Giving up GWOT

There are many definitions of terrorism, but not one under the UN, or one codified in international law and enjoying consensus.

The Global War on Terrorism, condensed to an ugly acronym GWOT has been officially given up in the US, the country that not too long ago had coined the term and  propounded the concept. This does not mean that terrorism is  ending, that the US or others need not counter it, or that it has become any less a menace. But the doctrine of  declaring a ‘Global war’ against it  with all its implications propounded after 9/11 by Bush-Cheney team has been given a burial by Obama in a policy change at the end of last month.  No doubt, India’s fight against terrorism is different, but the issues raised  have implications for us too.

Diplomats and international lawyers have failed so far and have now virtually given up the hope of  reaching a universally accepted definition of terrorism. There are many definitions, no doubt, but not one under the UN, or one codified in international law and enjoying consensus. Like other basic concepts in politics, e.g. war, peace, aggression, terrorism too is a contentious concept. This is so because it is normally linked to a political or religious cause  and the violence caused is defended by the group involved. To take the clearest examples, some Palestinian movements or the LTTE  will maintain that what they do is no doubt violent, but that a) it is a part of their struggle for justice,  and b) a reaction to the violence unleashed on them by the Israeli or the Sri Lankan State, a form of ‘State Terrorism.’ The Maoists in Chhattisgarh will make a similar argument. The elusive search for a definition has been replaced therefore  by a kind of  informal understanding that we know terrorism when we see it, and that it is better to focus on ‘what is done’ rather than ‘what  is it done for,’ the terrorist act and not its justification.

Be that as it may, is terrorism a criminal act or a war or something in between?  Such issues are of interest to scholars of  'political violence', a subject in itself, and to constitutional lawyers like Obama!

There are good reasons to contend that major terrorist groups are engaged in a form of asymmetric warfare. A group like the  Lashkar-e-taiba or Al Qaeda is organised in many ways like a fighting force with command and control,  cadres and colonels, though its members may not be wearing uniforms. They have arms and ammunition and planning and strategy. They certainly carry out actions that cause destruction and death.  But the terrorists do not have to match the military might of the adversary; their acts are random, unpredictable, spectacular to cause drama and often against the innocent.  Hence the notion that terrorism is a form of unconventional and asymmetric warfare.

Trickier question

If so, can there be a war against terrorism? This is a trickier question. By its very nature, terrorism is shadowy. Terrorists do not wear uniforms, do not fight frontally in regular formations, and do not  fit the mould of 'combatants' as in war. Hence the currently accepted notion that a 'war against terrorism' is more a slogan than a viable tactic. Its invocation and frequent recantation by Bush and his cohorts were not helpful in the actual action against terrorism. It is better to speak of measures against terrorism and these are multiple and not necessarily militaristic. An effective counter terrorism strategy has to have several strands, force being only one of them. Intelligence, psychological tools, stopping financial flows, draining  the public support, and addressing the underlying environment are all important as our own debate about Maoists testifies.

 The GWOT approach led by the US had resulted in consequences. It had made Al Qaeda alone the centre of the terrorist threat and looking at it as globally coordinated, sometimes ignored the local dimensions.  The doctrine of looking at counter terrorism as a 'war' led to Guantanamo Bay (an extra territorial area under US control but not subject to US laws),  military commissions,  resort to torture for extracting intelligence, the practice of shipping suspects to third countries known as 'extraordinary rendition' etc. Some of this has arguably worked well for America, the killing of Osama Bin Laden and other senior members of Al Qaeda being the tangible results. But a point has been reached in operations and in the debate over doctrines, where Obama could come to the conclusion that he need not pursue a boundless and unending GWOT. This does not mean, however, that  the US will give up on drones, or use of intrusive surveillance or other technologies available to it. It is likely that there will be greater confidence and more calculation of cost-benefit analysis in wielding such tools.

What does it mean for us? For starters, each terrorist entity will be seen on its terms and not clubbed under a global Jihad  conglomerate. Obama is deliberately separating the hitherto threat of Al Qaeda from forms of 'political Islam' which too may propagate violence, but not against America.  The US will increasingly focus only on what is a direct and formidable threat to its interests and the most effective way of countering that threat at a minimal cost. Others including us should address each threat individually as best as we can. None of this is stated explicitly, of course, but for the US terrorism is likely to be less of a priority.

(The writer is a former ambassador and currently a visiting professor at Jamia Milia Unversity)

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