Spending on the US war on terror recently hit 1$ trillion, as reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a US government watchdog agency. Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), covering Afghanistan and other Global War On Terror (GWOT) operations, ranging from the Philippines to Djibouti began immediately after the 9/11 attacks and continues.
Has the threat to America been eliminated? Well, its hard to say, isn’t it?. There have been no attacks since 9/11. which implies that the Homeland Security team must be doing its job well. On the flip side, the threat is as alive as at any other time prior to 9/11, with Bin Laden — the mastermind — still around, hiding somewhere in Pakistan, and releasing cynical videos to scare the Americans and their allies.
Everyone will remember the days when the Bush administration was compounding the magnitude of the threat by introducing what they called a threat alert system, with a color coded index. The security threat to the US resembled a stock market index, with television news anchors announcing where the index stood every day.
By announcing the response to the 9/11 attacks as Global War On Terror, the Bush administration was also magnifying the enemy. The administration also engaged in worldwide propaganda against terrorism. This was widely reported the media as well, and news about several other armed groups around the world made headlines. The general attention towards similar attacks across the globe received primetime exposure on all media channels. It was as if the whole world were being attacked by terrorists, who somehow were all connected, with their only goal terrorizing the people.
The policy of “Global War on Terror” not only diluted the focus on the real enemy, it also lacked a benchmark that could be used to measure its progress — the reason why none of us can ever conclusively say whether or not the job is done.
The USA was seen as chasing the weapon, rather than the enemy. Since it was declared a "global war," US government resources were spent on assisting other nations to do their own dirty laundry. Nations with internal disturbances by armed groups lobbied the US administration to include their enemies in the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) resulting in Foreign Aid and Diplomatic Operations spending alone (as part of the GWOT), amounting to 46.6 million.The US taxpayer was now paying for several other wars around the globe, several of which an average American would have never heard of before.
The Bush administration believed that these other wars would provide tactical experience for the “Global War On Terror”. Insurgencies around the world became experiments to test different strategies, some with very high civilian casualties. Most western nations, including the US, and even the UN, are now tolerating severe human rights violations by rogue nations which carry out their civil wars under the cover of counter terrorism.
While American soldiers serving in Afghanistan were losing their lives, a stretched-out policy of GWOT without any index to measure its progress allowed the Bush administration to return to power for a second ter,m taking advantage of the patriotic sentiments of Americans.
The broad-based approach and lack of any benchmark resulted in the "War On Terror" becoming similar to the "War On Drugs" or the "War On Poverty;" without a timeline or definitive goal by which to measure its success or failure.
In the first 100 days of the Obama administration we are seeing a new approach on the horizon. Obama calling sections of Taleban to work with the US is not only a tactical and strategic move, but could be a diplomatic one too. Working with other Islamic groups will open new doors for US diplomacy in the Muslim world. While the US is currently seen by many in Islamic societies as an enemy of Muslim interests, the new policy offers an opportunity for the USA to counter Al Qaeda's propaganda and split the support base for Al-Qaeda on their home ground.
The option of networking with non-state players was never studied by the Bush administration. The possibilities can be quite significant, however, as US intelligence could gain unprecedented access to and knowledge of financial, communications and other infrastructure networks of terrorist organizations.
The US administration can also look for partners from other parts of Asia. The recent developments in Sri Lanka, where the Tamil minorities have been pursuing a 30 year struggle against the ruling regime, offer an opportunity for the USA to network with another insurgency group: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known to be a very innovative and motivated armed group. However, their use of suicide bombers for military and political targets has landed them on the USA's FTO list. Though the group has met some setbacks recently, it is known to have a strong global network and enjoy widespread support from the Tamil Diaspora. A timely intervention in the crisis could not only arrest the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in that nation, but could also serve the strategic interests of USA.
There could be other non-state players who can offer an edge to the USA in its pursuit of Al-Qaeda. Organizations which do not share the ideologies of Islamic extremism like LTTE should be evaluated for strategic partnership. Concurrently, the US should also use the association to cultivate these groups and encourage them to give up unacceptable conflict practices.
The biggest challenge to the Obama administration would be to convince Americans to unlearn what the Bush administration preached to them and show them who the real enemy is, how small the enemy is, how important it is to partner with non-state players and how such a focused approach can eliminate the threat once and for all, leading to a conclusive victory in the “War on Al-Qaeda”.