of “defeating ISIS” (the militant Islamic State group, or IS) are limited, in part by circumstance and in part by its own rhetoric.

The first and least likely option in realigning the war on terrorism would be complete disengagement. Predicated on the assumption that terrorism is rooted in complex political pathologies in Muslim societies that cannot be solved with American intervention and meddling (which likely makes the situation worse), this approach would withdraw all troops from the region and leave the countries involved to sort out issues by themselves. As Feaver and Brands point out, the drawback of this approach is that it is too hands off. President Trump likes to win, his closest adviser Steve Bannon is avowedly martial, and the drumbeat of war on IS was too woven into Trump’s campaign for such a disengagement to occur.


It will not be hard for a hawkish military adviser to convince Trump to invest in a huge and costly occupation of the Middle East.


The exact opposite of disengagement would be complete investment. This is based on the assumption that terror could and must be rooted out by a massive deployment of US ground troops, air power and everything else. Leaving nothing or little to the governments of the actual countries where IS and its associated groups have gained a foothold, this approach would seek to root out illiberal forces (including not simply terrorists but also Islamists), occupy the ground for a long time and build the kind of liberal democracies that would be an antidote to the insidious encroachment of extremist ideology.

In Feaver and Brands’ view, this is unlikely to be the course of the Trump administration because Trump himself has in his numerous speeches taken nation building off the table.

The two other options described by Feaver and Brands are halfway options. The one closer to disengagement, and also to the post-2014 Obama administration, would consider limited engagement, utilising relationships with countries in the region as a means of sharing intelligence and rooting out, at least in some minimal sense, the leadership, organisation and infrastructure of specific groups like IS. It would assume that terrorism can be contained but never completely exterminated.

Finally, closer to nation-building, another halfway measure would be a partial deployment of ground troops that attempts to eradicate terrorist groups but is also in at least a limited sense trying to root out the ideology behind terrorism.

Feaver and Brands think that the Trump administration, like the Obama administration, will select one of the two halfway options. Their explanation for this is that these measures involve the least amount of political risk and expenditure. This would indeed have been so, if the Trump administration was likely to base its decision on pragmatic enumerations and the motivation to score a second term in office in 2020.

However, as the tumultuous first weeks of the administration have shown, this is not the basis on which strategy and course of action is devised. It is far more likely that Trump will choose one of the extreme options, either total disengagement or complete and outright occupation.

The reasons for this have little to do with logic or the general direction of US foreign policy for the past several years and more to do with who has Trump’s ear and the image of strength and intractability that Trump so desperately wishes to project.

The bluster and bravado of Trump’s speeches and the constant reiteration of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ as the most significant security threat, suggests it will not be hard for a hawkish military adviser (Michael Flynn would surely have done the job if he had not been sacked) to convince Trump to invest in a huge and costly occupation of the Middle East.

Indeed, Trump may have criticised Bush’s Iraq war and pointed to a turn away from foreign nation-building, but Trump changes his mind often. Also notable is that he does not criticise the Iraq war as a critique on occupation or the use of force, but rather its inability to finish the job. He would have kept the oil, he has said in at least one speech.

The world should not be surprised if the next episode of the interminable ‘war on terror’ is not a scaling back but a renewed and ruthless turn to occupation, one that would dominate and, in the minds of those orchestrating it, annihilate terrorism.

If we know anything about the new American president, it is his penchant for projecting strength and authority, and as he grows into his power as president, it is unlikely that America will be enough to exercise it. He has promised his mostly poor and not very well-educated supporters jobs; fighting long and interminable wars would, in a way, do just that.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Courtesy By: http://www.dawn.com

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