The War on Terror: After 8 Years, What Now?

A U.S. Marine patrols near the town of Khan Neshin in southern Afghanistan earlier this month. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

GUEST BLOGGER: Richard English

With Friday's anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, we asked author Richard English for his perspective on the war on terror. What have we learned in the eight years since the attacks? English, a professor of politics at Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland, is author of "Terrorism: How to Respond," to be released next week by Oxford University Press. Professor English's previous books include "Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA" and "Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland"

There is a brutal paradox about post-9/11 terrorism. Despite the war on terror and associated endeavours -- easily the most extended, expensive, ambitious and grand attempt ever made to end terrorist violence -- the post-9/11 period, in fact, saw a dramatic rise in terrorism around the world.

The monthly average death toll from terrorism in the years immediately preceding the atrocities of September 2001 was just over 100; in the ensuing five years, that figure rose by more than 50 percent (even if we exclude violence in Afghanistan and Iraq). In 2001, there were 1732 recorded terrorist incidents worldwide; in 2006 this figure had risen to 6659.

Behind this spectacular failure to respond effectively to terrorism lie two key problems. First, public and political debate about the subject lacks necessary honesty. Second, states reacting to terrorist crises tend -- as in this case -- to act in an amnesiac way. As a result, we are neither clear enough about the problem we want to solve, nor sharp-sighted enough in learning the lessons history teaches about how to deal with this wretched challenge.

In popular imagination and political rhetoric alike, terrorism remains a term used to depict violence against our own people and interests, carried out with evil purpose, and practised by irrational fanatics on a grand scale. The reality is different.

Serious understanding of terrorism and of why it occurs must recognize that this appalling form of violence represents a species of warfare, carried out by largely rational and sane people, and for the most part on a small scale. It should also acknowledge that terrorizing violence carried out with political purpose is very often practised and sponsored by the United States and its liberal-democratic allies.

This is not to equate al-Qaeda with U.S. soldiers, nor in any way to justify the atrocious violence carried out, for example, by jihadists against the United States and its allies.

But if we want to explain why terrorism occurs and to recognize how to minimize it and to deal with its causes, then we need to adopt politics and rhetoric which are credible among those groups around the world from which terrorist sympathy and support might emerge.

To present post-9/11 politics as a struggle between non-terrorizing, benign, rational-democratic Western powers and irrational, terrorist evil has already proved counter-productive in terms of U.S. credibility, and the results have been bloody. This pattern fits a longer history: on the ground -- from Gaza to the Basque country to Belfast to Helmand -- the logic of terrorist warfare has seemed to some to be the most effective way of producing practical political change; and terrifying political violence by the targeted states in return has undermined the rhetoric of state good versus non-state evil.

This relates to our second problem. The United States wisely recognizes the importance of state legitimacy in countering terrorism (whether in Afghanistan or Iraq or elsewhere). But this approach was after 2001 disastrously undermined by the mistakes made through a failure to learn the lessons of history.

The long history of terrorism teaches us that detailed, accurate intelligence is more valuable than military muscle in combating terrorists. But the years between the Soviet departure and 9/11 saw virtually no U.S. intelligence presence in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda's lethal growth there emerged as a result. Likewise, the intelligence failures in the run-up to the Iraq invasion damaged credibility, especially in Islamic communities and countries.

Again, the history of terrorism teaches clearly that foreign military occupation, rough-handed kinetic methods, and the transgressing of orthodox legal processes and practices tends to increase rather than decrease terrorism. Yet from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to dubious interrogation elsewhere, this lesson - familiar from French Algeria as well as Northern Ireland - went unlearned.

Again, the history of terrorism teaches us that - appalling though it is - terrorism represents a statistically small threat. The key variable in minimizing or increasing violence in situations of terrorist atrocity lies with state response.

And here history is depressing and simultaneously reassuring. Terrorism as such will not end, and it is counter-productive and dishonest ever to have pretended that it would. But individual terrorist campaigns do come to an end, and usually without terrorists' main goals having been reached.

The key thing is to minimize terrorist violence and the suffering it causes. This is best done by being honest about the rationality and normality of those who carry out this kind of warfare, and by learning the lessons of history: avoid over-militarization of response; adhere to orthodox legal frameworks and the democratically-generated processes of law; focus above all on intelligence; ensure strong relations between allies in the fight against terror, as well as harmonious cooperation between the different wings of the state combating terrorism.

Each of these lessons was ignored dangerously after 9/11; we cannot afford to make such mistakes again if we want to respond effectively to the terrorist problem in the twenty-first century.

By Steven E. Levingston |  September 11, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Good comments and closely parallel those in another important book, just published this week by Princeton University Press. In "How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns," Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin describes the various ways in which terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda meet their demise. Terrorism as a phenomenon may not end, she argues, but there are clear historical patterns that can inform policy.

Posted by: PACronin1 | September 11, 2009 6:08 AM

Albert Camus who was born in Algeria and observed firsthand said: "Everytime you torture a terrorist, you breed ten more."

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | September 11, 2009 10:37 AM

I remember:
Bob Maxwell
Mike Selves
Ernie Wilcher
Sandra Taylor
SGM Larry Strickland
LTC Jerry Dickerson

They, and many others, did not make it home that day. Many others were scarred beyond their ability to cope. I salute their sacrifices, one and all.

Posted by: MajorConfusion | September 11, 2009 10:46 AM

This is getting unpredictable. When will people come to their senses?

Posted by: SoCalDan | September 17, 2009 12:59 PM

It's just in insane. How many more people need to die before we realize this isn't accomplishing anything?

Posted by: SoCalDan | September 17, 2009 1:01 PM

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